Let’s not hide Review of Biblical Literature from the public!

SBL members, of which I am one, have received an email announcing that the Review of Biblical Literature website is to become member-only access forthwith. This means that those who wish to use it must provide their SBL membership number and name to access the site, and that anyone who is not an SBL member will have to join the society to gain access. The email offered no real reasons for the decision, and I think it is mistaken. I have written today to the RBL editorial board (their names are here) and the SBL council (their names are here) about this, and reproduce my email below. I urge fellow SBL members to write along similar lines in the next few days, so that our colleagues on these bodies get a sense of the groundswell of opinion on this issue among our members. You can get the email addresses of all these people from the SBL member directory of course; if you’d like the list of email addresses without hunting through the member directory, please email me at: steve.walton (at) stmarys (dot) ac (dot) uk.

Carrie Schroeder has also written and posted her letter on her blog here; she wrote before me, and thus I have cited what she says and not repeated it. Her blog post is excellent and I encourage you to read and draw upon it in writing.

Here’s my letter:

Dear esteemed colleagues on the RBL editorial board and SBL council,

I am writing in response to the email I received from Bob Buller announcing that the Review of Biblical Literature website will soon become unavailable to those who are not members of SBL. I am a long-time member of SBL, a seminar chair (The Book of Acts), a steering committee member (Biblical Lexicography), and a reviewer for RBL. I am disappointed and distressed by this decision and thus I’m writing to you about it.

I’m disappointed because the decision was announced without any consultation with our membership. A decision like this, which limits the availability of an important resource which we as a society are providing, needs a very significant justification. This is especially so at a time when we are seeking as a learned society to make our knowledge available to the wider public through initiatives such as the excellent Bible Odyssey website, to which I myself have contributed. I’m thus sorry that the decision has simply been announced without any real explanation of the reasons behind it. I’m open to learning that there are overwhelming reasons why we should limit access to RBL to our membership—but the email from Bob does not provide me with them.

My distress stems from the wide use that I know is made of RBL by those who both are not members of SBL and cannot afford to be members of SBL. I am thinking of numerous colleagues teaching and learning in developing countries who have very limited incomes, and for whom membership of a society whose meetings they will never be able to afford to attend is beyond their means. I am thinking of numerous leaders of faith communities who value the reviews on RBL as a guide to their own reading, but who would never attend an SBL meeting, and whose income is very limited. I could multiply examples, but I hope you see my point: RBL seems to me to be an example of a resource that I would like my society to share with such people, and I want my membership fee and the income of my society to be used to that end. As Carrie Schroeder notes in her cogent and well-argued blog post, the trend among scholarly societies is to share resources openly (she cites MLA as an example), rather than keep them to ourselves. See http://earlymonasticism.org/2016/01/05/dear-sbl-a-paywall-will-bring-neither-prestige-nor-progress/

[As an aside, in terms of opening up access, I was one of the seminar chairs at the seminar chairs’ meeting at the end of the 2015 annual meeting who strongly supported the proposal that we introduce the possibility of those registering for the annual meeting to make a donation specifically to provide greater funding for developing world scholars to attend the annual meeting.]

More than that, hiding RBL behind what is in effect a paywall is a mistaken strategy, for open access to material leads to more use of material, and in particular leads to more cross-disciplinary use, something we as a society are seeking to encourage in having joint seminar sessions both within SBL and with colleagues in AAR. Melissa Terras, Professor of Digital Humanities at University College London, and others have demonstrated that open access facilities such use—see Carrie Schroeder’s blog for the links.

I am also doubtful of the claim that restricting access to RBL to members will lead to greater income; it seems to me unlikely that someone who cannot access RBL because they are not an SBL member will want to join SBL purely to access RBL, good resource though it is. As you hardly need me to tell you, there has been some criticism recently of the quality of some reviews in RBL (although I think this is a minority, but that still has the danger of ‘one bad apple’ spoiling the barrel in terms of RBL’s reputation)—and those who have heard that through blogs and the like are hardly likely to pay money to a resource that is perceived by some as of limited value.

I support very much the other concerns in Carrie Schroeder’s post, which I know she has sent to you as an email, so I forebear to repeat them. I urge you to review this decision with a view to reversing it, unless there are compelling reasons to go down the route of limiting access to SBL members. If there are such reasons, please share them with us, your members; if there are not, please keep RBL as open access.

Yours sincerely,

Steve Walton


5 Responses

  1. Thank you very much for being a champion of openness on this issue. I understand the need to have certain aspects of academia to be “by subscription only.” However, in this case as in most the best approach is for open access. Your point about doubting subscription will produce more income it a good one.

  2. Dear Mr Buller,

    I have been a long term user of RBL reviews, first as an undergraduate student, then as a church minister, now as someone preparing to undertake a PhD. I have just seen on the site that it is inaccessible unless one is a member of SBL. This is a great loss to many people who are not yet at a stage of being members of SBL, but could well be one day. Please reverse this decision. Not all can be SBL members, but surely all can benefit from the scholarship of SBL members?

    Yours sincerely,

    John P

  3. Dear Mr. Walton,
    I warmly thank you for having written such a letter.
    You are a voice for the many “outside” who have no more access to these valuable reviews.
    Whereas the trend is increasing toward an “open access” policy in many fields, RBL seems strangely to run against the tide.
    I hope that RBL will revert to an open access soon.
    Thank you, thank you,
    Francesco Giannangeli

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