My favorite two sessions that I attended at this past weekend's SBL conference were entitled "E-Publish or Perish" and "The Past, Present, and Future of Blogging and Online Publication." There was some overlap to the two sessions, but here are a couple of thoughts on the presentations.
First, a very good moral issue was raised by Ehud Ben Zvi of the University of Alberta with regard to where scholars choose to publish. If one chooses to publish via traditional print (e.g., a $150 Brill volume), that publication will have limited access. It will be limited to those with great personal resources or with access to rich libraries. Both of these situations limit the access of scholarship to the privileged West. On the other hand, publishing online with open access (i.e., free), opens this resource up to everyone with a computer and internet access. Thus, non-western and scholars in lower GDP countries can now access these materials. It is not as if money were the issue. For these types of publications the author does not make significant profits. Nor does the publisher. Instead, the $150 per volume goes into the publishing costs for such a book with a low print run and limited audience. I thought that this moral question was intriguing.
The second issue that was raised in both sessions by Christian Brady of Penn State was the concern that online publication, especially non-traditional online publication (e.g., an iPhone/Droid app, like an interactive textbook), might not be sufficient for promotion and tenure at universities. To this end, Brady is proposing the formation of a review committee through the SBL that could serve as a peer review committee for such digital and online publications. A tenure committee might have no expertise to review a professors work, be it a traditional publication or a digital or online publication; they must rely on professional peer review outside of their institution. With traditional publication, the tenure committee relies on the specific academic press or journal to provide such peer review. Brady is proposing a review committee through the SBL which would serve the same purpose of peer review for digital/online publications.
The third fascinating issue was whether blogs should be considered scholarship. The general consensus was that blogs in themselves are not (usually) scholarship because they lack peer review and anyone can publish in this format. Yet, there was also consensus that blogs play a key role in scholarship as a sort of pre-scholarship. That is, blogs serve the creative process of data collection and analysis, collaboration, organization and so on. Blogs serve as testing centers for ideas and allow for academic conversation about ideas that can in many cases become the basis for later peer reviews scholarship and publication. Michael Barber of John Paul the Great Catholic University demonstrated how his blog was essential in his research and collaboration with other scholars as he completed his dissertation.
In all, the future of online publication holds tremendous promise, but as it is still in its infancy, there are still many kinks to work out and many pitfalls to avoid. It looks like an exciting future.