Dear SBL: A Paywall Will Bring Neither Prestige nor Progress

Dear SBL:  A Paywall Will Bring Neither Prestige nor Progress

The Bryn Mawr Classical Review and the Review of Biblical Literature (RBL) are my first stops for information about new or new-to-me books in biblical studies or late antiquity.  I do not work at an institution with a research library, so this open access is key.

Today members of the Society of Biblical Literature received an email announcing that the RBL would move from a free, open website to a site behind a paywall. Beginning tomorrow, “users who wish to read published reviews will need to log in with an SBL member ID in order to do so.”  Even though the RBL will not technically become a subscription publication, this move effectively imposes a paywall. One must pay the SBL in order to read the reviews.

Based on the information in the email we received, I believe this decision to be misguided and wrong for several reasons.

This decision positions the SBL on a trajectory in the OPPOSITE direction of other scholarly organizations, such as the MLA, which are moving more toward open access scholarship.  For example, the MLA has created the MLA Commons to provide an open repository for its members to share their published work and to encourage other forms of open exchanges of knowledge and research.  The SBL’s own work on Bible Odyssey demonstrates the power of open, public scholarship, and I am completely puzzled by this apparent step backward.

Paywalls do not encourage discovery and exchange; the opposite is true.  The SBL’s email reports that they will be “beginning to develop an entirely new resource that will stand on the shoulders of RBL and usher in a new era of online discovery, information exchange, and scholarly research.”  This development “will require significant human and financial resources,” which necessitates the move behind a paywall.  I’ll address the financial issues in a moment, but I want to emphasize the misguided logic regarding scholarly exchange.  Melissa Terras and others have written about how open access can increase download counts and citation counts.  (In other words: more people will read and use your work if it’s open, and we’ve known this for a long time.)  This knowledge exchange is also more likely to be more cross-disciplinary, as Bonnie Stewart has argued. Additionally, when we write for the web (blogs, born-digital journals, Wikipedia, social media), our ability to link to open content is critical to the digital dissemination of ideas.  Putting the RBL behind a members-only login will decrease the discovery and exchange of ideas about biblical studies.

The RBL needs to revamp its architecture, but there are sustainable open models that do not involve paywalls.  The RBL desperately needs a more open system (one not dependent on pdf downloads for goodness sakes) that is streamlined and flexible.  There are sustainable models for book reviews, the most prominent being the Bryn Mawr Classical Review.  New review sites are popping up on the web constantly, such as the high profile Marginalia Review of Books (which operates in large part on volunteer labor), and the Ancient Jew Review.  While it remains to be seen how financially sustainable sites such as these will be in the long term, arguably the SBL has several advantages in terms of sustainability:  a very large member (and volunteer) base, an established human and administrative infrastructure in the form of the Society, and existing revenue streams.  (I am sure the SBL will note that existing revenue streams can’t fund everything they want to do, but that is not my point; my point is that it is easier to increase and diversify existing revenue streams than to start from scratch.)

Making the RBL available only to members probably will not increase revenue (the stated reason for needing to put it behind a paywall).  The email to members states that they hope people who are not currently members will join, and that this revenue will “fund a number of highly desired upgrades to and expansions of the RBL architecture.”   This can only happen if more people join the SBL in order to access the RBL. (Which is what the email states they hope will happen.)  This seems a stretch:  how many people who visit RBL and are not currently members are likely to join SBL in order to get access to the review?  Moreover, the existing content is not a lure: members have recently criticized the RBL for assigning books to reviewers without sufficient academic credentials who are hostile to critical historical biblical studies and for failing to diversify the gender and racial representation of authors on its pages.  Alternatively: is SBL planning to make RBL (or the “new resource” to succeed it) a subscription periodical for libraries (and hence bring in more $$ that way)? If so this is still problematic.  This will mean the RBL will be accessible primarily to people already in the guild, and especially to privileged people in the guild (tenured/tenure-track professors, students at Research Universities, full-time pastors/priests with enough in their budgets to support a subscription).  It will reduce access to the public, to independent scholars, and to scholars who do not work in Biblical Studies.

How does this move address the problems with content that members have been discussing for the past couple of years?  I’ve already mentioned some of the issues.  I’ve read today on social media that the RBL will be revamping its board and structure in order to address concerns about diversity and about integrity of the reviews.  That’s great, but why is it necessary to move behind a paywall to do it?  (Answer:  it’s not.)  Moreover, this move may exacerbate the problem.  Scholarship by Tressie McMillan Cottom and Bonnie Stewart indicates that “scholars who are also members of marginalized groups disproportionately take up this kind of engaged scholarship” (public, online scholarship) and are more likely to value participating in networked, online scholarship, despite the significant risks.

I hope that this change does not reflect an assumption that a paywall = prestige.  Digital scholars have been chipping away at the bias against open, online scholarship for years.  The (faulty) assumption is that scholarship you have to pay for must be better vetted and more valuable.  And hence, more prestigious.  I’m concerned that the desire to “solidify RBL’s status as a valuable resource” reflects such an assumption, and I hope it’s wrong.  This bias is problematic on many levels, one being that it is not clear that subscription-based, peer-reviewed scholarship is actually any better scholarship than well-vetted open digital scholarship.  The academic prestige economy that privileges publications in “elite” journals may function more as a gate-keeper than as an engine of new knowledge discovery.  Additionally, SBL already has paywalled scholarship in its flagship periodical, the Journal of Biblical Literature.*  (Thus, I’m not arguing for SBL to go all-OA, all the time; even though I have a strong OA presence and commitment in Coptic SCRIPTORIUM, I don’t publish all or even mostly OA.)

The RBL has not posted a notice about this change to its homepage, as of this writing, meaning that people who are not SBL members (the people most affected by this policy revision) will not learn of the change until it takes effect.  The SBL will offer access to subscribers to the RBL Newsletter for a limited transition period, but how many newsletters subscribers are there?  How many are not already members?  And what about people in other disciplines, non-academics, or religious studies scholars who simply don’t subscribe to the newsletter?  I suspect that many (most?) non-SBL-members who use or stumble across RBL reviews do not subscribe to the RBL Newsletter.

I sincerely hope to hear more from the RBL and SBL about the reasoning behind this decision (especially the assumptions and logics I have questioned here), and about their future plans for a more open, innovative online presence.  I truly want the SBL to reply by telling me about an imminent, new OA venture that will wipe away these concerns.  Keeping RBL itself open is certainly not the hill I want to die on.  Nonetheless, I do think this issue exemplifies underlying problematic attitudes and assumptions in our corner of the academy.  Ones that need a fuller airing and discussion.  Which is why I’m choosing to be vocal.  This is not so much about the RBL as it is about the priorities and commitments of the SBL.

*An earlier version of this post stated, “SBL already has paywalled reviews in its flagship periodical, the Journal of Biblical Literature.”  This is incorrect; the JBL no longer publishes book reviews.  Thanks to Rebbeca Lesses for the catch.

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