Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Open [Source] Scholarship discussion continues

It is a sign of how far the biblioblogs have come, and in a very short time, that there are enough of us to have a discussion with several participants. This thread began with Deinde's Paul Nikkel's Why is Open Source Scholarship So Threatening? and has featured useful contributions from AKMA, Stephen Carlson and Tim Bulkeley. For a summary of the discussion so far with links, see Tim's Open Scholarship or Free Scholarship? and then note two more recent contributions since then, Paul's An Open Return and Tim's Back to the future? Paul Nikkel and the "threat" in Open Scholarship. One thing I would like to return to, since Paul brings it up again, is the language of "threat" and "fear". He asks repeatedly why it is that scholars, like Darrell Bock and John Oswalt quoted in his original post, find Open Source Scholarship "threatening" or "frightening". I suggested that this is not actually the right language. It is not that scholars find open source scholarship threatening; rather they are concerned by issues related to the quality of a given product. So in the specific case of the WEB (World English Bible) which was originally under discussion, Bock is presumably trying to point out that the NET Bible is of superior quality because it has a group of recognised scholars with credentials working on it. I don't think that he is threatened by the WEB, much less frightened of it. Rather, he is concerned that the academic quality of the WEB is likely to be inferior to the academic quality of the NET Bible because of the people working on it.

I think it's important to get these perceptions right because it will help those of us working a lot with electronic resources to understand some other scholars' resistance and negative feelings. What those working with open source scholarship need to do is to persuade the as-yet unpersuaded of the real value of their projects. In this respect, the WEB may not be the best place to start. One of the reasons I'd like to see making a comeback on the web is that they take seriously a kind of open source model, but do not open their doors to any Tom, Dick or Harry to do work for them. Indeed in terms of necessary skills the bar is set pretty high before you can even hope to contribute to their project.

In other words, would that some scholars were more afraid of or threatened by open source scholarship. The problem is rather that some are not inclined to take it seriously enough. I suspect that this is partly due to ignorance and partly due to the fact that some projects do not think clearly enough about persuading this key element of their target audience of the value of their work. One way of doing this is to make sure that one's project gives off a decent number of "signals", some account of how quality control is maintained, of who is leading the project and why their views are worth hearing. I have suggested one obvious and straightforward way of giving off a good signal in a project like this and that is to emply an advisory committee, to name them and post their names upfront.

The discussion in the different blogs has embraced issues of open scholarship more generally and has included some sophisticated distinctions between different kinds of open scholarship, e.g. AKMA's breakdown. I'd like to add one comment here on a quiet revolution that is taking place on the "Open Access" front and it is seldom commented upon. This is the steady but striking revolution of individual scholars providing on-line reproductions of their own already-published articles on their homepages. When I began indexing this kind of thing on the NT Gateway in 1998 there were only a handful of scholars who did this. K. C. Hanson springs to mind as one of the pioneers. But now, only a few years later, there are dozens of scholars who are doing this. I am not thinking about scholarly web sites in general, or work in progress in particular, but of scholars who have already had a given article published in JBL, CBQ, NTS or the like but who want to provide wider access to it by providing a reproduction on their web page. I think that there are three reasons why this is now becoming more widespread and why it will continue to grow:

(1) The ease of PDF conversion and the free availability of Acrobat Reader makes providing accessible electronic versions of articles very straightforward. PDF is on the rise. The provision of full HTML versions of articles is on the decline.

(2) An individual scholar often owns the copyright on his/her own published article. Even if they do not, publishers have repeatedly proved to be happy to grant permission for on-line reproductions of material on a scholar's homepage. So there are not the problems here associated with making available other people's work on-line -- and that can be hard work and involve a lot of negotiation.

(3) There is growing awareness that if you want more than a handful of people to read your article, you need to get it on the web. A while ago Stephen Carlson pointed to Steve Lawrence's Online or Invisible, which persuasively sets out the case for getting your work on-line.

But this raises another important question. This quiet revolution is enabling scholars to have their cake and eat it, to get their articles into the peer-reviewed mainstream journals with all the advantages that that brings, but then to have the same articles on the web with free access to all, with all the advantages of the dissemination of their scholarship to a wider public. Under these circumstances, the appeal of bodies who publish solely on-line is diminished. It's one of the reasons that (solely) on-line journals will tend to struggle to get quality submissions unless their focus is specific enough to corner a particular market.

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