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Cutting Edges: Open Access and Theological Communication

Cutting Edges

By Dr. Jaeyeon Lucy Chung, Director of the Styberg Library and Assistant Professor of Pastoral Theology

The emergence of the Internet and digital technologies has rapidly transformed the contexts and practices of research and scholarship. Scholars in higher education, including religious and theological studies scholars, are confronting the changing global reality of scholarly communication in which technologies redefine every aspect of their research activity—from discovering and creating to evaluating and disseminating knowledge—whether they are aware of it or not. One major impact that technology has made on the academic research community is the way research and scholarly output are shared.

The ethos of the scholarly community had traditionally been non-commercial, and the sharing of knowledge had historically been enabled by the generosity of publishing organizations—such as learned societies and university presses—with a mission for knowledge generation rather than profit. Since the end of the Second World War, however, scholarly publishing has become increasingly commercialized. Escalating journal prices, in combination with the crisis in library budgets, have caused a significant reduction in access to scholarship. In this context, the recent rise of the open access movement has provided a creative venue to make scholarship rapidly and widely available.

Peter Suber of Harvard University defines open access as free availability and unrestricted use. Open access has basically been made possible by the Internet and a copyright holder consent. In recent years, discussions and innovative developments among scholars, librarians, technologists, and publishers have been active at institutional and national levels. Open access is gathering pace within the humanities disciplines, although they have lagged behind the sciences. Yet, open access—its benefits and threats—has not been discussed seriously within the theological disciplines. There are at least two changes that open access can bring to the growth and impact of theological research and scholarship. 

First, through open access, the public has the capacity to participate in the global accumulation of knowledge. Casey Coleman, former chief information officer of the U.S. General Services Administration, argues, “Technology has a democratizing effect, eliminating barriers and granting access so that new ideas can spread.” Open access to research can help members of the public inform themselves about new findings and relevant scholarly debates. Open access to scholarship stimulates public theological discourses and can lead to the generation of different forms of public theology. Open access extends the value of theological discourses not only within the academy, but also more broadly, throughout church and society by bridging the gap between the academic community of theologians and the ministerial community of practitioners—pastors, chaplains, and lay leaders—within the church and other mission fields.

Another important change that open access can make is to fill the holes in the existing theological scholarship. The 2002 Budapest Open Access Initiative declares, “Removing access barriers to the literature will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make the literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge.” In traditional scholarly communication, information inequities are created in a process called the colonization of information. Institutional repositories and open-access journals are now releasing information that would otherwise have been locked behind subscription paywalls. This facilitates the wide spread of knowledge and brings underrepresented voices and perspectives into dialogue.

In all, open access can offer new possibilities for theological research communication to reclaim its value beyond the academy, more extensively throughout church and society. It may create more diverse theological discourses by bringing directly into current dialogue the voices of researchers, academic and lay, who might struggle to gain access to traditional publishing structures for financial, geographic, or other reasons.