Tuesday, May 25, 2004
Open Source Scholarship

Paul (see below) also has an interesting short piece asking "Why is open source scholarship so threatening?" It's a good question - after all, scholars are surely in the business of developing new ideas. And all of us like Newton, surely recognise that :

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
Isaac Newton, Letter to Robert Hooke, February 5, 1675

That is, scholarship works through the free and wide dissemination of ideas, and their free discussion and adaptation as well as adoption by others.

In that light "open source" is the obvious mode of publication for the scholarly enterprise.

Yet, this enterprise also depends on selection (see Vannevar Bush's classic "As we may think"). In a world where information overload is a significant part of everyday life we rely on the preselection that publishers perform, through the peer review process, to weed out most of the rubbish and leave us to select what we need from the "good stuff".

The examples Paul uses raise these questions quite accutely. They are both translation projects. His piece starts from comments about an open Bible translation (WEB)
and his example of what open source scholarship means is the Open Scrolls Project.

Now, we all know that translation is a difficult task. A quick dip into the b-Hebrew list will show that. It is also a potentially dangerous one, Bible translation is dangerous because for millions of people the texts being translated are Scripture, authorities in their lives. The potential harm of mistranslation of the DSS is less obvious, however if a mistranslation gets widely spread, it can make the scholar's task of communicating the results of their work to the interested public more difficult (and a translation on the web is likely to spread widely)!

The Open Scrolls Project is quite clear that it is NOT seeking a high level of scholarly work:
Anyone who wishes to help, either with a little or a lot, needs simply to have some working knowledge of Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek.

Is this "scholarship"?

Equally, scholarly work cites its sources. The open source model encourages copying and adaptation, when there are multiple versions available the issue of citability also arrises - who will ensure that the edition I cite will be available to you?

On the whole my own inclination is to agree with the suggestion that scholars ought naturally to be inclined towards an open source model. However, one must then work out how to ensure that the activity remains scholarly. David Clines several years ago addressed some of these issues in his article "Publishers: Who Needs Them?".

For the Hypertext Bible Commentary & Encyclopaedia project we hope to make full use of peer reviewing to ensure scholarly standards. However, what neither we, nor anyone else I know of has solved is how to pay for this purity of scholarship while making the material freely available!

Our best hope is that sales of stable (and therefore citable) editions to libraries may cover the ongoing running costs.

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