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.