RBL being put behind paywall 4

A close reading of Ruth

SBL members will have just gotten this email from Bob Buller of RBL. These sorts of decisions have to be made and I want to make it clear up front: I don’t think I am opposed to being behind a paywall.1 I mean, I might be opposed, in the sense of open access that I will get to in a moment, but I understand the need for a business model that is sustainable. And this is where it gets murky for me. Here are two key points of confusion that I have:

  • I am uncomfortable with the statement that this is being done “In order to solidify RBL’s status as a valuable resource produced primarily by SBL members for SBL members.” Wait, is RBL primarily only “for SBL members?” Isn’t providing “reviews of books in biblical studies and related fields. Appearing in this digital form and in print, RBL is comprehensive, international, and timely” just the sort of service that our organization ought to be making to the world? After all, we are not talking about making original research (articles or books) available for free, these are reviews of such work. Wouldn’t that help to disseminate it to members of the public at large (and perhaps even the media, those darlings we are always talking about trying to court so that real scholarship can get out there)?
  • What is the business model? Presumably RBL has been running off of membership fees (SBL or subscription). I do not recall there being any survey or discussion among SBL members about a financial crisis with regards to RBL, but that could just be that I missed it. Can anyone enlighten me? If the model is working (and publicly accessible) why change it now?

Why change it now? Because it sounds like they want to do something different with RBL. It is new and exciting! But what is it?

[W]e are currently imagining and beginning to develop an entirely new resource that will stand on the shoulders of RBL and usher in a new era of online discovery, information exchange, and scholarly research. All this will require significant human and financial resources, but the resulting product will certainly be worth the investment.

Aha! Here is presumably the real reason for the change. But again, why? If you cannot make the changes on the current financial model, why not change it? I think it is unlikely that resources are being leached away by all those tens of people reading and linking to RBL for free. I suspect, with no evidence for this whatsoever, that this is RBL/SBL trying to come up with a response to Academia.edu. (This is my Academia.edu page.) Has there been broader discussion of this change in RBL’s directions? I suppose it is within the board’s rights to make such decisions unilaterally but given that there is a sizable community with SBL that is engaged and cares about “online discovery, information exchange, and scholarly research” I would have thought a broader discussion would have occurred.

But maybe it did and I missed it. I was busy finishing my book. Not to brag or anything.

The entire letter is posted below.

BTW, since I am being nitpicky today, who designed the new SBL logo? It is rather…retro, to be kind. No, its just ugly:

Logo-text-wizard-header

 

Colleague,

I am writing to advise you of a significant change that will soon take place with RBL. In order to solidify RBL’s status as a valuable resource produced primarily by SBL members for SBL members, we will be moving RBL behind the SBL member login. Thus, beginning 6 January users who wish to read published reviews will need to log in with an SBL member ID in order to do so. Other parts of the RBL site will remain open to the public, and users not logged in will be able to see who has reviewed a given book; however, in order to read that review a user will be required to enter his or her SBL ID.

Because RBL is so highly valued by members and nonmembers alike, we have set up a period of transition during which nonmembers who currently subscribe to theRBL newsletter will be assigned a personal SBL ID that will grant them full member access to the SBL and RBL websites through 31 March 2016. Our hope is that, after this period, these individuals will join the SBL at least at the public membership level, if not full membership. In addition to significant invesment from SBL, the increased financial support thus provided will help fund a number of highly desired upgrades to and expansions of the RBL architecture.

For the past 15+ years RBL has performed admirably in providing access to more scholarly reviews in the field of biblical studies than any other outlet—at present, over 8,000 reviews. But ongoing technological advancements have left RBL somewhat out of date, and we have also learned during those 15 years how we can serve our users even better. In fact, we are currently imagining and beginning to develop an entirely new resource that will stand on the shoulders of RBL and usher in a new era of online discovery, information exchange, and scholarly research. All this will require significant human and financial resources, but the resulting product will certainly be worth the investment.

Thank you for your patience during this time of change and transition. If you have any questions or comments about the change, I ask that you address them directly to me or to other members of the RBL leadership team, whose contact information appears on the RBL About Us page here.

All best wishes,

Bob Buller
Review of Biblical Literature

________________________________________________________________________

Director, SBL Press
Society of Biblical Literature
5805 Lakeview Court
Loveland, CO 80538
01-970-669-9900

http://www.sbl-site.org

Visit the public face of SBL: Bible Odyssey at http://www.bibleodyssey.org

 

 
  1. That is effectively what is happening, right? You either have to pay to be a member of SBL or pay to receive the RBL newsletter, right? Or do you not have to pay for the RBL newsletter? I don’t know. Looking at their membership site, it does appear that one would sign up for a “public” account to receive “in the many web benefits of SBL membership.” That is $55. []

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4 thoughts on “RBL being put behind paywall

  • Benj

    I am a member of SBL, and I don’t recall this being debated, either publicly or within the Society. I’ve reviewed books for RBL from time to time. I consider it a service to my colleagues and to the public: I consult RBL, so I feel that I should contribute at least one review a year.

    I agree that this change will place another barrier between biblical scholarship and the general public (including the media). I don’t have insider info on page views or anything like that, but I assume that RBL would be one of the more valuable resources that the Society can provide for the public.

    What is the problem that this change is supposed to solve? If RBL is a financial drain on the Society, then I doubt that putting it behind a paid subscription wall will increase revenue significantly. I’d imagine most folks who read it are already members, and a reporter is not going to pay $55 to get behind the pay wall to chase down one review. If revenue is the problem, one alternative would be to charge the publishers a fee for every book that they send to RBL for review (maybe this is the case already, but perhaps the fee could be increased). This way, publishers wouldn’t send copies of every book to RBL–only the ones that they feel would benefit the most from a review. If this doesn’t raise enough revenue, then SBL members should be given the opportunity to give input into a process of realigning the Society’s budget priorities. This is too important a public service to cut off, in my opinion.

    Many folks have voiced concerns about the quality of RBL reviews. It’s simple economics: too many books to review, with too few qualified reviewers who are willing. There are potential downsides to this, but perhaps reviewers could be paid a small stipend. (That wouldn’t help the financial drain, if that is in fact a concern.) Or, SBL members could receive a discount on their membership dues for every year they review a book for RBL–something like that. Or, RBL could just…not review every book that comes out or that the publishers send them. But the “drain” on the system that causes poor reviews is not folks who could be paying and aren’t; it’s lack of incentive for members to provide quality reviews.

    Whether the concerns are financial or quality control, I can’t see how making RBL “Members Only” will solve the problem.