Wednesday, August 10, 2005

More Open Source Reflections

My post last Friday headed Sansblogue on Open Source Online Biblical Studies generated bags of comments, and the discussion has continued on Sansblogue (and a previous post on Sansblogue). AKMA continues to comment in his blog, and there are several useful posts by Peter Kirby in Christian Origins (specifically Open Source Biblical Studies, Open Access Translation).

There's one thing I'd like to come back to. I am not trying to put a dampener on things when I talk about the current situation, noticing the extent to which major advances have been made by both salaried professionals and gifted amateurs (for want of better terms). On the contrary, I think it's important that we recognise that all the major advances that have been made in our area in terms of on-line provision of quality educational materials has been done within the model of dynamic evolution driven by the enthusiasts.

AKMA writes:
If a professional association really wants its members to gain mindshare, to raise the level of public discourse over the topics it addresses, that organization ought to commission educational materials from its leading exponents and distribute them online — for a tiny proportion of what mainstream-media campaigns cost.

Yes, that won’t reach every audience segment, and perhaps it won’t reach certain audiences at all (though I’m inclined to suspect that a vigorous online sphere of attention would at least stand to generate side-channel interest and awareness). Some professional association ought to give it a try, someday. (I would single out the Society of Biblical Literature and Catholic Biblical Association, but these have no PR budget at all, to the best of my knowledge. Still wouldn’t cost them much to do a world of good.)
A suggestion: why not share this proposal with SBL? Indeed, a more specific proposal: why not write a short article on it for the SBL Forum and see what interest it generates? Perhaps the forum can itself carry the proposal forward in the future? But I'd come back here again to one of my basic points, that we may end up still talking about what the SBL calls "volunteer" efforts. I don't know whether the top post-holders in the SBL earn anything for their services, but it is clear to me that the vast majority of those who contribute to the SBL by running seminars, sitting on boards and so on, are volunteers -- they see it as a part of their professional duty and joy. So even on the assumption that we can move forward with involvement from the professional societies, we may need to recognise that the one thing that they are not going to be able to provide is extensive funding.

Also in discussion with AKMA, this time from comments here:
Mark, I am encouraged to hear that you feel enough freedom and institutional support to suppose that we can make great headway without the addition of funded leaves, stipends, or equipment; not everyone has the same experience. (Will Brum be searching for someone to fill your position?) I don’t expect unanimity on this topic, but the responses I’ve encountered over the years suggest that the theological academy will prefer to lag than to leap. I’d be tickled to be proved wrong, though.
AKMA's comments in some ways make my point. Perhaps Birmingham is more generous than are other institutions, but I don't think so: we get one term's sabbatical in every ten, and that sabbatical ("funded leave") I would always use in part to work on on-line resources. I say "in part" because there is a bunch of other stuff I'd use it for too, and writing would admittedly be a higher priority. Likewise on "stipends, or equipment" -- this is what I mean by our institutions providing support by employing us and giving us a salary and a computer. Things are far from rosey in UK academia -- I have bought my own home desktop and my own laptop out of my own funds, for example -- but I think it's worth recognizing it is the job, the institutional support that enables one to do a lot of what one does.

Having said that, I'd like to draw attention to Peter Gainford's comments:
For the record, I'm inclined to think that whatever the nature of the project(s) will be, funding will be an absolute necessity. Now, mostly that's for pragmatic reasons. But I'm also thinking primarily of the need for academics, in particular, to be able to demonstrate their research output: I have a sneaking suspicion that something like the British RAE, or New Zealand PBRF, is simply never going to acknowledge any non-print work as valid research unless it's part of a project that's legitimated by some funding body or other.
I would guess that that is right, at least as far as the RAE (=Research Assessment Exercise) is concerned. If any readers have experience on the RAE panels, I'd be interested to hear if that is not the case. For myself, I have never submitted an electronic item to the RAE, in spite of the fact that I have put far more hours into developing electronic resources than I have writing books and articles that I have submitted. I remember a colleague once asking me why I devoted so much time to developing electronic resources when it was clear that they would not be recognized by the RAE. I don't recall how I answered, but what I would say now is that academics should not live by the RAE alone and that there is a great deal more to working in a university than trying to satisfy the RAE panel, important though that may be. Moreover we need to be wary of playing into an either / or here. What can be exciting about providing on-line resources is that they can work together with one's research in such a way that they help to generate, overlap and interact with print publications.

Update (23.21): On Sansblogue Tim Bulkeley has further useful reflections, focusing especially on the importance of collaboration. I'm all in favour of collaboration! It makes me less nervous than the talk about funding does, talk that in my experience tends to lead down cul-de-sacs, talk that more often than not leads to frustration and can be best avoided.

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