Monday, April 30, 2012

The openness of scholarship

Another round of chatter about open access has come up, this time stemming from a statement by the president of the Archaeological Institute of America (and from there to discussions on early Christianity and biblical studies blogs, which constitute the one degree of separation before getting to theology folks like me). 

I haven't personally been able to muster any intense activism for Open Access in scholarship.  I try not to mention this apathy too much, though, because I know that lots of librarians and researchers strongly support it, and that it can be a touchy subject.  The rub for me is that I don't see how scholarship under the currently prevalent publishing model is all that closed or inaccessible in contrast to OA.

So as to avoid any misunderstanding, let me start by clarifying that...
  1. I am not opposed to open access of published materials... I'm perfectly happy with initiatives to digitize and offer scholarship for free to people.  
  2. The prospect of Open Access should not be presented as an either/or opposite an Elsevier style publishing situation.  There are plenty of possible futures for academic and other publishing that steer between these two stark alternatives and are genuinely attentive to the abuses of the latter.  And they often incorporate aspects of the former.
As I see it, academic publishing already is (or is potentially) quite open and accessible to anyone who wants to engage in scholarly discourse.  Further, where closedness and inaccessibility is present, it is also present in Open Access publication.

What would we achieve from an OA academy?  From what I can tell, the goal is free online databases of research that are preserved for and accessible to the public.  Apart from the accessibility of having it right here, and right now, though, what does this model achieve that can't already be achieved by emailing the author of an article and asking for a pdf attachment of it?  Are there really authors out there who wouldn't oblige and pass on their published work to others personally?  A novelist may not do it, but what royalties does the author of a journal article stand to lose? 

This sort of open access already goes on all the time in the academy and beyond institutional affiliations.  Further, I can't imagine that it hurts the sale of scholarly literature any more than something like Inter-library Loan does.  Institutions and individuals still have good reasons to make their own libraries strong through purchased acquisitions despite free exchange of materials -- not least of which is the ability to continue to act as just such a lender in the exchange of academic discourse.  On the contrary, an open database constitutes a transfer of curatorial responsibility away from libraries and individual scholars.  There are good reasons for a library to own an electronic and a print version of a single academic resource under the current situation.  To have an electronic version that is intended to be at everyone's fingertips, however, precludes any institutional or personal commitment to hold and exchange academic work.

It may not be an obviously bad thing for a centralized database (or various databases) to readily expose all scholarly work to everyone (everyone with the luxury of an internet connection, at least).  In this case the literature would be accessed, digested, and cited just like it always has been.  What is lost, it seems, is the institutional or personal exchange required by a traditional model of publication and dissemination of literature.

Is this just nostalgia for an old boy's club of academics?  I don't think so.  I'm not talking about keeping dusty old books for the sake of dust and age.  The current state of scholarly exchange needs electronic versions of scholarly work and similarly advanced networking possibilities to function in as successful a manner as it does.  It also needs good bibliographic information available online and with sophisticated search functions- this level of academic exchange can't work for the independent scholar (or even the affiliated scholar!) if journals don't have article contents and abstracts available openly to human browsers.  There is no comparison between the level of academic exchange taking place now and what took place a century ago, and I don't want to roll things back to an idyllic past.  Quite the opposite, we need to move forward with new research technologies.

The OA discussion, however, would have you believe that without scholarly research available freely (to anyone with an internet connection), no one would be willing or able to share information with one another!  When the AIA opposes certain measures to enforce OA, they're immediately branded as anti-liberal and elitist, despite many significant ventures in open technology and metadata improvement that they're committed to.  Don't let this sort of rhetoric fool you.  Open Access is a good ideal to strive for, and it's beneficial to the academic world that we can post research for free viewing (to anyone with an internet connection).  But we are not coming out of some dark ages in leaving the current model of publication, collection, and exchange.  Plenty of reforms and improvements have been going on for some time, and should continue without feeling undue pressure to think that an online "open access" is the only adequate solution.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

An interesting, if trivial, bibliographic discovery

Did you know that in the same issue of the Review of Metaphysics that W.V.O. Quine published his essay "On What There Is", a young George Lindbeck published a note "On Aristotle's Discussion of God and the World"? 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


I haven't posted in over a month, and while I'm usually loath to get too autobiographical here, I thought I'd write a quick update for lack of anything else.

The winter quarter is always a bit rough here at the University of Chicago; the atmosphere is more gloomy, and the bunker mentality among students is heightened from its already-high baseline.  Working in the undergraduate dorms (and some particular problems that have come up this year) have made the last few months especially wearing.  The recent sun and the warmer weather is welcome, then, even though I would usually prefer the long, cold, snowy winters.

Last quarter I took courses on Monotheism and Its Discontents and Religion in the European Enlightenment.  This quarter I'm only taking one course, and in the philosophy department- Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.  It has been going well so far.  I'm actually finding Kant relatively straightforward my second time through the Critique.  Interestingly, I have been finding Kantians much more difficult to understand than Kant himself.  I'm not sure this is because of the imprecision or relative difficulty of the secondary literature.  It may be simply because I don't yet have the background knowledge to follow current arguments as well as I could. 

It has been my intention to lower my course load like this for a little while now so that I can begin to focus more on reading for exams (which I'll hopefully take toward the end of the next academic year) or personal research... not to mention on doing a more thorough job with the fewer classes that I am taking.  I'm still learning the ropes of how best to get this done in a constructive manner, but it's certainly the right direction to take at the moment.

One new commitment that I'm very much looking forward to is working with the Library Student Resource Group here at the university.  I was recently chosen as the representative for the Divinity School, which involves a two-year term of occasional meetings for discussing new developments at the library, student needs, proposals for future work, etc.  This is obviously a real passion of mine, and I'm happy to be a part of the group.  Our first meeting (well, my first meeting) is tomorrow.

In January I mentioned a Schleiermacher paper that I presented at a Divinity School workshop - this is currently being looked at by a journal, and sitting with its second referee.  I'll have a chapter on "The Anglican Covenant and Anglicanorum Coetibus" coming out by the end of the summer in Pro Communione, a volume of essays on the Anglican Communion Covenant.  Other than that, I'm not really in the midst of any writing projects.  I have a few things in their earlier stages that I'm trying to set aside so as to be more productive in my reading, but they're not in any shape to speak of right now.

I won't be presenting a paper at AAR this year, but I will be there.  I probably won't be attending NAPS, but I will be catching folks for drinks while they're in town for it... so let me know if you'll be at NAPS, and I'd be happy to try to meet/see you. 

I am doing more of my work standing up these days, since reading Robert Minto on the standing desk.  At the moment I'm trying not to frustrate Tricia too much by moving our desktop computer to higher places around the apartment, but I may have to build a more intentional standing desk over the summer -- this in addition to plans that I already have for a homemade book scanner of some sort (hopefully the topic of some future posts).