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He Who Pays the Piper: The Publication of Academic Journals and Secrecy

He who pays the piper: the publication of academic journals and secrecy

By Tim Bulkeley
Carey Baptist College,
Laidlaw-Carey Graduate School
October 2010

There is a nice irony to the recent “publication” of an issue of Religion Bulletin largely devoted to the phenomenon of biblical scholars who blog. The issue collects articles by five of the most prominent such bloggers:

Let us assume, for the sake of discussion at least, that the goals of these gentlemen (for they reflect the renowned gender bias of the biblioblogging fraternity who, with a small number of eminent and highly readable exceptions, are male, if not always gentlemen) in writing are something like this:

Any or all of these are laudable aims, and each in its way contributes to scholarly study of the Bible. All of them depend on “publishing.” The first I have listed uses the word “publish,” yet the others imply a dissemination of the ideas and information collected and organised by the author. Publishing is of the essence of scholarship. Such “publication” in scholarly journals has indeed become a prominent feature of how scholars are rated and reviewed by tenure committees, annual performance reviews, and research funding exercises. An article in a top rated research journal is the gold standard of scholarship.

These authors were qualified then to prepare the articles in question because they write well-known blogs on biblical studies related topics. Between them they get thousands of page views each day. Many of their posts get commented and discussed by other people. The very medium of blogging is about the exchange and critique of ideas. If they all had posted his article to their blog, it is certain that that “publication” would indeed have disseminated their ideas widely; it is likely that it would have produced a wide-ranging and interesting discussion. In short, scholarship would have taken place and been seen in a public forum.

In fact, the articles are collected in a journal which is available in print or online for a modest fee, either to institutions or individuals. Sadly it is not available in any of the journal collections available to me: R&P (Religion & Philosophy), ProQuest Religion, or Academic Search Premier, nor are paper copies held in the most accessible libraries This means that for practical purposes the articles are inaccessible, or only accessible with difficulty and/or expense, to me and to many potential readers and dialogue partners interested (professionally or as amateurs) in scholarship concerning the Bible. I'll note that scholars whose institutions subscribe to ATLAS will be able to see the articles next year, but not while they are still fresh and topical.

This form of “publication,” the norm and gold standard of scholarship, has ensured that fewer people read and interact with the ideas expressed in the articles. The word “publication” therefore can only be used ironically in this context, for in fact it suggests rather keeping private than making public!

There is a further irony: One might ask who paid for this writing? Who employed the scholars who composed these articles? Who paid the scholars who did most of the editorial work? In both cases the answer is: “Not the publisher.” Often the answer is taxpayers and/or church members, usually assisted by a contribution (known as fees) from students. In short, and for want of a more specific general term, the public. This public, who have borne most of the costs involved in the production of the articles may only read them if they pay again!

In the age of the blog, and more generally of free or almost free electronic publication technologies, such a closed “publication” is the antithesis of open, public scholarship. In the sciences, such secretive commercial publication makes handsome profits for the shareholders in the businesses that “publish” reputable journals. In biblical studies, by contrast, no one profits. Scholars lose out because their work languishes unread. The public lose out because the work they paid to produce is hidden behind another pay wall. The publishers grumble because the income from subscriptions barely covers their costs. Conventional journal publication in the 21st century in biblical studies is a lose - lose game. Other models of academic publication are available; they have been discussed and tentatively tried (here and there).

The “Gold Standard” of twentieth-century scholarship is in conflict with the aims and goals of scholarship in the twenty-first. It is time we changed the rules of the academic game!