Thursday, 19 October 2017

Online archives in research and education

Hey all,

I’ve been pondering the utility of publicly available collections as we enter next week’s theme. As promoters of online research tools will say, online archives can transcend physical borders, provide access to rare collections, and connect researchers and students around the world. Archives, such as, can also be useful in introductory classrooms. Osteology (both human and zooarchaeology) has had a trend for a while of some institutions building online photo repositories of skeletal collections, with the idea that they can used educationally. Here is an example. Others aim for public access to datasets, or to facilitate researchers connecting and sharing data.

Here I would also like to call attention to efforts to make 3D collections available. MorphoSource is a data archive created by Duke University that allows researchers to store and organize, share, and distribute their 3d data. The intentions of this archive is to allow any registered user to immediately search for and download 3d morphological data sets that have been made accessible through the consent of data authors. The stated goal of MorphoSource is to provide rapid access to raw microCt data to as many researchers as possible.
Personally, I’ve used online databases and photo repositories to double check my work. I've also used online archives to provide students access to imagery when studying outside of the lab. The prospect of 3D collections in the future is exciting, since much more detail will be captured and shared. Bone collections can be difficult to accumulate ethically and/or access can be logistically impossible. Online archives open bone collections to lower income areas, more remote areas of the world, and allow the public to view rare specimens. Tangentially, I also enjoy how online databases and their associated communities facilitate communication. Just as an example, searching through online communities of researchers once connected me to a fantastic thesis on deer carpals that really improved my non-human ID skills. Part of what excites me about projects like MorphoSource is the idea that it will make it easier for researchers working on the same problems to find each other.

While I have found this open communication and access to datasets to be beneficial, I would be remiss to not acknowledge the potential downsides. With a push to make collections available online, what’s being lost? I can think of how in osteology the feel of the bone (such as smoothness, roughness, etc. Or the infamous “is it bone?” lick-stick test) can, at times, be almost as important as an accurate visual assessment. Even 3D online collections can’t convey that sense of touch. While the online archives are handy, I can't say I would promote them as complete replacements for physical collections. Additionally, while easy access to datasets is generally thought of as a net benefit, what about “armchair anthropologists” using that data to make claims? For example, some “armchair geneticist” blogs have occasionally co-opted public genetic datasets to support claims of racial realism. Should we also worry about such appropriation, or just accept it as something we need to get ahead of? What do you think?


Arwen Johns said...

I find the idea of using digitized bone collections to be quite appealing, especially after my experience identifying animal bones as part of my MA research. While the university I had lab space in, in Trujillo was well equipped with an impressive comparative collection, there were extenuating circumstances that prevented me gaining access to all materials at one location. I can remember at times scouring the web trying to find a resource to supplement the collection and the printed guide books I had at my disposal, so I'm sure having access to an online bone database would have been a great asset.

Ethically speaking, presenting the bones of animals in a public database is significantly much less problematic than the digital representation of human remains. In this light any issues I would take with it from the standpoint of a zooarchaeologist relate to questions of accessibility. Who can access these materials, at what cost, and for what means?

A far less sticky issue surrounds the ability of institutions to make digitize their materials. Creating and maintaining a database would take a lot of time and money, the latter being something that may be in short supply depending on the location of a collection. I would be curious to see the study areas that many of these digital bone databases focus on, because I have a feeling finding resources related to my study area in Peru may be more difficult because of issues surrounding cost.

Alex Gregor said...

Hi Joanna,

I agree that this technology has an exciting ability to disseminate information to those who might not otherwise have access to it. This is a fundamental step forward in the democratization of information. However, people co-opting the information to propagate an inappropriate agenda is deeply concerning. It raises the question of the cost benefit analysis. At what point would a negative aspect of information dissemination prove impactful enough so as to make available information a negative, and what can be done to make it a positive. Certainly, for this to be a negative, it would involve the data being used for a great deal of misinformation, far more than the databases being used for now, and far more than any database it is likely to be used for. As such, despite inappropriate use, which is to a degree inevitable, the database is a great boon for education. In regards to what can be done to stop people co-opting data to propagate their agenda, researchers could be proactive and state their views and interpretations of the data on the site.