The Ivory Tower in Cyberspace: Is Internet Publishing Publishing?

Not so long ago anything but a peer-reviewed article or book printed by an established academic press was all that found its way onto a curriculum vitae. But times are changing exponentially fast.
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Young businesswoman holding and touching digital tablet.
Young businesswoman holding and touching digital tablet.

Internet publishing is being taken more seriously these days in the study of religion. Online journals and forums such as The Immanent Frame, Fre.quenc.ies, and the recently launched Reverberations, from the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) are now considered to be creditable sources of scholarly research, conduits of collaboration and tools for dialogue.

It's a nascent endeavor to be sure as these online forums are fairly new. Not so long ago anything but a peer-reviewed article or book printed by an established academic press was all that found its way onto a curriculum vitae. It initially took a bit of courage and brave experimentation to forgo a traditionally published and bound volume in favor of an all-digital platform for one's work. Still, peer-reviewed, bound and traditionally published work is at the forefront. But times are changing exponentially fast.

I thought it would be an interesting and useful exercise to interview some other authors, and editors of both SSRC traditional and online publications. Working with SSRC as both a recipient of a New Directions in the Study of Prayer grant through Columbia University's Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life (full disclosure) and as a professor and creator of both academic content and mass-market religious and secular media, I have an inside opportunity to speak to some SSRC "early adopters." I want to admit upfront that I am biased; I have been publishing in multiple platforms for more than 20 years and am committed to unlocking the ivory tower of exclusive and expensive knowledge, sharing it with mass audiences through as many platforms as possible: books, film, television, radio -- and websites, blogs, e-newsletters and social media. I write this essay from my dedication and interests.

I recently spoke with some early participants in SSRC's digital forums, Robert Bellah, Philip Gorski, Kathryn Lofton, Kathryn Reklis and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, asking about their experiences with digital publication and how it fits with their academic careers.

Sociologist Robert N. Bellah, with more than 40 years as a professor at Harvard and the University of California at Berkeley, credited for writing one of the first substantive posts for Immanent Frame on Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, and many responses and other blogs since, emphatically explained to me that he "doesn't read blogs," unless others have sent him specific links. He has also posted several articles on The Immanent Frame, each commissioned, yet says, "I'm afraid I often didn't look at The Immanent Frame even when my own book was being discussed, though I would when someone told me something special to look at."

When I asked Bellah about hybrids of publications, such as books and digital editions and forums he responded, "I am 86 years old and have no connection with Facebook, texting, Twitter, etc... I have no iPad or iPhone, so I don't read on the computer except for short things. Anything very long I print out or buy in book form. I find I am often the only one reading an actual book on an airplane and all the others have pads or laptops. That shows you how out of it I am."

Yet Bellah is rather active on the web -- or rather, others have furthered his online presence: "I have a rather extensive website that has been created by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, with my cooperation, but all the work was done by them. When I was in China in 2011 a Chinese professor was discussing an article of mine and I asked him how he found it. He said it was on my website. People tell me they have seen things of mine there, or posted on Immanent Frame, or videos of me being interviewed, and so forth. So it does seem that the web in a variety of ways has disseminated my ideas and led people to get in touch with me. The biggest impact I have had in the last couple of years comes from the publication of 'Religion in Human Evolution' which has generated many invitations to speak, give interviews, attend conferences, etc. There are three translations of the book in the works. Here I have to thank Harvard University Press for doing an excellent job in making my book known and to the myriad of reviewers who have written about it. I think the publication of what I think is the most important book of my life has changed my 'professional' identity a bit."

Most of Professor Bellah's books are available on Kindle, Nook and iBook digital platforms in addition to print, both hardcover and paperback. His articles, blogs and responses may still be found on The Immanent Frame.

Philip S. Gorski, Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies and Co-Director of the Center for Comparative Research at Yale University has posted three articles so far on the The Immanent Frame, in addition to collaborative editing on The Post Secular in Question, a series linked with SSRC's New York University Press publishing project. He tells me that he recommends Immanent Frame to students and colleagues, and that all of his articles have led to further publications -- of traditional books. He finds that The Immanent Frame has helped create an interface between academic scholarship and public discourse.

"The websites are doing well, from within the Ivory Tower, they've facilitated cross-disciplinary conversations that might have not happened. People are busy; to have these snappy concise pieces, one can quickly get a sense of what's going on. The Web is being taken more seriously. There is still a little eye-rolling but lately I've noticed there are an increasing number of folks who are taking religion, metaphysics, and spirituality more seriously that they used to. The Immanent Frame and now Reverberations are creating a space for that to happen."

When I asked Gorski for specifics, he cites that mass-market blogger Andrew Sullivan quoted Joseph Blankholm's interview of him, the "huge" debate on Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos book, and that The Immanent Frame was "way ahead of the curve" on political philosophy and analytic philosophy "that really did not exist 10 years ago."

Kathryn Lofton is an Editor-At-Large for The Immanent Frame, co-curator for (a joint project with The Immanent Frame and Killing the Buddha), and is Sarai Ribicoff Associate Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies at Yale University studying American history of religion since the 19th century. She spoke about after her "rebellious teen years," she saw that religion could affect change and becoming "obsessed with categories of change; how it looks, how we see it."

I asked her to share her experiences with the World Wide Web: " is an experiment. I initially thought I was crazy working on it. It took a lot of time, and it initially felt unfocused and out of control. Not the normal thing one does in the academy. It stands alone as a strange artifact, of people, funding, energy, and I have learned a lot from doing it. There's a hunger out there for the kind of conversation about being intellectual about Spirit. I'd never thought about that." She says that she had become quite "emotional" and "passionate" about the new website, from content to design, ending up putting a lot of time and energy into it, which she finds ultimately useful. Now, since has been online awhile, Lofton sees it as kind of a "quiet loveliness, that doesn't begin to express the extremes put into it."

Lofton went on to articulate, "I wish I could tell all my academic colleagues how hungry people are for the poetic. It's something that satiates the same part of the intellect that got us into academic life, yet we forget very quickly about it. We're ordered into the Chicago Manual of Style. When people see, they say they experience poetry, beauty; an affective response to something we do all the time. I was surprised about how many people wanted that, and how many people wrote for us."

Instead of the frequently familiar and overly easy criticism of online media, Lofton turned her attention to how the academy often misses out on what people need and want, that can be expressed in online journals. She says that even scholars, students and professors want "engagement and excitement." She often found herself surprised; that people who spend their lives managing ideas could suddenly "be exposed online and talk about engagement and emotions."

It was important for her to note that The Immanent Frame and "have very high standards academically." She considers them to have "powerful authority." There are articles "from well respected people," and they are well refereed and vetted. "The SSRC Forums are causing positive change in a very short time. It used to be that no one in academic (spheres) would put anything on the web on a CV, now they will." Yet, Lofton wonders out loud if the standards are so high they "argue themselves out of mass acceptance."

Kathryn Reklis, recently a research fellow at the New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York and now Assistant Professor of Modern Protestant Theology at Fordham University, is particularly interested in the theological framework for use of media in churches. Her research is focused on how pastors and churches are using social media, and how embodiment and media intersect.

Our conversation took on a somewhat apophatic framework when it comes to digital theology. Many of her findings seem to contain a lingering nostalgic tone for when online and digital media did not exist. She realizes that the potential for a return to non-mediated worship is not possible, but it appears that some clergy and members of religious organizations see and use media as a "cross-reality or extra-reality," and not central to worship experiences.

There's a recurrent feeling of the necessity of in-person, bodily presence in worship -- an "incarnational aspect" that keeps coming up in her case studies and interviews. "A line in the sand gets drawn when the question is asked, 'Can church be entirely online?' A hesitancy or resounding NO (arises), and people even get upset when they hear that question. Real presence is required." She theorizes that these are "knee-jerk reactions," and it's possible that tension or fears of distraction are being expressed.

"It's early, and we cannot (yet) say exactly how to use media or not," Reklis summarizes. "We make our tools and the tools make us. It is changing us, but not being an alarmist, we are always being changed, digital or not."

On the question of mediated academia, Reklis tells me that she uses blogs and dialogues for serious academic topics. She and her colleagues have used online media "not as an appendage to our scholarly lives, but as a way to discern and distill. We shape each other's ideas." She's motivated by these collaborative conversations, extending them to organize live panels and conferences, both online and in-person.

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan has contributed several articles to The Immanent Frame and served as a guest editor for an expansive series of essays on the politics of religious freedom. She is recently appointed Chair of Department of Religious Studies and is Affiliated Professor of Law, Maurer School of Law at Indiana University, Bloomington, Ind.

Like Gorski, Fallers Sullivan has developed books from her online articles. She finds that editing and writing online allow her a certain kind of freedom to expand her projects into other realms and audiences. She has also had opportunities to experiment with inviting other voices that ordinarily might not be a part of traditional academic pursuits. "The Immanent Frame has grown from being a book commentary focus to an expansive consideration of a range of religion studies today. They have gathered a group of interesting voices, making it varied. Sometimes lengthy, some short commentary or conversation ... You hear people referring to The Immanent Frame. Now there can be different kinds of what is considered a 'publication,' web-based publication is becoming more important and better recognized. People are getting better at finding ways to separate quality from schlock. At I.U., promotion and tenure standards are beginning to recognize web-based publication, and other forms of media, other than a monograph. It's not going to be instant, but it's changing." She says the phenomena varies with respective fields.

Like Lofton, Fallers Sullivan finds aesthetic elements to be important. She says she regularly reads other online journals, but specifically likes The Immanent Frame's simple design and appreciates its consistent quality. She looks at other blogs "that are less appealing."

In summary, the days of one output media's domination over another in academic publication -- online or print, digital or analogue -- are over. We are living in a rapidly changing era where content is primary and how it is delivered is increasingly irrelevant. Like peer-reviewed academic journals and printed texts, there are some online forums that are also scrutinized by committees of editors and scholars, such as those published by SSRC, in both online and traditional text editions.

One of those professors I interviewed quipped off-record that the online articles are "more like long comments and never contain footnotes." I'll protect their anonymity. A friend of mine, who has published extensively but wasn't interviewed for this article, mentioned experiencing some major obstacles with website designs, and that the process was frustrating and overly expensive, adding "you wouldn't find that in an academic book. Publishers don't care about how books look, really." Websites are ever changing as well; readers expect regular updates and posts, which can be very demanding of time and funds.

For a lot of us, having the ability to carry a few hundred e-books on an iPad or tablet is very appealing. Printed books are heavy and require shelf space. Digital editions are almost instantly downloadable and require little memory storage. The ability to quickly survey responses and enter into dialogues -- a kind of interplay of facts and ideas -- is increasingly important, as is the ability to conduct initial research, accessing library databases worldwide, as well as digital versions of journals and research papers. Online journals are generally not downloadable, and one must have access to the Internet to be able to read them. These limitations are quickly going away, however.

On the other hand, like the Internet and digital forums and journals, books will never go away. There is a permanence and elegance about a printed and bound repository of knowledge. Yet, books are also transient. They may last a hundred years, but paper does decay and yellow; ink can fade, and books can be subject to physical damage. But so can digital ones and zeros, becoming erased by accident, or corrupted if not properly cared for. Long-term archiving of websites and e-books is more and more important, as technologies are changing rapidly, and no true long-term storage media really exists -- yet. Blogs come and go as hierarchies of importance and chronologies push them into oblivion. And there is definitely the importance of intellectual rigor and academic standards as a basis for trust. There are still very few online sources of reputable research and scholarly dialogue available.

So, what is the answer to print vs. digital? Are both important and deserving of recognition in the academy? Are the Ivory Towers of academia being rebuilt and replaced with electrons and LCDs?

The answer is yes to all of the above.

What are your experiences in hybrid publishing? We would love to know. Please post a comment, and add a footnote if you'd like.

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