Academic publishing in Biblical Studies: Time for a change

llustration by Daniel Pudles

The traditional broadsheet media have hosted a broadside on academic publishing: Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist trumpets the Guardian. Writer George Monbiot’s argument is summed up in the subtitle and a simple cartoon:

Academic publishers charge vast fees to access research paid for by us. Down with the knowledge monopoly racketeers

The discussion is based on the sciences, where all the numbers are bigger, a single yearly subscription to a prestigious journal can cost thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars. The costs of the research that produced the article are also far higher than those in Biblical Studies (even when you take the salary of the researchers into account).


But is the problem the same?


Jim West clearly thought so. He swiftly (does the man do anything slowly?) posted Yes, We’re Looking at You, Brill cutting highlights from the Guardian piece and agreeing.  Duane basically also agrees, adding value linking to the referenced version on Monbiot’s website and by reporting also (though with a link that merely leads back to the original essay) John Hawks’ response Make journals work better recognising that the current system does not work (at all well) for us users, and suggesting that Amazon would make a more caring and convenient publisher.1


But still, are things the same in Biblical Studies? We have only begun to move to the commercial publishers, most of our journals, even many of the most prestigious ones, are still published by learned societies (even the name sounds old-fashioned in a good solid dependable way), or by institutions. There are however, a growing number “captured” by Brill and their like. They may well make a decent, or even indecent profit, but the learned societies and institutions don’t.


I think the discipline faces two alternative futures, Capitalist and Socialist, with a mixed economy also being possible.


On the Capitalist model gradually all the “best” journals move to commercial publishers, who strive to (between them) carve out a near monopoly and charge growing prices.2 Individual scholars will be priced out of the market and Biblical Studies will become even more closely part of the academic-industrial complex.


On the Socialist model scholars will altruisticaly decide to offer their best articles to the JBLs and CBQs (to an even greater extent than they already do) these will move (as several have been) further towards an “open” model and the bulk of “important” scholarship will remain accessible to all.


On the mixed model we will get both sorts of publisher continuing to control a significant share of the BS journal market. So things will continue much as now, but in more extreme ways, the learned societies will move slower toward openness, and the Brills will raise their prices more slowly… and individual scholars will continue to get uneven access.


Two (at the very least) colossal forces are operating. On the one side “publish or perish” will ensure Brill won’t die easily. On the other the whole tendency of our culture is towards openness and the learned societies have prestige and clout.

  1. Having read some of the small publisher’s comments on Amazon’s cut throat tactics and inflexibility, I have some doubts whether we should trust their renowned altruism so far ;) []
  2. Jim if you think Brill is steep now just wait till they publish JBL, CBQ and a few others as well as their current stable… []

3 comments on “Academic publishing in Biblical Studies: Time for a change

  1. jim

    interesting fleshing out with the various possible futures.

  2. tim

    There are (of course) other possible scenarios, but I think these three are the most likely, and the “Socialist” route is unlikely in anything like a pure form :(