Worldwide, completely free, and unrestricted access to peer-reviewed journal literature is a social and academic good. It is important for the creation and dissemination of knowledge, and as such to the academic guild and to society in general. It is important for individual researchers, students, libraries, and the general educated public.
This is how Ehud Ben Zvi, Professor in the Department of History and Classics at University of Alberta (Edmonton, Canada) opened a paper at the joint meeting of the European Association of Biblical Studies and the International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature held at the University of Vienna, July 2007. Ehud Ben Zvi is founder and editor of the open access Journal of Hebrew Scriptures (ISSN 1203-1542).
What is remarkable about the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures is that it was started as an open access online journal in 1996—making it a fairly early online-only journal, and one of the earliest open access journals in religion—well before the term “open access” had entered into common parlance, and even before many scholars had fully acclimated themselves to academic life on the Web. When I sat down with Ehud Ben Zvi for a conversation over Skype in December, I learned that his early appreciation for the potential of this thing called the “World Wide Web” for disseminating knowledge was a natural out-growth of a passion to integrate technology and scholarship.
Omega Alpha (OA): The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures (JHS) was started in 1996. Wow! That was pretty early-on in the history of the World Wide Web. I first got online in 1994, and I considered myself to be something of an early adopter. I cannot now recall how I first found out about JHS. Perhaps it was on the B-Hebrew email listserv early in 1997. I do recall my excitement at being able to freely access scholarly articles in Biblical Studies online. How did you get the idea to start an online journal?
Ben Zvi: I started using email in 1989. Early-on I also started using what we called at that time “computerized enhanced teaching,” or something like that. I worked together with a guy in our faculty, Terry Butler. The two of us were all the time thinking about what we can do to use these new technologies to enhance research and teaching.
In 1995, I started thinking about the journal. At that time my idea was—I was of course a bit naive, but not completely naive, as looking back now I’d say we were on target for the most part—that we could do most of the things print journals can do electronically, and do it even better. In what sense better? We felt there would be a wide readership that is not restricted by income, or location—where a person lived. There are many countries where libraries cannot afford to buy our journals. Also, it would be available to any scholar 24/7. They would not have to go to the library to check it out. We also felt this would bring prompt, faster publication. I was convinced, and I am still convinced that knowledge emerges out of conversation. So, the more scholars who can read each other’s work, and the faster we publish, the more we advance knowledge through discussion and conversation.
We also thought that an electronic journal is different from a printed one in that there is no “quarter to fill.” We don’t have to say, “We have to publish 200 pages.” We can publish as many articles as are worthy of being published. Or vice-versa, we can have as few as are worthy of being published with no problem. The ability to be free in this way is a great advantage. Also, there is no necessary requirement on article length. The article can be as long or as short as it should be.
Now, there were a few things that I was not completely aware of in 1995, like the importance of a style guide, and the importance of the issues associated with article curating and archiving, which we are very well aware of now, and have taken very good care. We also felt that we wanted to try to accommodate everyone. So we started publishing in PDF, Microsoft Works, WordPerfect, and HTML for every single thing. Of course now it sounds ridiculous. Why would you do that?! But at that time we didn’t know which platforms would win the day. You couldn’t be sure whether it would be Microsoft Office or WordPerfect. People will become comfortable with PDF, or something else will emerge very quickly. There was the idea that some people don’t like PDF, they like HTML and the immediacy this format gives to a document. We played a little bit with that. But already at the beginning it was also true that we decided our “official” version will always be the PDF. All the other versions were a kind of “enhancement,” or a “walking towards the reader.” Eventually we stopped “walking towards the reader” and published just the PDF version.
So, this basically was our way of thinking as we led up to starting the journal. I talked with several people, and received responses from many of my colleagues, and we agreed that, yes, the time was right. We can do it. The Department of History and Classics was very supportive. University of Alberta agreed to host the journal site and provide technical support.
OA: That’s interesting. So you were sort of acting from an intuition about what the Web could provide as a platform, and you took advantage of that. Now, looking back, we call this “open access.” But that terminology wasn’t common, if at all, in 1995-96.
Ben Zvi: Yes, we called it “freely available on the Net.”
OA: You mentioned that you weren’t constrained by a pre-determined format. I noticed early-on that JHS appeared as individually published articles. This is not how we are accustomed to thinking about a journal, particularly in print. Most journals appear as published issues of collected articles. This is required of print because you have to have a minimum number of articles in order to fill a worthwhile and reasonable-sized “container”—you mentioned 200 pages before. How did you arrive at the idea of publishing articles for your journal instead of gathering articles into issues?
Ben Zvi: Yes, you have to have issues in print journals. But for an electronic journal there is no academic reason why you must have issues, unless you have a series of thematic articles, in which case, of course, you would want to publish them together. It is, however, a good idea to have volumes because people have to have a way to find the journal. So although we got rid of the idea of the issue we didn’t get rid of the idea of the volume.
OA: I noticed some of your earlier volumes encompassed a number of years. But recently, it appears that a volume is one year, regardless of the number of articles.
Ben Zvi: We started with a volume being two years, and then we moved to a volume per year, especially as we got more articles.
OA: Yes, the increase in the number of articles seems to reflect the growth of the journal. Can you speak to how that “critical mass” developed? How did scholars begin to discover and then become interested in publishing with JHS? Indeed, now, as you say, the volume seems to take care of itself.
Ben Zvi: Initially, for many scholars the idea of publishing articles in an electronic journal was a difficult concept to grasp. For others, the idea was easy enough to grasp, but they said, “If I publish there I will not get tenure, or promoted, or whatever.” I think that by the early 2000’s we finished that debate. But we were proactive in the mid-90s. What we did first was create a very good editorial board. This was crucial. We had a good system of referees with very good people. We asked some top scholars to publish in the journal, and they were willing to do this in the early stages. And then people started reading articles, and the journal became more and more respected.
We, like any traditional journal have a quite high number of rejected articles. Of course, the point isn’t to say we reject you more than the other. This is not the issue. We also try, particularly with younger scholars, to offer helpful comments. So even if we don’t publish your submission, at least we will give you some comments that may help you publish with us later, or elsewhere. I see this as the formative part of the process, particularly with younger colleagues. We have a blind peer review process. It’s basically exactly the same as any journal like JBL or JSOT. From the very beginning we wanted to have something exactly like the other journals.
OA: Do you feel you are providing an opportunity for younger scholars to get published?
Ben Zvi: Yes, we want to publish younger scholars. We want to publish people from around the world. We want, of course, to publish senior scholars, too. The idea is to have a general conversation on the key issues. We want to hear from well-established voices and new voices. Of course, what is most important is the quality of the articles.
OA: Can you speak more about the issue of discoverability? How do scholars find their way to JHS?
Ben Zvi: It’s not a problem. We’re in all the major indices. By the way, we also exist in a print version. All the stuff that appears in the electronic version also appears in print with the delay of a year. Some people go to the print version if this is what they want. But the electronic version is the version that is permanent.
OA: It’s almost like you are working in reverse of the traditional model.
Ben Zvi: Yes, we work in reverse in that sense. The print version is really nice, and we’d like libraries to have it. But it’s secondary to the main journal.
OA: Do you have any other open access projects underway?
Ben Zvi: I have two projects going. I’m the head of the Society of Biblical Literature’s International Cooperation Initiative (ICI). We have a huge depository of electronic books from a number of publishers that is growing by the month. These books are open access, freely available on the Net for people in ICI qualifying countries, which are countries whose GDP is substantially lower than the average GDP of the United States and the European Union. In addition, with a colleague of mine, I’m the co-general editor of a new monograph series, also at SBL, that is open access. It is called the Ancient Near East Monograph Series. These volumes are available electronically open access, or people can buy the volumes in a print version. So you get the best of both worlds. The text is exactly the same in both versions.
Also, in JHS we have been developing a system of hyper-texting. [Note: The paper by Ehud Ben Zvi referenced above addresses this hypertext project.] What we have done, with the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, is create hypertexts for our articles. This is something that takes a lot of time and effort. But it allows things that the published text cannot do, like clicking on a verse reference to get the scripture text in Hebrew or different translations, or clicking on the name of an author to see what this author has written. It’s quite good, and provides basic information for the scholar working from his desktop. We have contacted people and institutions who have significant open access databases, and we are beginning to create a network. It’s a work in progress. It takes a lot of work, but I think it’s worthwhile. It’s going beyond the “Gutenbergian model” of the printed page. The basic PDF is just the “Gutenbergian model” with some search capability. The hypertext version, based on XML, expands that. We are trying to remain in the forefront of trying new things. But again, this is in addition to the PDF version of our journal, which is still the official version.
OA: Do you have any thoughts regarding societies, associations, or university or college institutions that have, for whatever reason, turned their publishing operation over to a commercial publisher?
Ben Zvi: I have nothing whatsoever against commercial publishing. In fact, I think that no one will gain anything if the SBL publishing house is broke, or if de Gruyter is broke, or Brill is broke. This will not be good for any field of research in the Humanities and Social Sciences. I really wish them well, and I will try to help them as much as possible. Good academic publishers are a part of the academic world, and we need them. Now at the same time, we have other social responsibilities, like our electronic journal, or the ICI e-book depository, or the open access monograph series at SBL. We have an obligation to make at least some of our research available in open access. It’s not that we come to replace commercial publishers. We work together. The scholarly “ecosystem” includes both commercial publishers and open access journal and monograph initiatives.
OA: Do you have any other recommendations to share with scholars or institutions who might be interested in getting an open access journal going? I’m also thinking here about funding for and the sustainability of such an effort.
Ben Zvi: You must have a long-term commitment from your university, or department, or both. If your institution does not support you it’s not sustainable. There are also granting agencies that might be able to assist. The other thing to keep in mind is that these [open access] journals are basically a work of love. You have to have a group of people who feel this is important and are willing to work for that—colleagues who are really willing to work for that and volunteer the necessary time. Anything that depends on only one person is, by definition, not sustainable. You can’t do this alone. In the past I’ve had very good colleagues working with me. And now Christophe Nihan [University of Lausanne] is my Associate General Editor, and we work very well together. We have a very large Advisory Board. We have review editors in different parts of the world. Everyone is doing their job. It’s a team effort.
OA: Professor Ben Zvi, I’ve really appreciated our time together. Thank you for sharing about the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures.