Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Changing World of Jewish Scholarship

Several days ago, Rabbi Dr. Seth (Avi) Kadish began publishing his doctoral dissertation, The Book of Abraham, on this website. This was an unusual and innovative move, which attracted some criticism. Rabbi Dr. Kadish has written the following guest post in response, which delves into the same issues that I grappled with in deciding where to publish my own monographs. I think that his post is an important discussion of the changing world in which we live.

When I published the first chapter of my revised dissertation at this blog a couple of weeks ago, it led to an interesting discussion among some people in the field about whether I really should have done it that way. One person initially suggested that I remove the book from the internet and have it published the traditional way in order to ensure broad readership, because otherwise it is not likely to be broadly read. If not, he suggested adapting the chapters for publication in academic journals, or in high-quality Orthodox ones like Tradition.

The discussion helped me clarify my own thoughts about publishing, which resulted in the following reply to the above suggestion:


I've thought quite a lot about this for many years. To put it in perspective, I'm a person who owns an awful lot of books (so many that it drives my wife insane!), but probably not as many as you do :-). I once subscribed to Tradition and some other journals. For some years before the internet became ubiquitous, when I felt cut off in the boondocks of northern Israel from the Anglo-Jewish world I came from, that even provided a sort of cultural lifeline. I still have a whole collection in piles from the years until about 2000.

And yet, over the past decade, I've begun to find that things have changed dramatically. There is so much to read and to do, and so much of it very high quality, that publishing articles in journals is truly a letdown today. Nowadays, if a high-quality article is published in Tradition that is a disappointment, because had it been published at Text & Texture or at the Seforim Blog it would have had a much larger readership and promoted a far more valuable discussion. I don't search out Tradition any longer except in the rare case that I have serious need of a specific article. Otherwise, whatever appears there will just be added to many hundreds of articles that I won't ever read.

Of all the journals you mention, the only one that has a truly wide readership today is Hakirah, and for one very specific reason, namely that they put their full content online for download after an appropriate interlude (which to my mind is a far better model than that of Tradition). As for books, I don't buy them at all anymore unless I am certain that I'll really want to read them cover to cover (which is a very small minority). Other books that I might otherwise skim or read parts of if they were online, I don't, unless I really need them for something and then seek them out in the university library.

In 1997 I published a book called Kavvana: Directing the Heart in Jewish Prayer. It wasn't meant to be an academic work, but rather an attempt to use scholarship (both yeshivah and academic types) in ways that might be valuable to the public. When it was published, that made it available to a wide range of people at a time when the internet was still not central. And it was very "cool" and impressive to hold the published product in my hands. But in hindsight, its hardcover form is now very disappointing: That book would have benefited immensely from serious, ongoing corrections and improvements, feedback and updates over the past decade. It's also a bulky and expensive book, so having it online would meant a lot more people reading it and using it. But none of that was realistic anymore once it had already been published the traditional way... In 1997, having it published made it possible to reach a broader group of readers. But today its having been published both limits its readership and compromises its quality.

For individual articles, I truly believe that publishing them in academic journals is already an economic anachronism that limits their value rather than enhancing it. Even the issues of peer-review and prestige, which are legitimate and important, can be fully and easily addressed today without depending on that economic model. But I don't think the same is fully true for full-length books. Depending on the author and what kind of book it is, a well-published book the traditional way still has certain kinds of intrinsic value that an online publication does not. But it also limits things other things. So the author needs to decide what is most appropriate, and there may not be one simple answer.

For example, the next chapter of The Book of Abraham is heavily based on primary sources. There isn't much secondary literature on the topic. When I wrote the dissertation, I had to seek out hard-to-find books and even manuscripts, spend time and money copying them in very inconvenient formats (such as double-size paper in huge folders), and put great effort into transferring them into digital formats. But today in 2011, all of these primary sources are suddenly available online for free including download, some of them in much better and more convenient new editions than the ones I had access to just a few years ago. Thank God the scanners of the old editions and the editors of the new editions didn't go for traditional publication! What I hope to do for the next chapter is to post links to the available online primary sources, and even ask for people's help ("crowd sourcing") in linking my references directly to the original texts. (Since the open license turns the book into public property, anyone who contributes in this way knows that the results of his efforts will also belong to the public.) That is something that cannot be done the traditional way.


I asked Professor Menachem Kellner for his take on the above text. He replied tongue-in-cheek: "It would be good if this were read by my colleagues who sit on promotion committees..." and that I should stick to my guns because this is the wave of the future.

One more point: I would still like to make a digital version of my 1997 Kavvana book available for free online under an open license. But I have no idea how to go about doing so, or whether there is a reasonable way to accomplish it. I would be grateful if there is anyone reading this who knows the publishing industry, both the legalities and the financial aspects, and could suggest what it might take to "free" a book of that sort with the blessing of the publisher. Feel free to contact me privately with ideas or suggestions.


  1. As an academic librarian, I can confirm that open publishing is an important emerging trend, even as many journal publishers are imposing dramatic price increases. The academic community is in the process of a major paradigm shift, with more community publishing and self-publishing. Kol ha-kavod in contributing via your own work.

  2. I remember reading Cory Doctorow that he took a one of his hardcover book and rereleased it electronically - you can contact him for info on how here:

  3. The point must be made that a blog post allows integration of multimedia materials which no Journal could provide. Even simply the use of portraits and actual images of pages as opposed to citations which S. at onthemainline exploits so effectively -- how could he transmit even a bit his material with only fraction of its impact through traditional journals? That is all coupled with the constant give and take with the scholarly readership as mentioned in this fascinating post to simply a higher level of scholarship.

  4. For me, the main point is readership. Academic journals reach a very narrow audience. By publishing on my website, I can reach the people who most benefit from the kind of material that I'm producing.

  5. For an important example from another field: the Public Library of Science journals.

  6. I agree with R. Slifkin. It’s all about the readership. I don’t read academic journals so I would never have read the first chapter of your dissertation, which BTW, I was very pleased to read. The dissemination of knowledge by publishing in blogs is huge.

  7. The problem with blogs is this: time. A blog post is up for a day or two, a week at the most. So for 1 48 hour cycle there is a flurry of discussion about that topic. But the next day - boom! - we're on to a new topic, and the flurry of yesterday is immediately forgotten.

    Look what an impact Hayim Solveitchik's article "Rupture and Reconstruction" had. Everyone knows it and everyone still remembers it. The same is true for smaller articles. A journal is out there for several months or more at a time, which is the time you need for something to really sink in and have an impact. Not so a blog. As good as the articles are (and the articles here, and at places like Seforim and onthemainline are of the highest quality) they are simply too ephemeral for lasting impact.

    Self-publishing is a different animal. I published a book myself via lulu, and it was and continues to be a great experience. It's a great way to disseminate Torah. Of course, it also makes the field more crowded.

  8. Look what an impact Hayim Solveitchik's article "Rupture and Reconstruction" had. Everyone knows it and everyone still remembers it.

    Maybe that's because it's freely available online!

  9. I agree, but take my advice: in 100 years from now people won't be able to open up your pdf, but if you print a handful of copies through or another POD service it will be good for perpetuating your work as well.

  10. One important advantage of electronic publishing via the internet is in the ability to link to sources and further explanatory material. Few of us have such a complete library that we can easily look up sources referenced in the print media. In contrast, a hypertext link is available merely through a mouse-click. Of course, reading via a PC is not available shabbat or yom tov, but that deficiency is overcome by printing.

  11. Hayim Solveitchik's article hit the ground and made a splash in the mid 90s, long before the internet was so popular. It would have been well known if the internet had never been invented. That it is available online is irrelvant.

    This is true in the "frum" world too, by the way. When Jewish Observer published an article, whether you agreeed with it or not, it made an impact, just like an article in Tradition. Thus, many people can recall their article bashing R. Norman Lamm's book, for example. By contrast, if the same article would have been published on something like cross-currents [the closest online thing to the JO I could think of]or hirhurim, nobody would remember it for more than a day or two. Can you honestly describe any blog post of Gil Student as "landmark"?

    [For the record, I love blogs and think that COLLECTIVELY they have made a gigantic, permanently game-changing impact. Much, much, much bigger than any book or article could ever have made. And Hirhurim was a major pioneer. But when reduced to the micro level, one must recognize that the ephemeral nature of blog posts is their undoing. Something cannot penetrate the public conscious when it is only current for a few days. Perhaps if a blog focuses single-mindedly on only a SINGLE issue, and all its posts focus only on that one issue, perhaps then the blog can penetrate the conscious. But a single blog post will never equal a printed article.]

  12. RNS: "Maybe that's because it's freely available online!"

    To expand upon that point, it's easy to forget that in 1994 Tradition was not really a hoighty-toity journal (and still isn't). In fact, Rupture and Reconstruction was a rewrite of an earlier article called "The Role of Texts in the Haredi World," by Haym Soloveitchik, in Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, eds., Accounting for Fundamentalisms (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). Some splash "The Role of Texts in the Haredi World" made in the frum community, right? Everyone was buying "Accounting for Fundamentalisms."

    Or, not.

    Tradition actually was a popular medium and not an esoteric academic journal (albeit leaning toward what passes for the intelligencia in our community). Can you think of an article from the Jewish Quarterly Review which made a splash in the frum (or non) world?

    So I don't think it was because it was an article in print that made it have lasting impact - it was because it was in a fairly popular medium, a journal read by many in the Orthodox world, as opposed to the fundamentalism book, an academic title, which would not be read widely.

    And, as RNS said, the article has been online for at least ten years. Rupture and Reconstruction also articulated a point that had not really been spelled out before. It seems that so long as someone articulates such an astute point once again, it is precisely a popular medium which can make it have impact; academic and specialist journals only impacted the academics and specialistst.

    The ephemeral nature of blogs and e-journals is a problem, but I don't think that there's something intrinsically more special about a physical copy of a journal. Good ideas and buzz don't depend upon paper so long as there is a medium for disseminating it. It just happened to be that until the internet there was no more effective medium besides print.

  13. We live in a post historic era, where nothing we do today will leave evidence of it's existence. Future generations will only know of the things that people today decide is worth propagating. (or the people who exist when the format of storage is changed once again) And yet it's hindsight which is 20/20, not foresight.

    Scary thoughts I say.

  14. "in 100 years from now people won't be able to open up your pdf"

    The investment tipping point has been passed for PDF. It may be as antiquated as Fax is today, but PDF will be readable by any reading device in 100 years.

    FWIW while I love books, I am a convert to using my iPad2 (with native Hebrew) as a portable library. And it has also become my preferred reading modality for "academic" articles.

  15. I'm waiting for the Kindle DX to come out in a Wi-Fi version, like the smaller Kindle did.

  16. >The investment tipping point has been passed for PDF. It may be as antiquated as Fax is today, but PDF will be readable by any reading device in 100 years.

    You can't know that for sure. 100 years is a long, long time. I am sure that 20 years ago everyone assumed that floppy disks will guaranteed to be readable in 100 years. Now if you want to extract data from one it's a special headache. Yes, it's possible - and it may be possible in 100 years with great headaches to read a pdf. But anything you have on a floppy disc alone is as good as garbage today.

  17. The point about PDF's [or things similiar] is a good one. I saw a sitcom recetnly where for their 20th anniversary dinner, the husband wanted to play a tape he had made for his wife the night they got engaged. When he produced it at dinner after some emotional introduction, they looked around and realized there was no where in the house they actually play it. pretty funny!

  18. S said... in 100 years from now people won't be able to open up your pdf, but if you print a handful of copies through or another POD service it will be good for perpetuating your work as well....

    if you work with lulu etc. make sure you use acid free paper that won't be brittle in much less than 100 years. or, write something so good that it keeps on getting republished periodically on fresh new paper; or so good that it gets quoted by others at their expense.

  19. The problem with publishing online is lack of editorial input and peer review. An author is generally a bad judge of his own writing.

    This dissertation is an exception because it was reviewed.

  20. Shavua Tov,

    "Anything you have on a floppy disc alone is as good as garbage today."

    True, but the way electronic information is preserved and transferred has changed dramatically since the floppy disk.

    Since no one has any idea what the world will be like in 100 years, knowledge should surely be spread in as many mediums as possible. Not locked up. Assuming there will still be computers in 100 years, the real issue is not the physical medium but rather the file format. It is important to use open standards supported by a wide technical community that have the potential to be fully accessed by any program. In other words, in 2011 MS Office poses a far greater danger to future access to information than floppy disks, because future programs may not easily be able to open MS file formats. PDF is an open format, as is ODF.

  21. "The problem with publishing online is lack of editorial input and peer review."

    Rav Gil, there is plenty of paper publishing with no peer review at all, or worse for which peer review is claimed or assumed by doesn't really exist.

    On the other hand, to provide an online forum to publish peer reviewed work online is simple. See here for example:

    Exactly like a traditional academic journal, but with none of the economics necessary for paper publishing, and therefore allowing free access to all.

    My point is that when the public or well-meaning donors provide funds for peer-reviewed research, there is no longer any reason for the fruits to be fully available to the public.

  22. Whether something is published on paper or electronically is orthogonal to peer-review and editing.

    I read plenty of professionally published books that suffer from lack of proper editing and authors have been self-publishing on paper for many years.

    Similarly, on the PDF topic, the extinction of a medium such as floppy disks is orthogonal to the longevity of a combination of bits that are the basis of the PDF file format and are unspecific to the media on which such files are stored.

    While paper might seem more permanent than PDFs, for example, what about 35mm film vs. JPEG -- another standard that has passed the tipping point.

    See also the library scene in "Logan's Run" :-)

  23. My most important paper -- one that contains one of the few truly original ideas I've ever had -- was published in a statistical journal and nobody read it. My work didn't get noticed until I applied the idea and published it in a neurology journal and I got a mention in the *New York Times* science section -- seven years later. The original paper now has 57 citations.

    I wonder how much other important stuff is sitting in libraries, unread.


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