RBL and hiding its reviews behind its paywall — not good

Readers who are not SBL members should note that I was asked in short order to remove the link to the PDF of Frank Polak’s review of my book in my previous post. I have done so, and have edited the post by quoting from the review. Since I am interacting with and criticizing the review, but only a small part of it (one paragraph out of twelve on one page out of five, and the one paragraph I quote is out of four critical paragraphs), and this work interacts with my own work, my use certainly falls under the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law.

But to the larger point: why are RBL reviews now hidden behind a paywall?!

When this happened (last year?), I briefly noted to myself that it was a bad move, but I did not stop to consider the ramifications at length. Of course, now I’ve been encouraged to think through it, and I’m not pleased at all. In my opinion, reviews of SBL members’ books or reviews written by SBL members should be made freely available to the public. Certainly some part of the ever-rising dues of SBL should support this as an outreach dimension of the society.

These reviews are NOT published by a journal from a publisher without a membership — SBL’s membership is significant and our dues are not trivial. Moreover, are the reviewers not volunteer? Is the editorial board not also volunteer? Are the books not provided free of charge to RBL for the purposes of the reviews? Quite different than monographs and even peer-reviewed articles, reviews are nothing if not a service to the discipline and its public image and as such should be as widely available as possible.

Take a look at SBL’s mission statement: https://www.sbl-site.org/aboutus/mission.aspx. It seems to me that hiding RBL reviews behind a paywall runs counter to the 3rd and 4th goals.

This move, and the clearly aggressive monitoring of the subscription-only material, does nothing to serve the advancement of biblical studies in the general public. Quite the opposite, it takes the useful summaries (of well-written reviews, like Frank Polak’s, that is) as well as the sometimes very interesting exchange of ideas and hides them from view, so that all those academics and non-academics who don’t pay the significant SBL membership dues cannot watch what we in this discipline do within the context of our largest professional organization.

Who else finds this deplorable?

(Wow, my sabbatical is starting off with a bang, eh?)

–typos fixed–

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9 Responses to “RBL and hiding its reviews behind its paywall — not good”

  1. Reviewing a review of my The Relative Clause in Biblical Hebrew | Ancient Hebrew Grammar Says:

    […] 30 due to a copyright challenge of my posting the PDF of the RBL review for non-SBL members; see here for more […]

  2. David Reimer Says:

    Who else finds this deplorable?

    I certainly find it daft.

    It limits the reach of the Society’s work, at a point where it could be simply and significantly extended.

    It comes at a time when there is a deliberate shift towards more open sharing of scholarly resources, and runs counter to that (quite desirable) movement.

    It restricts the availability of quality resources and critical engagement to classroom use.

    It inhibits the conversation of reviewer and reviewed.

    It’s … daft.

  3. Geoff Smith Says:

    I haven’t been to SBL in years, but how much is SBL, as an institution (not the individual scholars involved) interested in actually advancing Biblical studies as a field of knowledge and for the public good at this point?

    It seems to me to be so specialized and insular that it’s hard for much of it to have any particular good for many in any case.

    • robertholmstedt Says:

      That’s a fair question. All I can say is they say that these are important aspects of the society’s mission. Hard to see it by this kind of action, though, isn’t it?

      • Geoff Smith Says:

        That’s exactly right.

        I only teach college courses occasionally, and rarely Biblical studies, but every year periodically get excited to go to SBL…then think about it for a few minutes and just don’t pay my dues. I suppose if I had ever gone the publishing route I’d be more excited about it. And maybe I will still, but it’s gotten less appealing. And not only so, but policies of the sort described indicate a bit of mission drift or mission blindness.

  4. bobmacdonald Says:

    I agree with you. This is a short-sighted policy and a thorough nuisance.

  5. Martin Shields Says:

    I agree entirely. What’s more, the search function doesn’t reliably return all results, and the site is desperately in need of a makeover (both matters I’ve raised with them a considerable time ago).


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