Academic Copying, Archaeology and the English Language

By Bentley, R. Alexander | Antiquity, March 2006 | Go to article overview

Academic Copying, Archaeology and the English Language


Bentley, R. Alexander, Antiquity


There is now a proliferation of new journals on almost every conceivable topic (e.g. Journal of Happiness Studies, Queueing Systems, Wear, World Pumps, with titles for archaeologists such as Anthropoetics, Archaeological Dialogues and Archaeoastronomy & Ethnoastronomy News), so that an author can publish almost any article by moving down the journal ranking far enough (Svetlov 2004). With the added stress on reviewers, and increasing stress on academics to publish in quantity (Larkin 1999; Mojon-Azzi et al. 2003), this has become a recognised practice (Adam & Knight 2002; Clausen & Nielsen 2003; Jefferson & Shashok 2003; Koonin 2003; Lawrence 2003). Increasingly therefore, academics must regulate their own writing rather than relying on editing and peer review to ensure meaning and clarity. Accurate, clear use of language is especially crucial because that language is now more likely to be copied by other academics. As editorial control decreases, academic writing is free to become more and more subject to fashion, with authors copying each other in an effort to stay on top of the latest ideas.

Prehistoric potters copied each other's decorations to use on their pottery, whether in North America (Neiman 1995; Lipo et al. 1997), or in Neolithic Germany (Bentley & Sherman 2003; Bentley et al. 2004; Sherman & Wilkinson 2001), so it is not surprising that copying also underlies the production of academic publications. Many aspects of modern popular culture exhibit the same statistical patterns as a simple model of random copying, including distributions of how popular the choices are, as well as the rate of turnover among the most popular (Bentley et al. 2004; Bentley & Sherman 2005). In the United States, for example, people's random copying of one another appears to be the predominant process in how names are chosen for babies (Hahn & Bentley 2003) and how dog breeds are chosen as pets (Herzog et al. 2004).

Through online journal citation databases, one can easily document the accelerating process with which terms or ideas catch on (Bentley & Maschner 2000; Bissey & Viossat 2003). Statistical studies of citation databases also show that most authors copy their references from other bibliographies rather than reading the articles themselves (Simkin & Roychowdhury 2003). Academic terms are particularly prone to this game of chance fashion, and although we cannot predict which new term will become the next buzzword, we can predict confidently that there will be new buzzwords in the future. For example, words such as 'agency' and 'nuanced' seem to be everywhere nowadays (Figure 1). After 1990, 'agency' caught on so suddenly (Figure la) that it resembles an example of the 'tipping point' that Gladwell (2000) has popularly described. Interestingly, archaeologists and anthropologists did not pick up on 'agency' until after 1994 (Figure lb), and a similar lag can be detected with 'nuanced' which since 1997 has been rising quickly elsewhere (Figure 1a, b). The consequences of academic language choice can be serious, as in the case of processual and post-processual archaeology. These labels tell non-archaeologists very little--doesn't every researcher, almost by definition, study a process? Even post-processualists study a process, namely how we narrate the past. Unfortunately, archaeologists are stuck with these horribly inelegant and non-descriptive labels. If we could write more carefully today, clear, descriptive language may begin to outweigh jargon. As a greater proportion of useful terms are copied in future publications, the entire vocabulary, and hence understanding of the discipline, could gradually begin to improve.

In 1946, George Orwell wrote an essay, 'Politics and the English language', that has become a classic for many first-year writing or literature courses, and after 60 years his lament over the misuse of political language is still startlingly relevant. …

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