Conversation with two religious studies scholars on committee at Open Library of Humanities

The other day I checked-in on developments over at Open Library of Humanities. As I reported earlier here and here, the idea for this very interesting project sprang from a number of often asked questions: Why hasn’t anyone created an analog to the Public Library of Science (PLOS)—meaning, a broad-based, not-for-profit organization dedicated to publishing open access research—for the Humanities? What would it take—meaning, at least, editorial and technical infrastructure, sustainable funding, and broad-based scholarly support—to create such a PLOS analog for the Humanities? Given our deep and long-standing scholarly communication traditions, would such an approach—meaning, in particular, developing a multi-disciplinary “mega-journal” like PLOS ONE—even work in the Humanities?

OLH’s advisory committee structure appears to be in place. There are still numerous details to work out, but posted minutes from recent meetings of two of the committees (Academic Steering & Advocacy and LibTech) suggest conceptual outlines of the OLH platform are beginning to take shape. Summarized from the Academic Steering & Advocacy Committee meeting minutes of February 25, 2013: “The committee overwhelmingly favoured, with some caveats, a mega-journal structure, but one which also had the option to present as a ‘traditional’ journal through overlay function.” “Overlay journals” are created by curating and filtering subject-specific content pulled from submissions to the central mega-journal platform, branded to “give the appearance, and benefits, of more localised journals.”

Somewhat surprised but very proud: Religious Studies scholars well-represented on OLH committees

As I looked over the lists of assembled OLH committee members, I was somewhat surprised but also very proud to discover representation from not just one (if even one) but three Religious Studies scholars. Peter Webster (an independent historian of religion in twentieth century Britain, whose day job is at the British Library) and Steven Engler (Professor of Religious Studies at Mount Royal University, Calgary, Canada) are members on the Academic Steering & Advocacy Committee. Justin Meggitt (University Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the Institute of Continuing Education, University of Cambridge) is a member on the Advocacy Forum.

I was surprised because, to put it honestly, the Open Library of Humanities project represents new and non-traditional thinking regarding the nature and future of scholarly communication in the Humanities. Others may reflect similarly from within their own disciplines, but as a generalization, I know religion and theology scholars are committed to long-standing and authoritative academic traditions. They tend to be skeptical of fads or what they perceive to be change for its own sake. Would they be able to see any relevance for themselves in an open access and multi-disciplinary project like this? And yet, I felt proud to see these particular scholars coming out to engage this new thinking through direct participation in the OLH project. It was sort-of a validation of my own open access advocacy in religion and theology, and an opportunity to demonstrate that, yes, there are real scholars within the discipline who are thinking about and embracing new mediums and formats of research communication.

I was interested to get these scholars to tell me about their work and research; about their thinking regarding open access publishing in Religious Studies; and especially about their decision to participate directly in the Open Library of Humanities project. I am pleased to share the conversation I was able to arrange with Peter Webster and Justin Meggitt. I regret that I was unable to contact Professor Engler to participate in this conversation.

The Conversation

Omega Alpha: Thank you, Peter and Justin, for the opportunity to speak with each of you. Can you tell me a bit about your academic career and specific interests. What about your vocation and current activities? Peter, why don’t we start with you. As I understand it, you are what we might call an independent scholar/researcher, and you have a “day job” at the British Library. Is that correct?

Webster: Yes, that’s basically it. For a number of years I have worked in what you might call the interface between scholars and digital resource providers and developers. I worked for eight years, until recently, at the Institute of Historical Research, which is part of the University of London, doing resource development, networking, advocacy, conferences, and various digital projects to support university departments of history, including managing the digital repository for a group of ten specialized research institutes, of which IHR is a part. Last summer, I moved over to the British Library, where I look after communications, engagement and liaison activities in terms of digital projects for the United Kingdom Web Archive. That’s the day job.

Parallel to this, I have nurtured a research interest in twentieth century British religious history. I did my doctoral work on religious music in the Stuart Church in the Early Modern Period of Britain. Through a circuitous route, I started looking at questions relating to religion and the arts in the twentieth century, particularly, initially, contemporary church music in the 1950s and 60s. My research interests have widened-out from there. Right now I’m doing a study of Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1960s for Ashgate’s The Archbishops of Canterbury Series. Also, I’m hoping shortly to conclude contract terms on a biographical study of Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester Cathedral, who was a patron of the arts in the Church of England.

Meggitt: My current post is as University Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the Institute of Continuing Education, University of Cambridge. I’ve had a number of ‘normal’ academic posts, such as British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge and lecturer in New Testament Studies in the Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge. But I have always had a direct interest and involvement in such things as distance learning (as it used to be called) and continuing education because I would consider it my vocation to enable the widest possible access to the critical study of religion, in all its forms. That explains why I have ended up where I am today.

I continue to straddle the traditional academic world and that of lifelong learning, supervising graduate work in the Faculty of Divinity and producing research appropriate for someone holding a permanent post at the University of Cambridge. But in my role at the Institute of Continuing Education, I contribute to a range of forms of teaching that allow public engagement with current thinking in the study of religion and cognate fields. My interests are somewhat varied, but are largely concerned with religion in ancient and early modern cultures, and the themes of poverty, slavery, madness, magic, and apocalypticism, amongst others.

Omega Alpha: How did you first learn about open access? How did you become a “convert” to OA, if this is the right way of putting it?

Webster: My becoming a ‘convert’ to open access isn’t an inappropriate way of putting it, in some ways. My exposure to open access came mostly through being in charge of the institutional repository at IHR and its affiliated research institutes. I became drawn into open access over time dealing with management policies, talking with faculty, etc. The IR served primarily the Humanities with a bit of Social Sciences on the edge. It was very interesting to see how scholars responded to, and hear what they thought about open access within that quite dedicated humanities space. Incidentally, I think it’s fair to say that the Humanities are a significant distance behind, certainly behind the natural sciences, regarding open access.

I don’t think very many people, if pushed, would dispute the general principle of open access—that academic research ought to be freely available for anyone who might conceivably want to read it, especially if it is publicly funded. I think I would probably stop short of saying there is a moral obligation for open access, though I do agree in the idea of supporting open access as a ‘public good.’ There are benefits to the scholar having their work available to even a lay readership in this way. The material that scholars write about in the Humanities (including Religious Studies) in theory is more easily accessible to the average reader than most of microbiology is, for instance. One might expect humanities scholars to be more engaged in open access precisely because of what there is to be gained from it in terms of getting ideas out for public discourse—knowing that their research has relevance. So I’m surprised by this reticence. Is it a lack of confidence that what we do is too specialised to be of interest to anybody?

I suppose I have it relatively easy, though, because no one pays me to do the research I do. I’m not dependent on it for tenure, or anything like that. But almost all my existing research for which I can get permission to do so is in the repository I used to run. Having seen the usage statistics, I know that it gets the kind of traffic that one couldn’t possibly expect if it were only still available in print. You will have a sense of the average use of a typical theological monograph. I’m pretty sure my stuff has at least been found and the PDFs opened by a much larger number of people. This usage has yet to present itself in citations, but that’s partly because my material is quite new. I would expect to see the ‘citation effect’ build-up over time. There are studies suggesting there is this demonstrable ‘citation effect’ for open access.

The other thing I would add is the whole international dimension. The traffic to the material in the repository is coming from all sorts of places around the world, not just western anglophone countries as you might expect. So, if you want your work to be read as widely as possible this is an obvious way to go. If you can get past the ‘professional drivers’ there’s a lot to be gained.

Meggitt: I do not think I was ever a ‘convert’ to open access, but I see in OA the key values that have shaped my understanding of what higher education teaching and research should be. I have always been driven by the desire to facilitate access to the most recent ideas in the field, and to bring into discussions contributions of those who otherwise would be excluded from usual academic debate, to the detriment of us all. (If I hear anyone studying religion use such exclusive terminology as ‘Academy’ or ‘Guild’ I get an unpleasant, visceral sensation.) Although I have spent years working in the long-established ‘continuing education’ model here in the UK (alongside more traditional responsibilities)—teaching in village halls, and at evening classes, and writing distance learning materials that were delivered by mail—I have also always been interested in the possible liberative effect of technology. Initially, I saw its value for those with disabilities. But then, more broadly, in its capacity to allow access to resources and research beyond the privileged few at well-resourced higher education institutions.

Over a decade ago I became involved in early print-on-demand publishing, partly out of a desire to challenge the prevailing model of academic publishing that was, I believe, consigning most scholarship in Religion (and the Humanities more generally) to functional oblivion through its prohibitive costs (what I’d call the ‘monograph crisis’). The traditional model was also slowing intellectual debate and exchange down to snail’s pace. I hoped technological developments would speed it up. About the same time, I also became a user of and advocate for open source software.

To be brutally honest, all this comes from my religious and political views, enhanced by bouts of (limited) penury and job insecurity earlier in my working life—something that comes with fixed-term contracts and the somewhat unpredictable nature of much UK higher education. It has also come about as a result of my experience of both so-called ‘research intensive’ and ‘non-research intensive’ universities here and in the US, and the widely different access to resources students and scholars have at these institutions.

Omega Alpha: How did you learn about Open Library of Humanities? Tell me specifically about your interest in this project, and why you decided to join one of the advisory committees.

Webster: I follow Martin Eve on Twitter, and back in January after the project idea first got going he put out a call for interested folk to get in touch. I tweeted back saying that I’d be interested to be involved some how. He wrote back inviting me to join the Academic Steering & Advocacy Committee.

What is very interesting to me about the project is the way in which peer review may be dealt with. I’ve become more and more convinced that the current system of peer review is an accident—that it is actually the product of a particular historical confluence of a technology (print) and a particular way of rewarding or assessing where academics are in relation to each other. OLH is examining the approach used by the Public Library of Science, which very helpfully separates-out two quite distinct functions of peer review. A basic level of gatekeeping for basic competence in method, and expression, and documentation, and genuine engagement with the field of scholarship as it lies. That’s a useful filter to have. It’s relatively fast and light-weight to do. It can be reasonably objective. You can tell if someone’s footnoting is right, whether there’s engagement with most of the work in the field, and if there’s a coherent argument involved. These are reasonably objective criteria.

We’ve allowed peer review to carry the weight of trying to establish how important something is. It seems to me, that were I a journal editor, I shouldn’t think my judgment, while informed, should necessarily be authoritative in determining whether or not something should be published based on my assessment of how ‘important’ it is. It seems to me that it is the readers who are in a better position of determining whether or not a piece of research is important. I believe ‘the cream will rise to the top.’ There is now no issue of capacity, referring back to the technological ‘accident’ of print above with its inherent limitations of space. We allowed the rationing of scarce space in a print journal to become a proxy for importance. I believe anything that is defensible in scholarly terms should be published, and the genuinely important stuff will be found—it will rise to the top. This second function, which includes various kinds of ‘altmetrics’, is called post-publication peer-review. I don’t see any reason why this approach shouldn’t work in the Humanities.

Meggitt: I came across OLH quite recently, as a result of the reaction to the Finch Report, which recommended that the results of research that has been publicly funded should be freely accessible in the public domain. What bothered me was that amongst many colleagues in my field—at least here in Cambridge—there was a strongly hostile reaction to the idea, despite this being a public university. This provoked me to seek out those who could see the potential of open access in the Humanities—those who were thinking creatively and practically about realising it. And so I found OLH. I am associated with the Advocacy Forum because, although I’m not very well known, I’ve done quite a bit of media work here and there, and public engagement (an element of advocacy) is what I do for a living.

Omega Alpha: What do you think about the “mega-journal” and multi-disciplinary format of OLH compared to traditional subject- or association-focused journals in religion? How might this format compare to subject-focused gold open access journals in religion?

Webster: At the pragmatic level, I don’t see lots and lots of open access journals utilizing the PLOS model springing-up in the various disciplines. The strength is in the platform itself, which can serve as a common technical backend for the various disciplines within the Humanities. The platform gives us economies of scale. Having a multi-disciplinary platform doesn’t preclude the creation of discipline-specific journals on the platform. We may find, over time, that the users of the platform are in a position to curate their own subject subsets of material. Or over time, as you build-up a large amount of content, we may find we can create special issue ‘journals’ retrospectively edited, bringing together ‘the cream’ of most significant and important research. A looser structure at the beginning will give us greater flexibility as things develop and mature. Being able to search across disciplines may enable us to to make research connections we might miss in a more siloed environment.

Meggitt: A multi-disciplinary humanities mega-journal will be good for the study of religion as the scrutiny of religion should be a multi-disciplinary endeavour. At present, a number of traditional subject- and association-focused journals in religion—including some extremely prestigious ones—have become parochial backwaters, slaves to tradition or fashion, and frustratingly cumbersome vehicles for enabling academic debate. The OLH model should, amongst other things, disrupt this. I also like the idea of articles—albeit ones that have met the “ready to publish” criterion—being judged on their significance by the users of research rather that journal editors trying to prejudge this. We are, I am sure, all aware that whilst editors do a good (and often unpaid) job—and I’ve done this myself—they can also be problematic, replicating assumptions within the field and restricting its development, or conversely, using their weight to push ideas and approaches that lack substance but survive longer than they should.

Omega Alpha: What would (or do) you say to fellow scholars in religion and theology who may be reluctant to embrace open access as a viable and legitimate scholarly communication venue?

Webster: I don’t have that many opportunities for ‘evangelism’ in that way (going back to your question relating to my ‘conversion’ to open access). But I would simply come back to all the benefits that we were talking about before. I think the various objections to open access come down to getting the implementation right, rather than issues with the principle of freely available access to this work that we’re all doing. I would major on the opportunity to get material out fast to wide audiences, including lay audiences, and of course, the international dimension. You would hope that a healthy Church, or faith community more broadly—if we’re looking at this from a religious point of view—would be an organization or community that engages with its own history and scholarly thinking about what it is that it believes and practices. You would think there would be a greater than average gain for theological scholars in being able to reach those audiences directly.

Meggitt: I would say that they need to think hard about how inequitable and inefficient the current system of academic publication in religion is and whether they really think its a good idea to perpetuate. Why are we so wedded to financially restrictive ways of disseminating research that limit access to knowledge to the privileged few (by which I mean institutions as well as people)? Do we really value work in our subject so little? The reluctance in some quarters seems to come from ignorance about the financial models involved in academic publishing. But I also think the reluctance comes from a fear of what might happen if a form of research dissemination and evaluation emerges that is not tied to certain assumptions about academic status and credibility but the actual, demonstrable, significance of the output. The OLH model, for example, will help break up the patronage networks that afflict the field, and that is not a bad thing.

Omega Alpha: Do you have any final thoughts?

Webster: For scholars who are used to traditional print-form research outputs, engagement with open access will lead necessarily to greater engagement with the digital environment and the use of digital methods of research production and communication, such as blogs and other social media, enabling us to interact more directly with our audiences. Relatedly, this ought to make us think harder about how we write, how clearly we write, and the audiences for whom our research material is written. It’s a cliché to say that academic writing is often opaque, but there is enough of it that is opaque to make it a truism. I do not think it should be impossible to write clear and accessible prose that also conveys difficult ideas. These two things need not be incompatible. It strikes me that communicating with all the groups that have a stake in what it is we do (that is, not just scholars but also interested lay persons) is a good place to test that hypothesis.

Meggitt: The study of religion and theology in the UK is marginal to academic life generally. To most of those involved in higher education, it is only present as a result of historical accident, the legacy of past inequalities of power or reflecting the increasingly uncritical agendas of special interest groups who are in the business of trying to buy influence (particularly as government funding recedes). Some of it, and I am afraid this is particularly true of theology, is judged to be little better than phrenology. Such a picture is unfair but it is a prevailing one. It is, for example, hard to think of someone who would identify themselves as a scholar of religion today who is taken seriously in any other field. If more of those involved in study of religion supported OLH they might well find their work valued by a far wider constituency than is currently the case and it would, I think, disrupt the prejudicial assumptions so many other academics have about what we do and ultimately, what it is worth.

Omega Alpha: Peter Webster and Justin Meggitt, thank you so much for your time and your participation in this conversation. I was struck by many of the common threads that wove their way through your various responses. I will, of course, continue to watch developments at the Open Library of Humanities with considerable interest. Perhaps you will allow me to check-in again with each of you as those developments touch on the impact of open access on Religious Studies research communication.

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Posted in Economics & Business Models, Interviews (Journals), Interviews (Scholars), Peer Review, Publishing Platforms, Scholarly Journals
6 comments on “Conversation with two religious studies scholars on committee at Open Library of Humanities
  1. […] is very much in line with something Justin Meggitt said in my recent interview with him and Peter Webster regarding their decision as religious studies scholars to become […]

  2. […] year I gave an interview to Omega Alpha, a splendid blog on Open Access for theology and religious studies. I republish it here with the […]

  3. Beyond the scholars of religion embracing OPEN ACCESS, it would be nice to see the faith communities themselves also to extend their traditional openness to the distribution of free tracts to the use of OPEN ACCESS periodicals and downloadable free e-books to spread their message worldwide.

    They should save their scarce money to feeding and sheltering the poorest among us.

  4. […] (I have written about the development of OLH and the work of Dr. Eve on the blog here, here, here, here, and here. [Hover on links for post title and […]

  5. […] of scholarly representation from our disciplines at the organizational level (as I wrote about here*). I think this bodes well, and I look forward to continuing […]

  6. […] History and a digital assets consultant from the UK, to join me as a partner. I first met and interviewed Peter a couple years ago in association with the Open Library of Humanities […]

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