Interview on Open Access for theology and religious studies

[Last 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 kind permission of Gary F. Daught, with thanks. It is slightly edited for flow and style, but it still clearly shows its origins as an interview. The substance remains the same.]

Omega Alpha: Thank you, Peter, for this opportunity to talk with you. 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 the School of Advanced Study. I became drawn into open access over time through 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 it, 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 with 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) is (in theory) more easily accessible to the average reader than, for instance, most of microbiology. 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) 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, Gary, 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.

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 somehow. 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. First is a basic level of gatekeeping to check for basic competence in method, and expression, and documentation, and for 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.

We’ve also 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.

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 of OLH is in the platform itself, which can serve as a common technical backend for the various disciplines and sub-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 within it. 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 we 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.

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 now 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 — 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 with 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.

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 just so 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.

Omega Alpha: Peter, thank you so much for your time and your participation in this conversation. Perhaps you will allow me to check-in again with you as those developments touch on the impact of open access on Religious Studies research communication.

In defence of pseudonymity

Pseudonymity has had a bad press recently. A moral consensus seems to have formed that there is a problem not merely with behaving badly online while not under your real name, but with adopting a pseudonym at all. Pseudonymous authors “hide” behind their noms de plume; they lack the courage of their convictions; they are in some sense cowardly.

I don’t want here to get into the powerful imperatives of self-preservation that make pseudonymous writing a necessity when resisting a tyrannical government. I’d like to explore the particular reason why I myself blog elsewhere, and tweet, under a pseudonym (which I am clearly not about to disclose here).

I write for a living, more or less. I publish academic works, and blog here and elsewhere on the areas in which I am either directly professionally concerned, or on those subjects in which I am expert enough to make some observations. As more and more historians start “doing history in public”, this hybrid model of communicating what we as scholars do will become more and more important. And, as more and more of the web is routinely archived by the Internet Archive or the UK Web Archive, all of that communication which might previously have happened in person or in conferences, will now persist in the digital record. And since all these various utterances are linked together in various ways, such as Google Authorship, it will become easier for readers to trawl back through them all, and to put them together.

Given this, it is increasingly difficult to keep open a space in which to express an opinion just as a citizen without it becoming part of a professional profile. There are many issues in contemporary life on which I have views, but without any particular expertise. I’ve written elsewhere on the reasons I just write, and some of those thoughts are clarified in my own mind by the discipline of putting them online. And so my “other blog” gives the space to work out those off-piste ideas without them becoming mixed with my more “professional” writing.

And (incidentally) this is why I am not a “public intellectual”. The concept, at least in the UK, seems to involve the bringing to bear of a general intelligence, honed in one field, to matters of more general interest. Stefan Collini and others have already pointed out the tensions in the role. I have no view on whether or not the specific professional reputation of (say) David Starkey in relation to Tudor England is compromised by taking part in The Moral Maze. My point is simply that maintaining a separation between professional and pseudonymous selves in public means the question does not arise.

On being haunted by Owen Chadwick

Most contemporary historians, I suppose, have had the experience of meeting the dramatis personae about whom one is writing. In a recent conference paper, I discussed a 1965 encounter between Michael Ramsey and a leading Anglican evangelical, now retired to Oxford, and in the audience. With perfect courtesy he disagreed with my analysis, but did unwittingly point me in the direction of an additional source, now worked into the paper, which is much the better for it.

What, however, do you do when the author of the main secondary work in your field was also a participant in the events which he describes? Even worse: what if that author is the (now retired) Dixie professor of ecclesiastical history, and then regius professor of modern history at Cambridge, and president of the British Academy? Such is my vexed relationship with Owen Chadwick, holder of all these offices, and author of the standard Life of Michael Ramsey.

One would need to read the book carefully to notice (such is his self-effacement), but Chadwick was involved at the very centre of the events he describes. Chadwick was a member of the Church of England’s commission on synodical government, and chairman of the influential commission on church and state which reported in 1970. While Ramsey was archbishop of York, the two men were part of the same delegation to Moscow to meet leaders of the Russian Orthodox church in 1956.

Even less well known was their contact over scholarly matters. Ramsey read and appreciated Chadwick’s The Victorian Church. He also sought Chadwick’s counsel on the draft pamphlet Image Old and New, Ramsey’s reply to John Robinson’s Honest to God, which Chadwick gave in in a state of ‘doubt and difficulty’.

It would help, of course, if one could say that Chadwick’s book was a bad one; or even that it was now unsatisfactory by dint of age and the changing state of the field. Of course (as I am bound to say) there is more to say on Ramsey. Chadwick doesn’t deal directly with the debates about secularisation and the Sixties that have been prompted by Callum Brown in recent years. He also tends to underplay the force and significance of conservative opinion, and particularly conservative evangelicalism. More prosaically, having been completed before the Ramsey Papers at Lambeth Palace Library were catalogued, the book has no references to the papers which a scholar could follow.

Despite all this, it isn’t a bad book or even an inadequate one. More than one person suggested to me that I would have my work cut out to supersede it, since it is a fine piece of work; and that is my problem. If, as A. N. Whitehead put it, all western philosophy has been but footnotes to Plato, then at times writing about Ramsey has felt like so many minor adjustments and refinements to Chadwick’s overall picture. Many times have I seized with glee upon a chink of new light, only for a check to reveal that Chadwick had it covered, even if obscured by an inadequate thematic index.

Even the style is a problem. There is a mandarin quality to Chadwick’s writing; of the wise doings of a great and sensible man among other sensible men of a similar age and class. Matters are just so; courses of action are obvious once the right minds had been brought to bear on an issue. This style tends to flatten out some of the turmoil of the period, the very present sense of crisis in British religion. This much can be refined, finessed, disrupted. But the prose style is seductive too, somehow making matters so plain that it disarms criticism. In fact, I found myself having to examine my own prose for traces of Chadwick; more than once have I unwittingly reproduced one of his sentences, so aptly had it summed up the matter in hand.

Perhaps all this is merely a symptom that I have lived with the book for too long; nothing that a change of focus or a stiff dose of more bracing reading wouldn’t sort out. It helped that I eventually realised that I didn’t need to replace Chadwick’s book at all; better simply to receive it gratefully as a foundation on which to build. But I would be intrigued to hear of other historians’ relations with similar monumental works in their fields, if they were prepared to share their thoughts.

Is the quality of humanities book production falling ?

[I review a lot of books, and have noticed a falling-off in the quality of the published text in the kind of humanities books I review. In this post I ask: is this a general trend, or have I been unlucky ? If it is a trend, what are the causes?]

Part of the debate about Open Access centres on the value that traditional academic publishers contribute to the process, for which they should rightly be rewarded. The argument has played out something like this. By and large, scholars produce academic writing without significant financial reward; they edit journals, similarly without payment, as well as performing peer review. This much we know, and hasn’t changed all that much.

Ah yes (is the response): but the publisher’s unique input is in the stages after this – in transforming an accepted manuscript into a pristine typeset version of record, and in the marketing and distribution of that article to the readers who want to read it. This is the value added to the process.

I don’t need to elaborate here on the impact of online delivery and Open Access on the last of these. The tools that social media provide to journal editors and authors to market their own work have levelled that part of the field greatly as well. No; here I’m interested in the value that publishers add to the process in copy-editing, and then in the production and correction of typeset proofs, and then versions of record.

I do a good deal of book reviewing. I like it; it forces me to read the book properly. But in the last few months and years, I have needed to draw attention to several books in which the standard of production has dropped to an alarmingly low level.

Most academics could write better, and if someone were to argue that the standard of written English in academic work has been dropping, I wouldn’t argue with them. And so, there is probably more that authors and their peer reviewers could do to present better copy. Errors of fact must remain an academic responsibility. However, I am simply seeing far too many more basic errors making it into print.

Which errors ? Some are tpyos or erors of speling; others are in spacing and formatting, such as missing italicisation, or   extra or missingwhitespace. I’ve also seen phantom footnote markers that lead nowhere (1); other pages show signs of an amendment half-made, leaving some of the debris behind, resulting in nonsense debris behind.

I won’t name names of publishers here, although readers would be able to find plenty of evidence elsewhere in this blog. I would simply like to start a debate on two issues.

Firstly: is my experience matched by that of anyone else ? It may not be, and I should be delighted to be told that all is well, and that I have simply been unlucky.

If my experience is matched by that of others, why might this be ? There are several possibilities:

(i) are the manuscripts that authors submit getting messier, leading to a greater number of errors slipping through the net (a simple matter of probability) ?
(ii) are some copy editors being less careful ? During copy-editing I recently made some major changes to a paragraph of mine, tracking changes in Word. I can be pretty sure that the editor did nothing more than simply accept all my changes with a single click, since the errors in the proofs were the kind that you miss when you track changes in this way, in the mass of red. Had they been accepted one by one, they could not have got through.
(iii) are copy editors doing less work (a slightly different point) ? That is, is the apparent crisis in the business model for monographs and edited volumes in the humanities such that publishers simply can’t afford to do as much work as they might and still turn a profit ?
(iv) Or, finally, is it that time-poor academics are failing to check proofs properly ?

I have no answers to this; but I’m sure we need to be asking the question.

The arts in evangelical history

I’m very pleased to be able to say that I have agreed to contribute a chapter to a forthcoming Ashgate Research Companion to the History of Evangelicalism. This is to be one of the first volumes in a new series, Ashgate Studies in Evangelicalism, edited by Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones.

Some of my publications in the past have touched on evangelicals and the arts in twentieth century Britain, most directly in relation to worship music, but also in relation to the theatre and the visual arts. This project will require a much wider perspective, taking in the whole of evangelical history from the early eighteenth century onwards, and across the world.

I’d thus be very pleased to hear of particular issues that readers think I should be addressing, and secondary literature I should be reading, within these broad themes:

(i) evangelical use (or disuse) of the various arts in public, private and domestic worship;

(ii) the use of the arts as means of evangelism;

(iii) evangelical theologies of the created work of art itself, and its right performance, realisation and reception;

(iv) evangelical involvement in the creation, performance and consumption of the arts in situations not associated with worship or evangelism, such as the secular theatre;

(v) evangelical challenge to works of art and/or their performance, on grounds of either their content (subject matter), or their style, or on grounds of their likely effects on performer and/or viewer or listener.

(vi) more generally, all of these matters are intimately connected with evangelical theologies of culture, and the relationship of the church, the individual Christian and “the world”, however defined.

I’m particularly keen to hear of particular matters of note before c.1850, or from outside Europe and North America at any point between about 1730 and the almost-present.

Reading old news in the web archive, distantly

One of the defining moments of Rowan Williams’ time as archbishop of Canterbury was the public reaction to his lecture in February 2008 on the interaction between English family law and Islamic shari’a law. As well as focussing attention on real and persistent issues of the interaction of secular law and religious practice, it also prompted much comment on the place of the Church of England in public life, the role of the archbishop, and on Williams personally. I tried to record a sample of the discussion in an earlier post.

Of course, a great deal of the media firestorm happened online. I want to take the episode as an example of the types of analysis that the systematic archiving of the web now makes possible: a new kind of what Franco Moretti called ‘distant reading.’

The British Library holds a copy of the holdings of the Internet Archive for the .uk top level domain for the period 1996-2010. One of the secondary datasets that the Library has made available is the Host Link Graph. With this data, it’s possible to begin examining how different parts of the UK web space referred to others. Which hosts linked to others, and from when until when ?

This graph shows the total number of unique hosts that were found linking at least once to archbishopofcanterbury.org in each year.

Canterbury unique linking hosts - bar

My hypothesis was that there should be more unique hosts linking to the archbishop’s site after February 2008, which is by and large borne out. The figure for 2008 is nearly 50% higher than for the previous year, and nearly 25% higher than the previous peak in 2004. This would suggest that a significant number of hosts that had not previously linked to the Canterbury site did so in 2008, quite possibly in reaction to the shari’a story.

What I had not expected to see was the total number fall back to trend in 2009 and 2010. I had rather expected to see the absolute numbers rise in 2008 and then stay at similar levels – that is, to see the links persist. The drop suggests that either large numbers of sites were revised to remove links that were thought to be ‘ephemeral’ (that is to say, actively removed), or that there is a more general effect in that certain types of “news” content are not (in web archivist terms) self-archiving.

The next step is for me to look in detail at those domains that linked only once to Canterbury, in 2008, and to examine these questions in a more qualitative way. Here then is distant reading leading to close reading.

Method
You can download the data, which is in the public domain, from here . Be sure to have plenty of hard disk space, as when unzipped the data is more than 120GB. The data looks like this:

2010 | churchtimes.co.uk | archbishopofcanterbury.org | 20

which tells you that in 2010, the Internet Archive captured 20 individual resources (usually, although not always, “pages”) in the Church Times site that linked to the archbishop’s site. My poor old laptop spent a whole night running through the dataset and extracting all the instances of the string “archbishopofcanterbury.org”.

Then I looked at the total numbers of unique hosts linking to the archbishop’s site in each year. In order to do so, I:

(i) stripped out those results which were outward links from a small number of captures of the archbishop’s site itself.

(ii) allowed for the occasions when the IA had captured the same host twice in a single year (which does not occur consistently from year to year.)

(iii) did not aggregate results for hosts that were part of a larger domain. This would have been easy to spot in the case of the larger media organisations such as the Guardian, which has multiple hosts (society,guardian.co.uk, education.guardian.co.uk, etc.) However, it is much harder to do reliably for all such cases without examining individual archived instances, which was not possible at this scale.

Assumptions

(i) that a host “abc.co.uk” held the same content as “www.abc.co.uk”.

(ii) that the Internet Archive were no more likely to miss hosts that linked to the Canterbury site than ones that did not – ie., if there are gaps in what the Internet Archive found, there is no reason to suppose that they systematically skew this particular analysis.

A Clergyman’s Daughter

One of the fullest fictional depictions of rural English parish life in the 1930s is in the first chapter of George Orwell’s A Clergyman’s Daughter. It was first published by Gollancz in 1935, and although Orwell disliked it and resisted reprinting, it appeared as a Penguin paperback in 1964. I’m not concerned here with Dorothy’s odyssey through the social landscape of the England of the Thirties, but with her father, the Reverend Charles Hare, rector of the church of St Athelstan, Knype Hill, in Suffolk.

Orwell’s Rector was born in 1871, and now we find him a widower with a sour temper. He leaves almost every parish duty to Dorothy, after having expected the same of his late wife, with whom he had been ‘diabolically unhappy.’ Orwell gives us an old man out of time, ‘tethered by his poverty to the age of Lenin and the Daily Mail’, who should have been much happier in an earlier time as ‘a happy pluralist writing poems or collecting fossils’ while curates carried the load of the parish.

The tomb of a clergyman's daughter. By Alan Murray-Rust, reproduced CC-BY-SA 2.0

The tomb of a clergyman’s daughter. By Alan Murray-Rust, reproduced CC-BY-SA 2.0

Born a grandson of a baronet, and having joined the clergy as the natural occupation of a younger son, he served a curacy in the East End of London, ‘a nasty, hooliganish place’. In Knype Hill he is socially out of sympathy with the ‘“lower classes”’ who, even if they no longer doff their cap, simply loathe him, while he merely disregards them. His alienation is equally complete from the local Best People, having both quarrelled with his social equals and despised the petty gentry without making any secret of the fact.

His refusal to accept the change in his social position extends to money. Dorothy lives in fear of the town’s tradesmen in the matter of a host of unpaid bills. As far as the Rector is concerned, for a butcher to want his bill paid is the fault of Democracy, a most undesirable development. The Rector’s response to his poverty is to make yet another doomed investment and deplete his assets further. Any thought of making economies is unconscionable.

So in twenty five years the Rector has reduced his congregation from six hundred to two hundred. But the decline is not purely due to social change and the Rector’s own peculiar pastoral gift. Here Orwell shows us a punctilious High Anglicanism which can no longer compete for attention against the available alternatives in the religious marketplace. Most of the Best People now drive their motor cars to one of two churches in a nearby town.

There’s the spiky Anglo-Catholic St Wedekind’s, in perpetual dispute with the Bishop and infected with what the Rector regards as ‘“Roman fever”’. There is also the Modernism of St Edmund’s, where to be successful a priest must be ‘daringly modern and broad-minded and preach comforting sermons proving that there is no Hell and all good religions are the same.’ After a verbal dispute over an open grave, he had not been on speaking terms with the local Roman Catholic priest. As for the evangelicals, Dorothy has been instructed to have nothing to do with ‘“vulgar Dissenters”’ and the ‘braying bald-headed elder who conducted the orgies at Ebenezer Chapel.’

Despite all this, is the Rector in any way a sympathetic character ? The early character sketch shows him merely negligent, if not quite wilfully unpleasant. But Orwell shows us a greater moral failure in his reaction to Dorothy’s appeals for aid in chapter 4, in which the Rector allows his own fear of the social consequences of her Fall to cause him to act in a clearly culpable way. Without this, his laziness and snobbery would have remained merely tragi-comic; as it is, they are positively baleful.

D.J. Taylor in his Life of Orwell has shown the degree to which Orwell retained an interest in the Church of England, if not exactly any adherence to its doctrine. This is borne out by the range and depth of the religious material to be found in his remarkable pamphlet collection, recently listed by the British Library. The portrait of the Rector in A Clergyman’s Daughter is as vivid as the picture of the Kentish hop fields and the streets of London that are to be found in the rest of the book.