Thursday, October 24, 2013

I have recently posted on issues of crowdsourcing (Ancient Lives  and  Wikiloot), and a related issue is that of open access in scholarship. Since this is Open Access Week, I thought I would make a few comments on the matter, as well as noting some very useful and freely available resources for biblical studies.

The entire system of scholarly publication is really one that one would never create if starting from scratch. Academic research is conducted and a paper is written. While this is often often supported by grants, or even taxpayer dollars (particularly in the sciences), this is essentially done for free by academics and students. The paper is submitted to a journal, and peer-reviewed (for free). If it is accepted, it is published and then put behind the publisher's pay wall. Institutions then pay thousands, sometimes even tens of thousands, to 'buy back' the scholarship that their own employees and students, along with other academics, have produced. Not only do the universities essentially pay twice in this process, the material is generally unavailable to those who don't have a relationship with a university or pay for a subscription.

It seems to me that the open access movement is really trying to overcome cost as well as access. The cost of access for higher education institutions is extraordinary. For example, Harvard (not typical, I know) estimated that it was spending $3.5 million a year on journal subscriptions. Consider the cost when there are a few thousand colleges and universities in the US. Last year, one publisher/bundler of journals called Elsevier reported $1.3 billion in profit.
(Illustration: Auke Herrema)

While this issue is primarily one that is bouncing around academia, it did come to the public’s attention recently in the case against Aaron Swartz. Swartz, one of the inventors of RSS and Reddit, planned to put about 5 million academic articles on a file sharing site to make them publicly available. He was arrested and committed suicide while facing federal charges. Mother Jones has a very good introduction to some of the main issues and main players in this movement, including Swartz, titled Steal This Research Paper! (You Already Paid for It.).

A major step toward open access to articles have been made by the University of California system, which recently announced that they will now make freely available every article their 8,000 faculty members write.

While most academics would argue that we need to move toward greater access, there is the problem of oversight and review. Peer reviewed journals are the 'stamp-of-approval' that researches and tenure and hiring committees want to see. The New York Times has a good article on "a parallel world of pseudo-academia, complete with prestigiously titled conferences and journals that sponsor them." They refer to this as "the dark side of open access..." Sometimes you get what you pay for.

We have become so accustomed to being able to get a copy of whatever we want on our computer, that it is now frustrating, at least for me, when something isn't available in full text. I can't even imagine not having a password to get into my library's collection of journals. For those interested in biblical studies, but not affiliated with an institution, there many places you can go to get high quality, open access scholarship.

  • You can also find individual scholars who make their work available.  For example, Rabbi Schiffman has some of his material free for download.

  • UPDATE:  Open source tools for religious and biblical studies.  Thanks to Peter.  

In the spirit of crowdsourcing and open access, feel free to share in the comments high quality and freely available resources for biblical studies that you know about.
Isaac M. Alderman
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  1. For more information and links to 'Open' Religious Technology & Tools, visit the COSI 'Open" Religious Tech web site at This non-profit site has links to open access, open source software, open data, open standards, open organizations, etc. There's a lot happening in this arena that religious organizations or their members might be interested in seeing.

  2. Thanks Peter. I added it to the list.