Earlier this month, the long-time online open access Journal of Southern Religion (ISSN: 1094-5253) began releasing its content under a Creative Commons Attribution license. The announcement can be found on the JSR blog here.
If JSR was already an open access journal, what is the significance of this development?
Gratis and libre open access
The JSR announcement gives me an opportunity to distinguish between two general concepts of open or “free” access to online academic literature. The distinguishing terms usually applied in this discussion are gratis and libre.
Gratis is related to the word “grace,” often connoting the idea of something given as a gift, and meaning a good or service that is provided without price or requirement of compensation. From the recipient’s point of view, the good or service is provided without charge. It’s free! Gratis open access allows reader access to online scholarly content without a subscription or article paywall barrier. (Access to a browser-equipped computer with an Internet connection, which may not be free, is assumed.)
It is important to keep in mind that just because a good or service is provided without charge, it doesn’t mean that no costs were involved in its production. Additionally, it is particularly important here not to confuse the price of a good or service with its value. Scholarly research is not free to produce (although open access publishing aims to reduce the costs of production by utilizing low marginal costs of network distribution). Scholarly research and its proper peer review should be the focus of any value assessment, not whether the research stands behind a paywall. “You get what you pay for” is neither an accurate nor necessary shorthand for assessing value of academic scholarship. Thinking about open access as a gift can be a helpful corrective here.
As a generalization, all open access is gratis, but not all open access is libre. Libre is related to the word “liberty,” and denotes freedom or a state of being free. I’m free! As applied to the free (gratis) good or service above, libre also indicates what the recipient may do with it once it is received—use, reuse, copy, share, or modify—without the permission of the creator or provider. Creative Commons license provisions differ depending on the license applied. The JSR license is the most open, allowing even commercial reuse of content. The only requirement is that the reuse clearly credits the original creator and source. (Granting use or reuse provisions through licensing does not mean the content creator or original source has surrendered copyright.)
Giving attribution and properly citing sources is a firmly established scholarly practice. The greatest benefit to the scholarly conversation would seem to be satisfied through gratis open access—the removal of reading access barriers to research. Is there anything substantially added by also providing libre open access? The answer may be philosophical or practical. Some would say the movement of information and knowledge should not be restricted in any way as a matter of principle. Or, we should not impose restrictions because we cannot anticipate all possible and potentially beneficial reuse scenarios in advance. Too, granting reuse freedom is a way to assist in the greatest dissemination and prolonged life of a scholar’s research. Imagine, for example, a seminal published monograph or essay that will never go “out of print” because of a libre license.
The JSR “Editorial Policies and Submission Guidelines” page explains the benefit of their license thusly: “This license grants you permission to use the material published in the journal as you see fit, for example, in course packs, on course websites, and in quotations in other scholarly works” (emphasis added). In an email correspondence, the journal editors responded passionately about this: “It’s not enough just to make your content free; you also have to liberate it using an open access license” (emphasis added).
Interestingly, the journal has even released the source code for its open access platform. It is available here on GitHub. “We want other people to be able to run open access journals too, and we hope someone might be able to borrow the JSR‘s model.”
About the Journal of Southern Religion
The Journal of Southern Religion is the first scholarly journal devoted to the study of religion in the American South. The journal is fully peer-reviewed, reflecting the best traditions of critical scholarship. It is an open-access publication, published free of cost in its entirety on the Internet. The JSR publishes articles and book reviews, as well as new media. (from the journal website)
It didn’t seem right to report on this access change without also spending some time learning a bit more about the journal. As indicated at the top, JSR began its existence as an online journal. The first issue was released in 1998, putting it in the company of those relatively early initiatives exploiting the potential of the World Wide Web as a medium for academic research distribution. In his editorial in the inaugural issue, then editor Rodger M. Payne of Louisiana State University wrote:
Cyberpublishing is still in its infancy, but it has already begun to present both challenges and opportunities for scholarship. Perhaps the most significant challenge, as James Adair noted in a recent article, involves the “skepticism from established scholars” who either disparage “the ephemeral nature of much of the material on the Web,” or argue “that the quality of scholarship [in electronic journals] is not as high as in traditional print journals.” As Adair goes on to explain, however, such apprehension is clearly misguided. By employing the same standards of peer review that scholars have come to expect in print journals, there is no reason why electronic publication should not carry the same academic imprimatur as publication in print journals, nor any reason why publication in such “e-journals” should not have the full endorsement of promotion and tenure committees.
Payne went on to identify some of the key advantages of Web published journals over print, including the greatly reduced time between article submission and publication, the “democracy” of the Web that facilitates “public scholarship,” reduced costs of publishing and distribution, and the ability to integrate new media into the context of the journal.
JSR‘s format takes full advantage of reduced publication time by structuring each “issue” as a single annual volume, with new content posted as it clears the review process (see current issue and issue archive). The economics of online publishing puts scholarly disciplines of relatively narrow focus on equal footing with broader treatments in a way that print never could, as Payne himself noted: “[T]he probability of our introducing a journal devoted to the study of Southern religion would be quite small if not for the opportunities made available by electronic publication on the World Wide Web.” Regarding new media, JSR this year launched a podcast featuring interviews and discussion relevant to the study of religion in the American South. JSR is also leveraging major social media channels. As the editors put it: “Scholarship has always been a social activity, and we want to give our readers a little help in finding the JSR that way. We still have a lot of work that we can do in this regard.”
The scope of the study of religion in the American South is listed in the Overview of JSR‘s “Editorial Policies and Submission Guidelines” encompassing:
- Regionalism in southern religion, e.g., Appalachia, the Gulf Coast, south Florida and the Caribbean
- religious aspects of southern culture, e.g., religion and cuisine, music, and southern literature
- southern civil religion
- local and folk religions, including ethnographic studies of congregations and parishes
- ethnicity including immigration and slave religions
- religion and race, class, disability, and gender issues in the South
JSR is indexed in the ATLA Religion Database, Google Scholar, and is listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). It is sponsored by the Association for the Study of Southern Religion and receives collaborative support from Florida State University, Louisiana State University, and Saint Francis University.
I asked the editors about their funding model. But it turns out their costs are very modest. “We have no funding model currently, or since the journal’s inception. Our web space is institutionally hosted and supported by Florida State University, and all the staff are volunteer.”
I asked if the editors had any thoughts about how to raise the profile or credibility of open access scholarly communication in Religious Studies disciplines. This response continues the tone already evident at the journal’s founding 15 years ago:
I think that the question of how scholars will publish their work is one of the most pressing questions in the academy. Thankfully, there are a lot of great scholars who are thinking through this problem, both as professors, archivists, and librarians, and as leaders at scholarly societies. If I had to hazard one guess about what would help open access the most, it would be changing the default mindset of the academy about publication. The default has to change from locking our content down to opening up.
I have placed a link to the Journal of Southern Religion in my Journal Directory.