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The Society of Biblical Literature is the oldest and largest international scholarly membership organization in the field of biblical studies. Founded in 1880, the Society has grown to over 8,500 international members including teachers, students, religious leaders and individuals from all walks of life who share a mutual interest in the critical investigation of the Bible.
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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive A Prototype for Further Publication Development of the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures and Other Open-Access Journals


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.[1]

The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures (JHS) is one of the academic, blind peer-reviewed, open access journals that provide such access electronically and whose contents are freely and permanently available to all.[2] The number of articles and reviews it publishes yearly has grown steadily since 1996 — the year in which it is established — and so has its readership. The number of requests made to the server that come from a unique "site" — one that can be referenced by a name or ultimately an IP address; that is, the number of "sites" — now stands between nine and ten thousand per month. This does not mean the number of unique individual users (real people) who visited, which is impossible to determine using just logs and the HTTP protocol (however, nine to ten thousand might be about as close as we will get).[3] The number of searches in the journal was 599 during May 2007, and above 560 in July 2007.[4]

The point I want to make is that the journal has passed the phase in which most of the effort was focused on creating and maintaining a "critical mass" of new contributions each year and a stable readership. Likewise, much progress has been made in the last years on matters associated with the very materiality of publication, that is, servers, Hebrew fonts, proper archival, and the like. In other words, the journal has become well-established. This evolution from "pioneer" or "experimental" to "well-established" took place within a larger context. Scholars are now much more comfortable with computers and electronic publication than in the early or even mid-nineties. In 1990, a journal like ours would have encountered insurmountable resistance. In 1996, when the journal was begun, many scholars expressed serious concerns about how publication in open-access, electronic journals would be assessed for tenure and promotion. Electronic publication is not an issue anymore. The concerns mentioned above have dissipated. The number of e-journals is anticipated to grow substantially, in part because traditional publishers are getting more and more involved in this type of publication, but also due to an expected expansion in electronic, open-access journals.[5]

Although there are still financial and human resources problems associated with the open-access model, and continuing to publish high quality scholarly work is always a challenge, it seems that the time has arrived to think about future developments in electronic open-access scholarly publication and that journals like the JHS, which have successfully dealt with the early challenges, should take the lead in this endeavor.

Before turning to the kind of prototype of developments that we wish to implement in the e-publication of the journal, a few background remarks are in order. Worldwide, free, and unrestricted distribution of peer-reviewed articles and reviews using Internet technology was "revolutionary" a decade ago — and perhaps still is in many ways. However, the actual format in which the material was disseminated was, and still is, not "revolutionary" at all. We, as almost anyone else in the field of open-access journals, publish articles and reviews as PDF and HTML files.[6] These files are easy to distribute, print, and read, and readers can access them with freely available software. Despite all the expectations reflected in statements from the early 1990s — such as "the presentation of textual information is undergoing rapid transition . . . millennia of experience writing linear documents is gradually being discarded in favor of non-linear hypertext writing"[7] — the presentation of material still follow the same patterns. To be sure, the typical pdf file provides readers with some minimal searching capabilities — far beyond the usual indexes in most printed books — but there is not much more in terms of new capabilities. Our technological advancements have for the most part been restricted to the area of distribution.

Our presentation of textual information follows the Gutenbergian model of a printed page, which in fact goes back for millennia to early writings. Historically, the printing press was "revolutionary" because of the way it transformed text dissemination; e-publication also has the potential to be "revolutionary" because of its impact on text dissemination. But is there more than it can do?

Although the print press could not have changed the way in which textual information was presented in a very meaningful way, computers do have that potential. But change for the sake of change is meaningless, and there is no need to create more people "lost in hyperspace." Not everything that can be done in e-publication of texts is of necessity helpful. We have great tools, but one of the challenges we face is what we should do with them.

Any discussion of this issue must begin with a clear acknowledgment that the traditional presentation of textual information as a serial sequence of pages is very effective for reading texts in a linear manner. We all read and should keep reading texts this way. At the same time, we must keep in mind that this model was the only one for millennia because (a) it was successful and (b) the existing technology did not provide a real alternative. Readers in antiquity read books in sequential, linear manner, but certainly not only in that way, as biblical scholars today are keenly aware.

The first challenge today for e-publication in our field is not to create new formats for the sake of "newness," but to think of textual presentations, or systems of textual presentations, that are more reader-friendly for the purposes, and within the mode, in which we read. In other words, we must think about how we read scholarly texts. We do read texts in linear ways, and therefore any new presentation should keep the text at least as friendly as it is now for that type of reading. But we also read texts in non-linear ways. When we read an article, we often stop to check a verse and then continue our reading; we then stop to read a footnote and at times go and grab another article or monograph to see what X or Z said about the issue. Some of us sit at a desk providing a full range of "auxiliary material" around us. The reason we need all this material around is that the traditional form of textual presentation has a limited range of resources it can provide for this type of hypertextuality. To be sure, we may add footnotes or indices to our articles and books, but both sets are limited by necessity. In addition, the traditional form of textual presentation is not user-friendly for the type of creative thinking to which we often enter, in which an issue, a comment, or even a phrase connects in our minds with other texts and raises completely new issues. This intertextual reading, at times evocative and at time integrative, is at the core of much of our creative activity. After all, academics tend to integrate knowledge, to read a text in a way informed by other texts, to ponder what happens if another consideration is brought into the mix, and the like.

The question we face therefore is what kind of presentations of textual data will be user friendly for all these modes of reading, while at the same time keep the publication open access? When we addressed this question at JHS, our response was that on the one hand we should keep the usual pdf format as the main way of publishing articles, but on the other we should develop and provide in our site marked xml files of the same texts.

The purpose of these xml files is to allow readers to create their own hypertexts, if they so wish, within the limitations of open access databases. The expansion of open access databases in recent years has made this possible in ways that were not possible when we started in 1996. Moreover, since the number of databases and the range of issues covered by them is expected to expand significantly in the coming years, our xml files should allow easy inclusion of future resources.

What kind of hypertexts do we imagine our readers would like, beyond the system of footnotes? We thought of the co-texts that people tend to have around their desks. For instance, we imagined that readers would like to be able, if they wish, to click on a reference to a verse (or verses) and view it in its original language, or gather relevant discursive, syntactical, or morphological information, or view several ancient and a variety of contemporary translations, or bibliographical databases mentioning works that deal with this verse. Some readers would like to access references to the verse in rabbinic or patristic literature. Other readers would like to access references to the verses in our journal and other open-access journals. At times, readers may wish to know more about the work of a particular author cited in the document they are reading. It would be helpful for them if a simple click would lead to databases containing references to an author's works. We also thought that improving search capabilities would make documents more helpful. The priority, we thought, was to develop good Hebrew word searching functions, which are not really possible in pdf (at least in the present). In all these areas, we hope that JHS will contribute to the creation of a path that other e-publications (be they journals or books) may follow and further develop. It is in this spirit that I offer this paper.

Of course, good intentions are always nice, but never enough. At the end of the day, we — that is, JHS — must produce files with the capabilities mentioned above. We invite FORUM readers to click on the following links and see our early beta versions of the relevant material:

http://ra.tapor.ualberta.ca/cocoon/JHS/search.html
http://ra.tapor.ualberta.ca/cocoon/JHS/a060.html
http://ra.tapor.ualberta.ca/cocoon/JHS/a059.html
http://ra.tapor.ualberta.ca/cocoon/JHS/a010.html.

I would like to conclude by stressing this: to implement all of these while keeping the journal open access, which is a non-negotiable issue for us, is a tough act. It involves technical, financial, and general resources challenges. It also requires a great amount of goodwill from a lot of people, including of course the many owners of open-access databases who have supported our project — and many others, too.[8] I cannot conclude this paper, however, without mentioning the great contribution of JHS computing expert, Terry Butler, who recently passed away.[9]

Ehud Ben Zvi, University of Alberta

Notes
[1] An oral version of this paper was delivered 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. The oral tenor of the original version has been largely maintained.

[2] Its contents are also published in print, as monographs published by Gorgias Press, and will soon be included in the LOGOS software. None of this impinges in any way or form on the free, unrestricted and permanent access to the full contents of the journal electronically at http://www.JHSonline.org. This is a good example of cooperation between a fully and unrestricted open access journal and traditional publishers on the one hand and e-publishers on the other. It is worth stressing also that the full contents of the journal are available on a permanent basis also at the Electronic Collection site maintained by Library and Archives Canada (an organization that combines the collections and services of the former National Library of Canada and the former National Archives of Canada).

[3] The number of simple "hits" is not a good measure of readership, but there too the Journal has been doing well, with a yearly average of slightly below 2,500 hits per day. All these numbers were provided by Eric Zhang, Arts Resource Centre, University of Alberta. The Arts Resource Centre runs the server on which the journal is "located."

[4] The "slow" month of June accounted for more than 450 searches.

[5] It is anticipated that some funding institutions, particularly those based on tax-payers funds, will begin to encourage or even condition funding for journals on open-access availability. Libraries, many of which depend directly or indirectly also on tax-payers funds, also have a vested interest in the development of an open-access sector to complement regular publication.

[6] Earlier, on we published in two additional formats, as files to be opened directly with MS-Word and Word-Perfect. We first ceased publishing in the latter and eventually in the former as well.

[7] The citation is from C. Boyle and Antonio O. Encarnacion, "Metadoc: An Adaptive Hypertext Reading System," User Modeling and User-Adapted Interaction 4 (1994) 1-19.

[8] It is my pleasure to thank the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, which provided us money to begin to tread on this trail, and all the support from the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta. In the future, the collaboration between JHS and LOGOS, which is just beginning will also contribute much to our ability to go this way.

[9] The paper orally delivered in Vienna read at this point: "He [Terry Butler] was supposed to be my partner today in this presentation, but fell seriously sick several months ago. I have continued to work with one of his students. The fact that I have something to show, beyond me talking, is a testimony not only to his vast computing humanities insight, but to his ability to train students. May he be healthy and as imaginative and energetic as usual for our next meeting." This was not to be. Terry passed away only a few weeks after my talk, on August 20, at age 54. May his memory be a blessing.

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Citation: Ehud Ben Zvi, " A Prototype for Further Publication Development of the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures and Other Open-Access Journals," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2007]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=722

 
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