Monday, December 10, 2007

Buried in an Edited Volume

Back when I was a graduate student I asked David Freidel for a reprint of a chapter from an edited book. He sent it to me, with a brief note that lamented the fact that the paper was “buried in an edited book where no one would see it.” (I remember this because I recently came across the paper and his note in my files). At the time I was puzzled by David’s remarks—don’t people read the edited books in their field? That was before the explosion of edited volumes, however, and now my attitude is closer to his. Scholarship suffers when important papers are buried in edited volumes.

Two of my best papers were published in edited volumes, and I still regret not sending the first of these to a journal, where it would have had a much wider readership. It sits moldering in a mediocre volume not much consulted any more. I did post it (and other book chapters) on my web site, but the readership and impact remain lower than for a journal article.

I’ve blogged about problems with edited volumes before, from the perspective of authors and editors. Now I will make some remarks from the perspective of the reader and the advancement of the discipline in general. The example I am going to use is the following paper:

Sheehy, James J. (1996) Ethnographic Analogy and the Royal Household in 8th Century Copan. In Arqueología Mesoamericana: Homenaje a William T. Sanders, edited by Alba Guadalupe Mastache, Jeffrey R. Parsons, Robert S. Santley and Mari Carmen Serra Puche, pp. 253-276. vol. 2. Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City.

This is an important paper, one of the very few works that makes explicit comparisons among royal palaces in a variety of preindustrial cultures around the world. Any archaeologist who uses analogy to make inferences about activities in ancient royal palaces should cite this paper. But because it lies buried in an edited book, its impact on the field has been minimal, and numerous archaeologists have re-invented the wheel in their use of analogy for interpreting ancient palaces. I was astounded at the fact that none of the contributors to an edited volume on Maya palaces cited Sheehy’s paper, and I said so in my review of that book:

Christie, Jessica Joyce (editor) (2003) Maya Palaces and Elite Residences: An Interdisciplinary Approach. University of Texas Press, Austin.

I have just been going through a more recent volume on ancient New World palaces, and again was surprised that no one cited Sheehy’s paper:

Christie, Jessica Joyce and Patricia Joan Sarro (editors) (2006) Palaces and Power in the Americas: From Peru to the Northwest Coast. University of Texas Press, Austin.

This morning I googled Sheehy’s paper, hoping that it was more widely cited and used than is suggested by those 2 books. But I found only five matches. Two are my own journal articles, one is a syllabus of Ken Hirth, one is a book review of the original volume, and one is to the FAMSI bibliography. The paper IS listed in the Anthropology Plus database through OCLS FirstSearch (and if you have read this far and are NOT familiar with that database, you should be!).

I suspect that a big reason for the neglect of Sheehy’s paper is that it is primarily focused on an elite compound at Copan, with little indication in its title that it contains an important comparative section. It was quickly superseded by more fieldwork and analysis of elite residences at Copan, and today its contribution to Copan archaeology is minimal. And with its growing site-specific obsolescence its comparative contributions are neglected even more.

One problem with Sheehy’s paper is that he buried an important methodological section within a site-specific paper, with little evidence in the title of the paper. But a bigger problem is that it was published in a semi-obscure edited volume in the first place. One could argue that the blame for the paper’s obscurity lies with archaeologists who should know the literature in their field and cite it (or perhaps my judgment is wrong and it’s not an important paper at all). But if the comparative data had been published in a journal article, the discipline would have been much better served. And today, if important contributions like this were published in Open Access journals the impact on scholarship would be even greater. But that would require archaeologists to start OA journals and use them......


Francis Deblauwe said...

Note Peter Suber's interesting comment on his Open Access News blog. That's how I found your blog by the way...

Archaeologyknits said...

I think the biggest issue with edited volumes is beginning to be, and will continue to be, integration in online databases like Jstor.
They are only sometimes in the searches, and never actually acceptable. If edited volumes were present, as searchable, these articles would no longer be hidden. Having the text available online would be great, but ILL will always help if not.

barb michelen said...
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