Society of Biblical Literature releases (restrictive) Green Open Access Policy

Founded in 1880, the Society of Biblical Literature is the oldest and largest learned society devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible from a variety of academic disciplines. As an international organization [of over 8,500 members], the Society offers its members opportunities for mutual support, intellectual growth, and professional development (from the website).

The Society of Biblical Literature is publisher of the flagship Journal of Biblical Literature (begun in 1881) and numerous respected monograph series in biblical studies and cognate disciplines. On Friday, January 24, members received an email notifying them that “through the careful review of the Research and Publications Committee, [the SBL] has developed a Green Open Access Policy for authors who contribute to the SBL publishing program.” The full (two page) policy document is available here (PDF).

What is Green Open Access?

The Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI), the first formal declaration of the open access movement (endorsed in 2002), identified two principal strategies for achieving open access—that is, the removal of price and permission barriers—to scholarly journal literature. As a shorthand, these strategies are distinguished by color. Gold Open Access refers to the launching of new online journals, which do not charge a subscription fee (costs of publication are covered in other ways), article content is immediately available upon publication and can be variously reused (depending on license; e.g., Creative Commons), and authors increasingly retain their copyright.

Green Open Access refers to author self-archiving or depositing of pre- or post-publication versions of articles disaggregated from the published journal on a personal website or institutional repository. Access to these articles is facilitated by search engine discovery. Because articles are disaggregated from the published journal a subscription is not required to access, but the author can continue to benefit from the journal’s prestige. The publisher may retain the copyright, and depending on licensing, reuse rights of article content beyond reading may be limited. Additionally, access to articles in the repository may be embargoed (delayed) depending on publisher agreements. Green open access is designed to enhance dissemination of author research without jeopardizing subscription revenue of traditionally published journals.

Does this open access policy signal the SBL’s “openness to change” in scholarly communication?

Among the Core Values expressed on the Society of Biblical Literature’s About page is “Openness to Change.” Applied to the area of scholarly communication, openness to change might signal an embrace of open access as a compelling publishing model.

Green open access is a relatively low-risk transitional strategy because it can promote enhanced access options for authors and their readers without requiring any significant change (at the outset) on the part of the publisher. Looking at the policy in the best possible light, this could be a way for the SBL to “test the waters” from which it could then evaluate the impact a growing awareness of open access might have on its traditional publishing operation. However, when one begins to look more closely at the policy it is hard to escape the impression that the SBL wants to be seen as “talking the talk” while throwing up every imaginable disincentive and barrier against the advantages open access is intended to provide. The policy includes 15 stipulations, only two of which are positive permissions. I will highlight just a few.

First, instead of granting automatic permission, an author desiring to post the postprint manuscript* of their article or essay on a personal website or institutional repository must first formally request permission using the SBL Green Open Access Permission Request form (PDF). This permission-seeking step adds friction, effectively discouraging uptake. (*The policy defines “postprint manuscript” as “an author’s version of the article or essay, which has been accepted for publication, following peer review and after revisions have been made, but not the final publisher’s copy.” The policy prohibits posting of the publisher’s copy.)

Second, instead of granting permission to make research articles availably immediately, the policy imposes an eighteen month embargo (delay) on open access availability of an author’s article or essay to a website or institutional repository. There is a lively debate about the length of embargo required to minimize the adverse economic impact of freely accessible articles on publisher revenues. Publishers tend to be adamant, with Humanities publishers especially arguing that research in their disciplines retains impact (and therefore economic viability) for much longer periods than research in the Sciences. A recent industry-sponsored study argues that journal article “half-lives” tend to be longer than generally believed across the board, with the study showing the median “half-life” of journals in Humanities disciplines to be 48-60 months. Extended article impact is not in dispute. This much could be appreciated intuitively. The point is that the delay is another disincentive intended to serve the publisher not the author. The delay discourages the author from exercising control over their own work. As it happens, evidence is lacking that reducing embargo periods threatens subscriptions. And in the case of monographs, to the contrary, making free to read electronic versions available can actually increase sales of print editions.

Finally, the SBL retains copyright to the published work, even after granting posting permission, and does not authorize any reuse options. At this point I can perceive many of my biblical studies colleagues wondering what the fuss is all about. Generations of scholars have been raised in their academic careers on the notion that surrendering (transferring) copyright to a publisher is an expected and non-controversial step in the publication process. The relationship scholarly authors have historically entered into with publishers is concisely articulated in the introductory paragraph of the SBL policy:

Academic, peer-reviewed publishing uniquely serves higher education by setting standards, vetting content and methodology, and disseminating research. Such publishing also is a means of professional development through credentialing for tenure and promotion. Consequently, academic publishers are an essential component of the higher education ecology. In this ecosystem, the stakeholders—scholars, institutions, publishers, libraries, learned societies, and public and private funding agencies—support each other’s role to create a long-term and sustainable system that promotes collaboration and communication.

The assumption underlying this picture of the finely-tuned ecosystem is that it can’t be monkeyed with too much lest it become unsustainable and come crashing down. I am not unaware or unsympathetic of the challenges facing society publishers. But while the Society of Biblical Literature affirms that it “has responded to the changing practices of modern international scholarship by developing a publishing program that provides books in multiple digital formats and books and journals in library databases for convenient one-stop researching” (from the email sent to members dated January 24, 2014), it continues to exercise the control that was born in the print world. Is this really openness to change? Taking academic publishing online is only one aspect of modern international scholarship. Allowing authors to exercise fuller control over their intellectual products is another.

The SBL is involved in other open access initiatives that suggest it is not unaware of the positive potential of this publishing model (e.g., Ancient Near East Monographs Series, or TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism). Issues of the SBL Forum (no longer current?) archived on the website include several articles from members offering fine, well-reasoned articulations of the benefits of open access (e.g., here and here). In contrast, this Green Open Access Policy feels like it has taken a few steps backward.

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Posted in OA Policies, Open Access, Scholarly Associations, Scholarly Journals

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