Scholarly Communication and Religious Studies Discourse and Debates

[Cross-posted from my other blog: vocesanticae.com]

I’ve been emailing back and forth a bit the last few days with my friend and academic colleague, Dieter Roth, the world’s leading expert on the study of Marcion and his texts. We met at a conference at KU Leuven a few years back, one graciously hosted by Joseph Verheyden and John Kloppenborg. It was such a wonderful gathering. I’ve let Dieter know that I value our scholarly friendship and eagerly welcome his feedback. He said he’s working on a response.

I tell my students in Library Instruction sessions about this kind of scholarly communication that happens underneath the surface of published academic discourse. Scholarship is a community, ideally one of friends who seriously respect each other’s work and who do a lot of communication behind the scenes about our work. Being at the top of one’s field requires that, not just being connected, but collaborating well and building consensus.

I want to say that, while the book proposal I released earlier today is taking the Gospel of Marcion in a very different direction from Roth’s past work, that his work is truly exceptional and extraordinary in its quality and rigor. Seriously, if you think my proposal about Qn has any merit, you should be reading Roth’s 2015 critical edition of Marcion’s Gospel right now, because it holds the keys to many of the doors I’m proposing that we unlock. I’m really excited to hear from Dieter about what he thinks of my hypotheses. If he finds them convincing, then it’s a whole new ballgame in Gospel Studies. If he doesn’t, that’s totally cool. It just gives me an opportunity to expand or or nuance or improve my proofs to see if I can convince him and others of the merits of my hypotheses.

As I continue to work on improving and expanding my book proposal (at 122 pages and counting, it’s increasingly becoming an actual book), I ponder random questions:

What if we didn’t have to have our scholarly Religious Studies debates at a snail’s pace, contingent on publisher acceptance and production timelines?

What if we didn’t have to have those debates through the vehicle of publications that are disparate and often difficult to access, print books and journal articles, websites, blogs, social media?

What if we weren’t ashamed to share our work, and even our feedback for other scholars, even when it is it process? Even when it looks kinda sloppy? What are we embarrassed of? Being imperfect? Being wrong?

Isn’t it the point of scientific progress to seek truth together? To be eminently comfortable and even excited to fail and prove an idea wrong? To own it entirely when we are wrong?

What if we could edit our work and re-publish it continually, especially in the heat of a serious debate, even while resting assured of having version control for the purposes of scholarly accountability as well as our works being citable?

Our citation habits come from ancient codices, citing folia/leaves, or what we now call page numbers. Or for highly curated texts, citing internal references.

Digital codices are no different. They have page numbers and other internal references.

Even better, digital codices can have version control and DOIs, permanent and interlinked URL identifiers, as many as needed, for free.

What if, instead of having a scholarly publishing ecosystem in Religious Studies that makes serious scientific discourse slow and cumbersome, we had an ecosystem that completely supported our work?

What if publishers joined in our work and helped us curate it, instead of trying to take ownership of it to sell print copies and license digital copies of it? What if publishers restructured their revenue models based on web traffic, and didn’t focus on selling content as much as driving views?

What if our editors were also our friends, people who saw the value of our work and wanted to build on it?

What if our rivals were also our friends, and perhaps even our co-editors?

What if each of us curated one or more digital codices representing our work on a given topic? Updating it as needs be?

What if every serious humanist who actually had major contributions to propose and to make… What if each of us became a living book, or several living books, or communities of living books?

Wouldn’t that be something?

And yes, for our hard scientists out there, I’m trying my best to do what I can to bring Religious Studies as an academic discourse back into the global mainstream of intellectual life.

Humanists, remember those good old days, when journal publishing was actually about rapid, widespread distribution of scientific knowledge? What ever happened to those days?

For Humanists concerned about the integrity of peer-review, guess what? Pre-print archiving is now the norm in the hard sciences, and it works quite smoothly in concert with the peer-review process.

Even in Religious Studies, reviewers regularly review work that has already been published and archived. Just ask pretty much every PhD student who had their dissertation published. I reviewed just such a dissertation a few weeks ago and recommended it for publication. Archiving dissertations or any other academic work has just as much a possibility of increasing the chances of publication as decreasing it. It depends on the quality, as it should.

You know what we should be concerned about, Humanists? The speed of peer review. The hard sciences turn around reviews in a few weeks, if not a few days. You know why? Because they think their research actually matters.

So what do our absurdly slow review habits in Religious Studies say about the implicit value we place upon our work?

I have several journal articles out for review. Some of them co-authored with esteemed colleagues. Most of time, I wait several months to hear back from reviewers. I’d really love to share all of that work with the world in a pre-published format, because I stand by its quality and am completely confident that journals will eventually accept them.

But alas! Academic Religious Studies is just people elaborating opinions. Our work doesn’t really matter enough for us to have substantive, rapid responses to each other’s work. And we don’t really think our work is important enough to get it out to the public as quickly as possible once it is in a state about which we feel confident.

Religious Studies academic publishing today serves to maintain hierarchies of class and prestige and privilege.

What if instead it were about serving the pursuit of truth, and maybe also love and justice as well?

What if critical Religious Studies academic publishing engaged in a resourcement, retrieving our Humanist roots, and aggiornamento, bringing our discourse fully into not only the late-20th century digital age, but also into the early 21st century Linked Open Data, Open Science, and Open Access age?

500 years ago Erasmus was publishing his works way faster and distributing it to way more people than we typically do in Religious Studies today. Seriously, what excuse should we give him about what the hell we are doing?