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Friday, October 05, 2007
  Ehud Ben Zvi and the futire [read "future"] of scholarly publishing
As John reminded me in an email and shows in his post Ehud Ben Zvi, the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, and Hypertextuality, the article by Ehud that SBL forum published while I was on holiday deserves comment and discussion.

The article is titled "A Prototype for Further Publication Development of the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures and Other Open-Access Journals" from its opening paragraph it is full of good stuff.
Worldwide, completely free, and unrestricted access to peer-reviewed journal literature is a social and academic good. It is important for the creation and dissemination of knowledge, and as such to the academic guild and to society in general. It is important for individual researchers, students, libraries, and the general educated public..
That paragraph might be dismissed as a platitude, or a pious hope, or even a utopian dream - and would have had to be, even a mere twenty years ago. Yet for over ten of those twenty years JHS has provided a working model. And one that has also changed and adapted. Changing technologies of print have permitted the Journal to be now also available in that secondary format.

The article briefly charts the progress and increasingly firm establishment of the Journal. In doing so it also comments on the acceptability of electronic publication within the academy. In a number of areas I would currently offer a less optimistic conclusion. So, Ehud writes:
In 1996, when the journal was begun, many scholars expressed serious concerns about how publication in open-access, electronic journals would be assessed for tenure and promotion. Electronic publication is not an issue anymore..
Anecdotal evidence suggests that (at least in NZ) while between 1996 and our first government-conducted round of Performance Based Research Funding assessments in 2003 Electronic publication grew strongly in esteem, but that by the second round in 2006 they had again become somewhat suspect. (There MAY be good reasons for this, not all electronic journals are as scrupulous as JHS in their review processes... The evidence is merely anecdotal because the process is confidential and the criteria are secretive and not revealed to the public who pay for the exercise or to the academics who are graded by it. This is a government activity ;-)

Ehud also admits:
there are still financial and human resources problems associated with the open-access model..
This surely is a major understatement! Recently the NY Times has ceased offering its Select service online through a subscription-based economic model. While the NY Times stresses the success of this subscription model with US$10 Million revenue annually, the following comment:
“But our projections for growth on that paid subscriber base were low, compared to the growth of online advertising,” said Vivian L. Schiller, senior vice president and general manager of the site, NYTimes.com..
Suggests that this change is due to lack a real critical mass of subscribers willing to pay for online content, rather than altruism! Meanwhile although providers of mass entertainment may be able to make a financially viable model using advertising revenue, but such a model (even if the academy desired it ;-) is unlikely to be viable for the average Biblical Studies publication. For there are costs involved in electronic publishing. Despite the possibility of greater use of peer-reviewers as amateur proof-readers several open access peer reviewed publications have been criticised for issues of quality control that in a conventional print publication would have been corrected by the proof-reading process. Some reviewers of the Amos: Hypertext Bible Commentary volume have drawn attention to such issues. John in his response to Ehud's article raises the same issue that Ehud raised in his review of my Amos commentary
Secondly, a number of articles published in JHS seem not to have been carefully proofed. In my own case, that is one reason I have not submitted anything to JHS. No matter how careful I am, typographical errors and worse creep in to the work I do. In this I am not alone. JHS needs to have higher copyediting and proofing standards..
A return to patronage (or sponsorship as it is often known today) is another model that is increasingly touted to provide necessary resources for open access publication. In the sciences it is common now for journals to request a fee (often paid out of the grant that funded the research). However, in Biblical Studies such possibilities are not the norm. All patronage raises questions about the independence of the research and its conclusions, so such a model is not without its problems, even if rich donors with an interest in the Bible were queuing up at our doors ;-) (See Sebastian Mary's books and the man, part III: the new patronage for one interesting viewpoint.)

Up to now JHS has published its articles in basic text format. The filetypes offered have changed, now just the page representation of PDF and the more fluid HTML with the proprietary wordprocessor formats MS-Word and Word-Perfect being dropped. Both formats are capable of moving beyond text, but thus far JHS has not explored these possibilities. In part this was doubtless driven in the early days by a desire to keep the journal as familiar as possible. It has also been driven by an appropriate caution:
Not everything that can be done in e-publication of texts is of necessity helpful. We have great tools, but one of the challenges we face is what we should do with them..
Now, however, changes are being explored which might see JHS begin to explore the greater possibilities that electronic publication offers beyond mere linear text.

When Ehud introduces these possibilities in this article he also mentions the need to avoid leaving readers "lost in hyperspace." Yet that is close to my experience with the early prototype pages he linked to in his email to JHS subscribers. For every occurrence of words such as Haggai or Zechariah (inevitably common in this article on "The Formation and intention of the Haggai-Zechariah corpus") produces a popup link to various online biblical texts. Since this is generated automatically the mention of "Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest" produces a less useful link to the text of Joshua 1:1. Thus in two ways this article exemplifies one of the problems with hypertexting biblical studies, link overload, and the mechanical generation of excess and unhelpful links. Different projects will doubtless cope with these issues in different ways, till gradually new conventions emerge. We need discussion of these issues, but there are few places where practitioners of academic hypertext can meet and share wisdom.

[Incidentally, the Hypertext Bible Dictionary will try to deal with this issue by generating most links (except those with biblical chapter and verse references) manually through the decision of an author or editor. See the draft instructions for authors.]

Automated linking also produces other issues, such as nul returns like that from BiBIL for the name August Klostermann. Since these results take time to generate empty results are annoying for users. This problem, of course, is one that clever programming may enable the actual implementation of this hypertext version of the Journal to avoid. But clever programming costs money, which brings us back to the issue of funding open access projects.

That JHS is doing this using XML and from the comment: "The purpose of these xml files is to allow readers to create their own hypertexts, if they so wish, within the limitations of open access databases." I assume and hope an open XML format and perhaps even a standard one like OSIS.

I will end these brief comments quoting Ehud's conclusion:
to implement all of these while keeping the journal open access, which is a non-negotiable issue for us, is a tough act. It involves technical, financial, and general resources challenges. It also requires a great amount of goodwill from a lot of people.
and hoping that the implementation will also be supported through ongoing conversation with other interested parties - not least JHS readers!

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