RBL, SBL, and the future of digital scholarship

I had a long phone conversation Wednesday morning with John Kutsko, executive director of the Society of Biblical Literature, about my letter regarding the decision to make the Review of Biblical Literature a resource available only to SBL members.  John emailed me to set up a time to talk, and my understanding is that he has called others who have emailed the SBL to express concerns about this decision.

So many people emailed me, replied to my Facebook post, and posted or tweeted my blog post about my letter, that I wanted to let everyone know what happened.  It has taken me this long to post about it, because I have rewritten this post three times.

At the beginning of the call, I said I appreciated his reaching out but I thought that some kind of public response might be helpful, since quite a number of people had expressed interest in this issue. Based on my conversation, I think we will hear more in February or March.

John explained that the decision to make the RBL a members-only resource was part of a larger strategy to increase services to members of the SBL.  There are a few moving parts to this strategy.  I don’t know all the details, in part because I told him that I didn’t want to know as long as I couldn’t reveal these details to others.  What he did say was that the Society plans to release more information later in the year about some initiatives for making biblical scholarship more accessible, but the initiatives are still in progress.  Since our conversation came about due to a public conversation about open access, I emphasized several times that I didn’t want to be privy to details I then couldn’t share publicly.

What I do know is that there are some programs launching this year that John believes will 1) make membership more accessible to people (especially contingent faculty and junior scholars), 2) increase the scholarly resources the society provides, and 3) makes those resources more accessible to academics in other fields.

I very much appreciated that he contacted me.  I also am concerned that the SBL doesn’t have an effective communication and social media strategy.  That the Executive Director is personally contacting people who have expressed concerns about the Society’s decisions is in some ways an indication of open communications.  I worry, however, that this is an insular process; I know a number of people (myself included) were concerned last year that the SBL was releasing official information by contacting individual bloggers, who would then blog about Society activities or policies.  (Rather than more frequent newsletters/press releases, or establishing its own Facebook page or a more robust Twitter presence.)  I worried that this phone call to me was part of a similar pattern.

We talked about a number of things, which I’ll outline here.  I have some ambivalence about this; as I said, I think the SBL should have a coherent communication and social media strategy that involves communicating directly with the entire membership rather than hoping that certain individuals (such as myself) will convey the leadership’s rationale for them.  But I’ve been vocal, so I also feel an obligation to tell everyone what has happened since my last post.

So we talked about and disagreed about many things.

We talked about why the RBL board was not consulted about the decision to put the publication behind a paywall.  I served on the board of the North American Patristics Society for three years.  I know that organization is much smaller, but (as I said to John), NAPS faces the same challenges regarding membership, revenue, and survival.  I can say with 100% confidence that major decisions about NAPS publications would not be made without consulting the editors.  I hope an apology to the RBL board is forthcoming, along with a pledge to make financial and administrative decisions about publications in consultation with the publications’ boards in the future.

It sounded like the decision to put RBL behind a membership login was part of a larger strategy, involving the announcement I mentioned regarding new initiatives.  I still don’t fully understand why the RBL change was implemented immediately, rather than when these initiatives will roll out.

The society has financial considerations.  Membership does not provide a steady, predictable revenue stream.  Many organizations (including SBL, NAPS, and others) are concerned about whether their revenues from membership will continue at the historic levels, or whether they face a sharp decline in the future.  I get that, believe me.  I’ve served on a board, I know these are precarious times.  John tells me the decision to put the RBL behind a password is part of a larger strategy to make membership more accessible and more appealing, and therefore ensure a steadier revenue stream.

The Society also believes the RBL in particular has an important role in tenure and promotion, in vetting scholarship, as I understand from the conversation.  Concerns about accessibility seem to be bound up in concerns about making it general and diluted.  This puzzled me for a few reasons.  A major critique of the RBL recently has been that the reviewers are not fully qualified, not sufficiently scholarly. Additionally, the number of tenured and tenure track scholars in the field is falling off a cliff.  Seminaries and Religious Studies programs are closing, and adjunctification is transforming the humanities labor force.  The RBL can’t be a publication primarily for an increasingly smaller slice of the population.

We also talked about open access, and whether advocates in the Society for open access are naive, or will be satisfied with nothing less than completely open access scholarship on all counts.  I truly think most of us understand the role of a subscription journal like JBL, and that open access scholarship does not mean no-cost scholarship.

I’m still concerned that the SBL has one foot in the past.  I’m concerned that the decision to try to increase the “value” of the membership through member initiatives reflects a view of an academy that no longer exists.  John and I spoke a lot about the changing landscape of academia, and why people join the SBL.  Members, he noted, have more of a utilitarian, contractual relationship–more and more people join because they want to go to the annual meeting, rather than because they feel a sustained, long-term relationship with the “guild.”  The new programs are designed in part to reinvigorate membership, as well as promote scholarship in the field.

I don’t know exactly what’s in the works for SBL’s future, but I do know that the academic landscape has changed radically.  Contingency, departmental closures, and seminary closures are all increasing, meaning that the number of people who look to SBL as a long-term professional relationship more than a tool or resource seems likely to decrease.  I know this might make it tempting to think that the solution is to create “products” that people are more willing to pay for, but I think this may be faulty logic.  The rising generation of scholars finds open scholarly networks more valuable than closed ones.  I really support the idea of new scholarly programs sponsored by the Society but I wonder about the implementation.

John’s call also came as I was reading Amy Earhart’s new book Traces of the Old, Uses of the New: The Emergence of Digital Literary Studies. (Earhart’s book is nothing short of phenomenal, by the way, and anyone interested in canon, archives, or humanities historiography, whether digital or analog, will be enriched by this volume. Go read it.) Earhart concludes by underscoring that “the very issues that make DH unique within the humanities—collaboration, real time scholarship, open access, restructuring of academic higherarchies—are exactly the structural and infrastructural points of tension with traditional humanists.” (126) This impulse, I believe, drives much of the emerging generation of scholars in biblical studies and early Christian and Jewish studies. These same values drive most of the people who emailed me and Tweeted or reposted to Facebook my letter about the RBL, and most of these people would not necessarily identify as “digital humanists.”

DH has become another important intellectual home for me in large part because I espouse these principles.  Thus I remain concerned that the Society still has not fully embraced the consequences of monumental shifts in our scholarly landscape. John assures me that the Society has, and that the new initiatives to be announced this year will increase collaborative scholarship and access to new knowledge in our field.

I am simultaneously eager and cautious. Eager to see what my colleagues have dreamed up for us, because the Society creates some transformative things; Bible Odyssey, for example, has been wonderful. Cautious, because I came away from our talk convinced that the chasm between leadership and the membership is wider than I thought.

As Earhart argues, what is most transgressive about digital scholarship—most threatening—is the way it is done, not necessarily what is done. And so, I hope that the Society will not only provide new “products” for members, but will wholly transform the way in which it communicates and operates.  Open communication, a commitment to inclusive practices, facilitating open scholarly networks, care and support for vulnerable members. These are the things I hope we see alongside new resources when the forthcoming initiatives are announced.

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