Back to Origen, the codex and the Hexapla

A recent book by Anthony Grafton and Megan Williams provides an interesting, if somewhat unepected, backdrop to the observations that follow. It recounts the extraordinary efforts undertaken by Origen in the first half of the 3rd century CE to put some order in the biblical tradition. It also ties this exegetical and critical effort to the innovative use of a contemporary technology: the codex. Instead of using the noble scroll, Origen decided to take advantage of the page structure of the humble codex. Dividing each of two facing pages into three columns each, he began placing six texts side by side to compare them word for word. This monumental undertaking ultimately required many codices and is known as the Hexapla. Nothing but late fragments of the Hexapla survive.

Origen wanted to fix the biblical text, but, by making his method transparently clear, he also wanted to convince potential critics. Technology and linguistic skills were thus tightly knit to produce a foundational text. Ultimately, it would form the basis for the Christian canon.

Origen also introduced a form of critical reading that was rather uncommon in the 3rd century. Until then, writing was little more than a way to externalize memory. Reading was really a way to help reciting. The reader read aloud and, so to speak, was inhabited by the text projected by his own voice. Critical reading, by contrast, seeks to scrutinize the text and engineers a psychological space, a sense of distance, where the reader has an opportunity to exert his critical faculties.

Whether a reader of the Hexapla read aloud or not is of secondary importance here, even though there are intriguing links between critical and silent reading, but more crucial is the fact that reading the Hexapla is an activity aiming at questioning the text by reading laterally between several versions. The Hexapla layout encourages a skeptical and critical attitude. Reading becomes an analytical tool that questions texts as much as it deciphers them.

There is a deep irony in Origen’s heroic effort. His aim was to provide a stable scriptural foundation for the Christian Church, but he failed to see that the critical method he used could never come to closure. To this day, scripture specialists continue to debate and question the authenticity of various elements of the canon. Critical attitudes foster dynamic dialogues, not static solidity. Much of the Western intellectual tradition constantly grapples with this profound dilemma. It has given rise to a phrase that is really a kind of oxymoron: a “critical edition”. A critical edition, although it presents itself as definitive, can never be more than a step in a never-ending journey. A canon established according to the rules and procedures explored by Origen had to meet the same fate.

The point of recounting this somewhat obscure phase of Christian history is to show that making use of certain communication technologies can transform our relationship to documents, as well as their functional, and ultimately cultural, meaning. It also shows that our intellectual tradition is pulled into two opposite directions: a quest for stable knowledge through a never-ending critical scrutiny.

Changes in Scholarly Communication after the Second World War

After decades of conquests, some silent, some less so, the digital context is coming close to forming the new cultural environment within which we must learn to live, create and think. Now that we are fully alerted to the fact that mixing technology and knowledge can bring about unexpected as well as unintended consequences, we should certainly try to spot some of these. In other words, what are some of the changes bound to affect academic life most in the next couple of decades?

As a way to explore this complex issue, let us examine rapidly the question of scholarly and scientific communication as it is being transformed by the advent of the networked computer. Before the computer made its presence felt, scientific publishing had already undergone a number of significant transformations. For example, a bibliographic crisis emerged after the Second World War. It led to various solutions, the most significant of which was Eugene Garfield’s invention of the Science Citation Index (SCI). However, the design of SCI rested on a series of decisions concerning inclusion and exclusion rules that contributed to defining science as a two-tier system: “core journals” , once identified, were separated from the rest.

The success of SCI led to the recognition by some astute businessmen (e.g. Robert Maxwell) that “core journals” also formed an inelastic market. In an inelastic market, demand is little affected by price. The reason was that many librarians were attempting to buy at least the particular set of titles defined as “core” by SCI. This perception triggered a spiral of rapidly increasing subscription prices. Ultimately, the rising costs of journals came to be known as the “serial pricing crisis”. It continues to this day and explains many of the difficulties our libraries have been meeting in trying to provide decent access to the needed literature. If access to the needed literature is often less than satisfactory, the fault is not the librarians’; neither is it the university budget, however constrained it has been. The fault largely lies with big commercial publishers and some scientific associations that insist on making enormous profits by exploiting the market of scientific journals once it had become inelastic.

Changes in communication technologies shift our relations to documents and transform the meaning we ascribe to their existence.

One consequence of this situation has been the decline in library purchases of monographs. This is due to shifting part of the acquisition budget to journals to keep up with the demand of scientists. As social sciences and humanities rely heavily on monographs, they have suffered most from this new economic context of scholarly publishing . Then university presses began to adapt by shifting their publishing strategies. When universities also stopped subsidizing their presses, the situation grew worse. University presses increasingly hesitated to publish works that, although excellent, were judged to be too esoteric. Marketability increasingly trumped excellence even as university presses began to behave more and more like commercial presses.

The first victims of this trend were the young professors who desperately needed a first monograph to ensure their promotion and their tenure. Nearly 10 years ago, Robert Darnton analyzed the growing difficulties of monographs and those of young scholars when they try to transform a dissertation into a book. In 2002, Stephen Greenblatt, then president of the Modern Language Association, issued a public letter that reiterates many of the same points. Both Darnton and Greenblatt reflected on the consequences of the serials pricing crisis.

The Digitization of Scholarly Communication and its Consequences

The developments just described were happening without the benefit of computers or networks. However, when their presence began to be felt, it changed the way in which access to scholarly literature was transacted. Taking a leaf out of the software industry, commercial publishers decided that digital materials could not be sold, as books and journals traditionally were, but simply licensed for use.

Licensing provided commercial entities with new levels of control over their materials, while placing the libraries in a much reduced position: librarians could buy licences, but they also had to make sure that access was restricted to legitimate members of their communities. Building collections in the absence of ownership lost much of its meaning. Preservation responsibilities seemed to fall into the lap of publishers, despite their ambivalence. In short, the librarian appeared to be in a position not so different from that of a gas-station attendant placing the nozzle of the knowledge pump into some digital reservoir but only after having checked the credentials of the person making the request.

This very first phase in the transition to the digital world reminds us that in any communication system, it is important to look at who can produce documents, who can preserve them, who can organize them in order to facilitate retrieval, who has access, and what can be done with the accessed document. A number of rules long organized around copyright laws were suddenly superseded by licensing rules that are contractual in nature. Also, 10 years ago, the art of contracting licences was quite esoteric among librarians. Meanwhile, we academics were going on with our usual business, largely impervious to the sea change that was taking place under our noses. As authors, academics act largely like peacocks and want to be featured in the “best” journals, whatever the cost to the library; as readers, academics want access to everything and if it is not available, they view it either as the fault of the librarians or as the responsibility of the university administrators. Again, as readers, academics simply do not see publishers and pricing issues. The same is almost as true of academics as authors: how many know the publisher of a coveted journal title?

Librarians reacted remarkably fast to the new digital context. Within a few years, they had formed consortia and taught themselves to negotiate better terms. Publishers reacted in their turn and began playing the bundling game. You want x hundred titles from our set of journals. We will license them for y hundred thousand dollars. However, if you take the whole set, we shall increase the total bill by only z per cent (of the order of 10-15 per cent at most). The result of this tactic often called the “Big Deal” has been that library budgets have increasingly been been used to pay large commercial publishers (particularly Reed-Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, and Taylor and Francis). Concurrently, it led to a decrease in subscriptions to independent association journals and smaller presses that faced increasingly difficult financial conditions. This pressure led to further concentration in the publishing world. The end result is that we now face an oligopolistic publishing system. Very few firms dominate academic publishing, and they extract profits that can reach and even exceed 40 per cent before taxes. Let us remember that we are talking about research articles made possible by large amounts of public money supporting research and universities. They are given away by their authors when they sign their rights away. These articles are peer reviewed for free by other researchers. The result is then sold to libraries, often supported by public money.

The trend toward concentration in the publishing industry has also meant that, increasingly, the initiative of creating new journals rests with publishers. With few exceptions, they are the only players with the financial resources to invest in a new publication. As a result, they also acquire a voice in the selection of suitable editors. Being an editor is a powerful position in any academic field and being selected for this role amounts to a kind of promotion that stands beyond a full professorship. These gatekeepers of knowledge are selected through a complex interactive process between commercial interests and intellectual developments. By their choices and decisions, they are then in a position to affect the careers of many of their peers.

Also, publishers can closely monitor how researchers make use of their collections of articles through their servers. As a result, they are in a position to see which universities are using what part of the literature. The potential for conducting intelligence on research efforts , although rarely discussed or even mentioned, is very real, and privacy clauses protect only individuals, not institutions. Very little is known about this question, but in an age that characterizes itself as a “knowledge economy”, with competition taking on global proportions, and with concerns about a “war on terrorism”, imagining that such possibilities exist does not require great intellectual effort.

Reacting to some of the Consequences of Digitization through Open Access

Digitization and global networks have placed much more control and power in the hands of publishers. However, it has also spurred reaction. The most important to date has been the “open access movement”. Brought about by scientists’ and scholars’ attempts to develop new electronic journals of their own, the largely dispersed efforts in favour of open access finally coalesced into a loose association of scientists and a number of institutions. In February 2002, under the aegis of the Open Society Institute and its Information Programme, a manifesto was made public. Known as the Budapest Open Access Initiative, it recalled the tradition and necessity of open dialog in scholarship, and it proposed to achieve the open access objective through a combination of self-archiving efforts by authors themselves and through the creation of open access journals.

First ignored by publishers, the movement began to gain some traction when the first open access journals emerged. Both the commercial firm Biomed Central and the non-profit organization Public Library of Science (PloS) began to field open access journals with a financial strategy that essentially shifted the cost of publishing upstream, on the side of the authors or their proxy (funding agency, covering institution, etc). Shortly afterwards, libraries developed institutional repositories where authors could deposit their articles and see them properly curated. Interoperability concerns were also addressed with the Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAI-PMH) protocol.

The open access movement became even more credible when a large number of journals and publishers offered a confusing, yet real, opportunity for self-archiving. From one publisher to the next, the rules differ, but, as they are listed in a web site, self-archiving is facilitated. At the same time, some open access journals, particularly PloS journals, quickly acquired a very enviable level of prestige. The early canard that open access journals were little more than vanity presses had been clearly refuted.

For open access, the most essential step emerged when funding agencies began to realize that it was to everybody’s benefit, including their own, to have open access to the literature they funded. The Wellcome trust in the UK, was a leader in this regard, but some American and European institutions followed quickly. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States became a battle ground between publishers and open access supporters. Ultimately, open access won despite the deep pockets and lobbying efforts of the publishers. In December 2007, the large omnibus law signed by President Bush contained a provision stating that all research papers financed by NIH had to be deposited in NIH’s repository at most 12 months after publication. Other funding institutes began to follow suit, notably Canadian Institutes of Health Research in Canada.

More recently still a new trend has begun to emerge. Starting with the Faculty of Arts and Science at Harvard, university senates or councils in various universities are grappling with the open access issue. In the case of Harvard, it was unanimously decided that faculty had to deposit their articles in a suitable university repository. It now looks as if a growing number of faculties and universities are moving in the direction of mandating the deposit of research articles in open access repositories. Modalities change from one institution to the next, in particular time delays, but the trend is clear. What the ultmate consequences of these transformations will be are unknown. Also, our present situation is highly conflictual. The battles waged in the governmental corridors in Washington, Brussels and, more locally, Ottawa, contribute to this obscurity. Finally, we must not discount the fact that digital document are also very recent. “Digital Incunabula” — the production of scholarly works in digital form—is a phrase that Tufts University Professor of Classics and scholar of digital technology Gregory Crane has floated with some success, and indeed it fits the present situation.

Open Access and the New Possibilities Offered by Digitization

As open access takes on strength and visibility, new possibilities appear. The capacity to link documents together constantly grows in importance. Linking research articles with their underlying data is also being increasingly discussed. Researchers are not yet used to sharing data with others. But, with computers, new forms of exploitation of vast corpora of documents and data are becoming possible. Even a perfunctory use of Google makes this point clear. In the end, one may even wonder whether the venerable article and the mode of publishing it has generated for the last three and a half centuries will make sense much longer in the new environment.

In the end, exactly as Origen has taught us, the changes in communication technologies shift our relations to documents and transform the meaning we ascribe to their existence. If this is true, then it is time to go back to fundamentals. Fundamentally, science is open knowledge and its energy flashes out of the shock of ideas. The end result of this fundamentally agonistic activity is a critical edition of sorts, always striving to reach perfection, yet never ended or ending. Seen from on high, science is little more than an endless concatenation of texts that correct or refute each other, topic by topic, argument by argument, fact by fact. One might say, however scandalous this might sound at present, that science is a kind of Wikipedia, but a Wikipedia where attribution is closely monitored and where participation depends on credentials. If this characterization of science succeeds in capturing some of its essence, it becomes legitimate to ask whether the researcher will still be an “author” of “articles” 30 years from now. The author form is a child of print, and authorship is different from attribution. Whether authorship will still be needed in a few decades is a question well worth asking.

The answer is far from certain. But, in one way or another, the conversation between academic peacocks will go on, endlessly striving to reach the impossible Holy Grail through endless critical efforts. This Holy Grail is sometimes called the big TOE (Theory of Everything). It works somewhat like a canon as imagined by Origen. In fact, the new Hexapla is the complex hypertext of scientific knowledge made possible by the web. But a choice remains before us: will scientists and scholars finally recover the control over the tools needed for their great conversation, or will it increasingly be taken over by commercial interests? This is what open access is all about. AM

Jean-Claude Guédon is professor in the Département de littérature comparée at the Université de Montréal. An earlier version of this article was presented to the 2007 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.