Open Access Interview: New Testament Scholar Larry Hurtado

It’s been a number of years since I’ve really immersed myself in direct theological research—ever since my vocational path diverged from the start of a doctoral program and took me, first into pastoral ministry and then to my present career in academic librarianship. I did get a chance to step back into the pool a bit while working on my Information and Library Science degree at the University of Arizona in 2004. I wrote a paper on intertextuality and canon for a graduate independent study elective course in Judaic Studies. And for the research methods course in the library program, I developed a research proposal that intended to look at the adoption of the codex book form by early Christian communities from a sociological perspective, using diffusion of innovations theory developed by Everett Rogers.

I continue to be intrigued by the evolution and historical adoption of codex book technology, especially as a background and possible analogy to the technological developments we are currently witnessing with e-books, e-readers, and tablet computers. As time allows, I try to connect with the literature that offers new insights into this topic. I think it was in 2007 that I read a fascinating book entitled The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (William B. Eerdmans, 2006), which includes a chapter on the early Christian preference for the codex book form. This was my first exposure to the writings and scholarship of the author, Larry W. Hurtado.

Larry Hurtado is Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland (1996-2011). He is an influential scholar who has written extensively on early Christianity, including Jesus Christ as a focus of devotion and worship, and the aforementioned title, which commends the close study of the physical and visual features of early Christian biblical and non-biblical manuscripts (not just their literary content) for insights into the origins of this religious movement.

I subscribe to GOAL: Global Open Access List, an international email forum moderated by Richard Poynder dedicated to discussing open access issues in scholarly communication. Imagine my delighted surprise when reading through a recent daily digest of GOAL I see a post and several subsequent replies by Larry Hurtado.

It has been my contention since beginning this blog that the advancement of open access scholarly communication in Religion and Theology critically depends on the awareness, engagement, and (hopefully) the authorization from established and respected scholars regarding this issue. It is easy to assume that many scholars are either still blissfully unaware of open access; they don’t understand what the fuss is all about (the current system has worked well enough for them); or they are suspicious of the scholarly rigor and quality of research submitted to open access journals. That is why I was so excited to see Professor Hurtado’s posts. I emailed him and asked if he’d be willing to be interviewed for my blog. He graciously consented. What follows resulted from an email interchange and a face-to-face conversation online via Skype.

Early work promoting online academic journals

Omega Alpha: I saw your posts on GOAL, and let me say first-off that I got very excited. I said to myself, “Hey! What?! Larry Hurtado? I know that name!” It was exciting for me to see a well-known and respected biblical scholar engaged in the conversation about open access.

In your posts, you were observing that current open access policy conversations (happening in the UK, Europe, and the US) seemed to be focused on the Sciences. You expressed concern about the apparent lack of attention in these conversations on the Humanities, including the hardships humanist scholars would face—due to significantly lower funding—with author-side OA business models, especially where these models might be mandated (e.g., publicly funded research), or where a one-size-fits-all approach might be adopted by a publisher. I resonated with your comments and I wanted to talk with you further about this. Thank you for agreeing to this interview.

In the introduction I alluded to the focus of your writing career. Can you tell me more about your teaching career?

Hurtado: After my PhD work, I taught for 3 years at Regent College (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), and then moved to University of Manitoba (Winnipeg) in 1978. I was offered the post of Professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology at the University of Edinburgh in 1996. I retired from that post in August 2011, but remain active in PhD supervision and in pursuing research in my field (New Testament & Christian Origins).

Omega Alpha: In one of your posts on GOAL you mentioned being involved in promoting online academic journals in the early 1990s. I’d like to hear more about this. What were your intended goals in wanting to move academic journals online? The terminology and even the concept of “open access” was not really in parlance at the time. Would you say you were aiming to make research communication more accessible and more widely distributed? Were you in any way aiming to move away from a subscription-based model to one where research would be freely accessible? In other words, if you had the terminology, were you envisioning open access as it is understood today?

Hurtado: During my years at University of Manitoba I founded the Institute for the Humanities (I was the first director of the Institute from 1990-1992), which involved my giving attention to the needs of researchers in the Humanities. I had been involved in establishing IOUDAIOS Review, an online book review journal patterned after the Bryn Mawr Classical Review. I also began organizing a committee at University of Manitoba to hold an international conference on exploring and promoting refereed electronic journals. This conference (the first such) was held at University of Manitoba in 1993.

My own concerns were two-fold: First, the costs of paper journals, especially in Sciences-Medicine-Technology fields, many of them commercially published (e.g., Elsevier) were consuming a vast portion of university library budgets (at University of Manitoba I was told 70%; at University of Edinburgh I have been told around 50%). This meant a restricted book-buying budget that hit the Humanities particularly hard. Second, traditional paper journals were taking an increasingly long time to get things through the backed-up publication queue. Articles often took two years from submission to publication, largely because of limited number of pages per issue of journal. This meant an unnecessary and unhelpful lag in publication of Humanities scholarship.

In 1997 I was invited to address a conference held at Caltech, attended mainly by university provosts, where these issues were discussed. [See reports on this conference here and here.] At that time, there were two major proposals being debated. Stevan Harnad was promoting “scholarly skywriting.” [See this early article by Stevan Harnad about his proposal.] My proposal was for a consortium of universities and learned societies to promote specifically online, refereed journals that would feature traditional editing, refereeing, etc. This sort of journal could move from periodic regular “issues” (e.g., quarterly) to publishing articles as soon as they were ready. And there need be no arbitrary restriction of length, as there were no paper pages to worry about.

This consortium proposal was intended to by-pass the commercial publishers entirely, with libraries and academics in the driver’s seat of publishing academic research.

The financial models were then varied: There could be a cost-recovery-subscription approach (which would likely reduce the serials budget cost dramatically). There could be an “open access” (no subscription) approach, with the costs of online publication borne jointly by universities and academic societies. These costs would be minimal, or certainly radically cheaper compared to current commercial subscription costs.

Yes, the “open access” emphasis came later, and in principle I am comfortable with it.

Omega Alpha: This was pioneering work, and you and others were seeing the potential of this new medium to advance scholarship in new ways. Most academics and scholars now work online on a daily basis, and it is easy to take this early work for granted. 15-20 years is like an eternity ago in “Internet time.” (Incidentally, in January I interviewed Professor Ehud Ben Zvi, at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, who was also seeing the potential. He started the online open access Journal of Hebrew Scriptures in 1996.)

Since beginning our email correspondence, I was able to secure through interlibrary loan a copy of the Proceedings from the 1993 International Conference on Electronic Refereed Journals. You gave the closing presentation entitled, “A Consortium for Networked Publication.” I found this excerpt from your presentation remarkable:

[I]f commercial [publishing] firms are allowed to dominate the development and use of the network for publication of research, we will be in a situation similar to the present state of paper-journal publishing, with a rich supply of (often expensive) journals in some commercially attractive fields, and other fields neglected as unattractive commercially. I have no desire to restrain commercial firms from their legitimate quest for profits. But I do think that academia in general, and perhaps especially in the sciences and technology, needs to consider whether it is desirable to leave the development of the Internet for research publication so fully in the hands of commercial firms as traditional paper journals are in some fields. In other words, I suggest that academia should take the emergence of the Internet, this new medium of publication, as an opportunity to re-affirm the historic role of scholars as both producers and disseminators of research (pp. 19.2-3)

Your words from 20 years ago sound almost prescient! For it would appear that academia did largely choose to leave the development of the Internet in the hands of commercial publishers rather than take the opportunity to make fuller use of this “new medium of publication” based on a different model. Why do you think it turned out this way? Was the system carried-over from the print world, including mechanisms for management of peer review, just too well developed and entrenched? Do you think academic administrators and decision makers may have thought, in the early 1990s at least, that this “Internet thing” was just a fad?

Hurtado: Scholarly habits are hard to change. Academics like to think of themselves as progressive, but they’re mostly traditionalists. Scholars have grown used to publishing through journals in particular ways. And universities have grown used to simply purchasing journals externally (except perhaps in cases where they have their own university presses).

Ironically, my sense was that in the 90s, commercial publishers of journals and books were amongst the slowest and most reluctant to recognize the possible advantages of the Internet. The Internet did not appear to be immediately advantageous to university administrators because they didn’t know quite what to make of it. That is why I was delighted that as a result of the Winnipeg conference, the special conference was held at Caltech a few years later. It was a conference of about 60-70 university provosts from across the United States. The implicit purpose was to try to get them on-board to understand the advantages of refereed Internet publication in such a way that, hopefully, it would then telegraph downward through the university administrative structures to deans, and heads of departments, tenure committees, etc. so that in principle, refereed publication in electronic form would be treated at par with traditional print publishing. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to push that idea with these administrators.

Quite what’s been done with it thereafter, I don’t know. I think what happened in the succeeding 15 years is that a combination of commercial interests, government, and funding/grant bodies have jumped-in to come up with their own “solution” to the problem. It does not appear, however, to have been driven by research constituents.

Omega Alpha: By the way, in your presentation you mentioned academic fields that commercial publishers would neglect as “commercially unattractive.” You might suppose that Religion and Theology would fall into this category. But theological librarians have begun noticing in the last 8-10 years or so an increasing number of society journals being acquired by commercial publishers. And while still laughably inexpensive compared to the standards of the Sciences and Technology, what frequently accompanies these acquisitions—and what librarians cannot avoid noticing when the bill comes—is a dramatic increase in the price of institutional subscriptions. Their margins are lower, but it would seem all bets are off when it comes to acquiring any property that has the potential of turning a profit.

Hurtado: Yes, I’m on the editorial board of a journal that was taken over by a commercial publisher about seven years ago. We had some discussions with this publisher early-on because initially they said to us, “We think this title is vastly under-priced. We think that the market will bear much more. We plan to quadruple the price over the next 2-3 years.” Those of us on the editorial board said, “No! You are making a mistake here. A sizable percentage of our subscribers are individuals and theological libraries that don’t have a lot of money. You will lose half of the subscribers.” They said, “Oh, that’s OK. We can still lose half the subscribers and the net amount of income will be the same with the increased price.” We said we weren’t just interested in talking about income. We were interested in the journal being read by as many people as possible. In the end, our protestations had some impact. They decided only to double the price.

Of course, in the global sense, it isn’t the price of Humanities journals that is causing the problem. It’s the high priced journals in the Sciences and Technology, which consumes so much of the total university library budget and then puts pressure on everyone. When there are cuts to be made, the approach is typically to call for reductions across the board, purporting to spread the pain around equally to all. They come to us and say, “We need to cut the journals budget by 10%. Which titles do you want us to cancel?” I want to say, “We’re not the problem with your budget! Forcing cuts to low-priced journals in the Humanities isn’t going to solve anything. Go after the people in the Sciences, and leave us alone!”

Author-side open access funding model promoted by commercial publishers will be difficult for the Humanities

Omega Alpha: I gathered that your participation on GOAL was motivated by your interest in the topic of open access. However, I did not gather from your comments what your position (if that’s the right word) on open access is, other than the concerns you expressed regarding the difficulties of the author-side funding model for the Humanities. Would you be willing to say more? How would you characterize your position on open access as a scholarly communication concept generally, and specifically as a scholar, or as a representative of a learned society?

Hurtado: As indicated above, in principle I’m comfortable with open access. But my own emphasis is that online, open access, whatever, should retain as essential the practices of peer review, scholarly editors/editing, etc. I am against the imposition of article processing charges on all disciplines. I am wary in general that the problems created specifically by journal publishing in the STM fields will generate a “solution” that will be imposed on all of us, without regard for the distinguishable concerns of Humanities scholars/disciplines. My main emphasis is that decision-making processes must include Humanities scholars as full partners.

Omega Alpha: What would your list of “distinguishable concerns of Humanities scholars/disciplines” include?

Hurtado: Humanities scholars don’t have access to the amount of research funds that scientists have, so it would be much more difficult, for example, to go to a page-charge model for journal publishing. Second, Humanities publishing doesn’t rely as heavily on journals. Monographs remain the “gold standard,” and so models of scholarly publishing have to reckon with this. Scientific research journals are often expensive and commercially produced, whereas Humanities journals tend to be very cheap by comparison and often published by academic societies at a not-for-profit level. There are other aspects of the “culture” of Humanities research and publication, and these need to be on the agenda and on the table as governments and other large bodies plan for the future.

Omega Alpha: Monographs are the “gold standard” in the Humanities because the format accommodates to the demand for deep and sustained treatment of a scholarly thesis. But academic publishers, particularly university presses, have for a long time complained that publication of scholarly monographs is not economically viable—a situation made worse by strained library book buying budgets. Do you see a way out of this conundrum? Although university presses insist that a good chunk of the cost of publishing a scholarly monograph is tied-up, not in printing, but in such activities as copyediting, electronic layout and typesetting, proofreading, and marketing/promotion, do you see any academic reasons why monographs could not be published in e-book form and made available on open access platforms?

Hurtado: We probably need to distinguish between the traditional “short run” technical monograph, and the scholarly book that is of equal scholarly weight, but because of its subject matter or the way in which it is written, happens to have a wider reading public. The later may still continue to be commercially viable in print. The former, where the entire print-run is maybe 250-350 copies, I think could easily be moved to electronic format, to avoid the so-called “death of the scholarly monograph.”

I don’t see any academic reasons why this couldn’t happen. I believe people are getting more used to reading e-books, and this will only grow as the technology with e-book readers and tablets continues to develop, and the operating software for these devices continues to improve in sophistication. Scholarly monographs as e-books would also save shelf space in libraries and greatly simplify access.

Omega Alpha: Getting back to journals, it is my sense that scholars in th Humanities still value and prefer associating their work with a context that carries/creates/reinforces historical continuity in textual artifacts. They do, however, seem to be increasingly comfortable with online journals, and no longer strictly insist on print.

Speaking of Stevan Harnad above, who is a strong proponent of scholars self-archiving their research in open access repositories (so-called Green OA), do you have any thoughts on the merits of self-archiving pre-/post-publication research reports (articles, essays, etc.) from traditional journals, or would you see greater potential for our disciplines in the conversion of existing or creation of new journals to open access (what is called Gold OA)?

Hurtado: As I said, all scholars are in fact curiously traditional, though we like to think of ourselves as progressive. So it’s not surprising that it will take time to move to any new academic procedure, especially something as central as academic publishing. I rather suspect that, as is already happening, the process will be ragged, not centrally controlled (probably good), and uneven.

While we’re waiting to see what other developments there may be, I agree that scholars should feel entirely free to post (e.g., on their own web sites) at least the pre-publication version of their essays. It is my understanding of copyright law that what a journal/publisher owns is the typeset version. The manuscript version is not copyrighted. I have done this with a number of publications on my blog site under the “Selected Essays” tab.

But I would hope for a larger shift such as I have repeatedly urged, involving the academic “establishment”, especially universities (involving libraries and also university presses) and academic societies. Universities have the libraries as key access-points for scholarly material, and as responsible for maintaining (and so migrating e-publications to new formats as they appear), and university presses have publishing expertise (e.g., editing, etc.), and academic societies are supposed to represent the collective interests of given disciplines.

Omega Alpha: Regarding author archiving of pre-/post-publication articles and essays, I believe re-use rights depend on the copyright agreement signed with the publisher. Pro forma agreements tend to be pretty restrictive, and in the past authors have been all too willing to sign away their copyrights on the promise of getting published. More recently, authors have been starting to push-back and are increasingly negotiating retention of their copyright, while granting publishers specific uses utilizing licensing such as Creative Commons.

Given levels of funding in the Humanities, I totally agree with you that use of author-side charges is not a sustainable business model for open access. Further, I believe the embrace of this approach by (some) commercial publishers may be a cynical attempt to appear “pro-OA” while retaining control over an entrenched scholarly communication system, and protecting their profits. I believe commercial publishers who service the Humanities are starting to see a harder time promoting the author-side model. The money just isn’t there, regardless of mandates. I have spoken with Religion publishers at a couple of large commercial houses that are trying to promote open access using a “mega journal” format and author-side charges, but they haven’t had much uptake yet. I think they will resist converting subscription-based journals if it means a threat to revenues.

Hurtado: I’m not myself terribly concerned about maintaining the income stream of commercial publishers. They can look after themselves. I don’t especially blame them. They exist to gain profits for themselves and their shareholders. I’m primarily concerned with the production and dissemination of scholarly research. Publishers have been terribly slow in taking up publishing technology. We can’t expect them to lead anything.

Getting more folks involved in the conversation

Omega Alpha: Do you have any ideas on how institutions and societies might be encouraged to more strongly embrace open access? I suspect there might be some reluctance by societies to give-up subscription-based revenue streams that support programming (either from their own in-house publishing, or the royalties they receive from partnerships with commercial publishers). Still, you would think the membership of such societies would push for change as they grow in awareness of the access problems created by putting research behind paywalls. Universities and colleges must surely see that the cost of buying back research through library institutional subscriptions would more than support a shift to open access. Too, it would seem that there is still a significant degree of misunderstanding that publishing in open access journals is somehow lower quality research. Clearly, the word needs to get out that respected scholars are sitting on editorial/advisory boards and serving as reviewers of many scholar-published open access journals that are not expensive to operate.

Hurtado: The sort of event like the one held at CalTech back in 1997 might be helpful. We need to get university administration on-board, promoting recognition of e-publications in refereed journals as carrying full weight in career decisions (e.g., tenure). Universities are classically the producers, the consumers, and the repositories (guarantors and archives) for research. They are the institutions with sufficient longevity and commitment to (re-)assume the responsibility for this role. We need to get learned societies on-board as speaking officially for their respective disciplines. I think that if we can persuade the scholarly community—even in individual disciplines—to go this way, it would have a creeping effect. And we need established scholars to invest time and energy in serving on editorial boards, and also in submitting publications to e-venues. They can afford to do so, having tenure, full professorships, etc., and their reputation will draw a readership to some degree. The big problem is establishing refereed e-journals, and getting them known. I’m on the editorial board of the open access journal TC. It has been around for 16 years but is still not well enough known.

Omega Alpha: Yes, TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism (ISSN: 1089-7747) is open access. (Incidentally, I created a link to it on my Journal Directory page.) Can you say more about it? Do you believe it is significant that TC is open access? Do you believe it is/can be a model for encouraging other open access efforts in Religious/Biblical Studies?

Hurtado: I’m proud to be a member of the TC editorial board (for a number of years), and I believe that it is a kind of model for where scholarly journal publishing in the Humanities needs to go. TC began as a freely accessible online journal in 1996, and it is now an official online publication of the Society of Biblical Literature. It remains open access. That was a big step forward because it gave the journal a kind of credibility that was very valuable. And it was encouraging because it indicated to us that the Research and Publications Committee of the SBL was at least aware of this issue.

What we need is more robust support from major learned societies and from university administration. Scholars need to know that publishing in a journal such as TC will count fully for matters such as promotion and tenure. And they need to know that such journals will be indexed, so that their work can be noted and cited.

Omega Alpha: Professor Hurtado, it has been a pleasure speaking with you. I want to tell you that in preparing for this interview I discovered your blog, and I’m finding it a delight to read. I also took the opportunity to read your pre-publication essay posted open access (!) on your blog that will be part of a new multi-authored book called The Early Text of the New Testament published by Oxford University Press, and available in the US in a month or so.

Posted in Commercial Publishing, Economics & Business Models, Interviews (Scholars), Libraries & OA, Open Access, Peer Review, Scholarly Associations
3 comments on “Open Access Interview: New Testament Scholar Larry Hurtado
  1. “I believe people are getting more used to reading e-books, and this will only grow as the technology with e-book readers and tablets continues to develop, and the operating software for these devices continues to improve in sophistication. Scholarly monographs as e-books would also save shelf space in libraries and greatly simplify access.”

    I couldn’t agree more. It’s been completely fascinating looking at this issue from inside the industry (working at Logos the last few years). People see the viability and usefulness of ebooks, but many aren’t willing to commit and make the leap “into the cloud” so to speak.

    I really do hope that in the future digital content publishers (like us at Logos, or over at Accordance or Olive Tree) can work more closely with journals such as TC or JHS to make them more widely available, and more easily accessible for research.

    • Gary F. Daught says:

      Thanks for your comment Jonathan. I agree there is value in increasing the number of channels of access for academic journal content. Providing electronic access to religious studies journals on a platform such as Logos may expose persons to research literature they might not ordinarily have. I don’t disagree that there is a potential value-add in making this kind of resource available within your (or others’) research platform, and some may be willing to pay for it. I know, for example, that the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures is also published in print by Gorgias Press for those who might want the journal in this format, and it provides a bit of a revenue stream to help support their commitment to open access online. In a similar way, I don’t begrudge Logos charging to recover the costs of making this resource compatible with and functional within your research platform. I just hope that Logos is also returning some revenues to support JHS. I confess I have some philosophical reservations about commercial reuse of content that is otherwise freely available and intentionally open access.

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