Unbundling Biblical Studies

A recent series on the Britannica Blog is discussing Newspapers and Net, starting with an excerpt from Nicholas Carr’s book “The Big Switch” called “The Great Unbundling”, and then followed by Clay Shirkey’s response. Here’s my brief recap (though both posts are worth reading in their entirety):

  • The Web has drastically changed the economics of newspaper publication, as more and more services become available for free (Carr)
  • Unbundling is a given: what parts of the newspaper industry are worth saving? (Shirkey)
  • Investigative journalism is the part that the Free Internet Economy can’t necessarily replace (Shirkey)

Newspapers aside, much of this discussion is also relevant to Biblical studies, particularly the academic market for seminary-level textbooks. Like the traditional newspaper, academic publication currently bundles together a variety of services:

  • Overview and orientation to a subject, which requires enough breadth and experience in the field to know which parts to select
  • Selection, synthesis, and summary of existing research, which takes a broad range of previously published information and extracts the most relevant parts for students. This also involves filtering out information that’s out-of-date or biased (or perhaps contrary to the author’s tastes)
  • Original research by a textbook author that can’t be found elsewhere, as well as their own opinions and perspectives
  • Instructional design: the best textbooks organize their material in a way to make it easier to learn, using educational best-practices like defined learning objectives and advanced organizers

Traditional textbooks aren’t likely to go away any time soon (though the market has experienced many of the same economic pressures as the newspaper industry). Some of the services described above are moving to the web and becoming free goods: for example, Wikipedia now provides overview services for a wide variety of subjects, despite intense discouragement from much of the teaching profession.

At the same time, the distance education field has long stressed that specialization of roles provides many of the same benefits for the educational industry as for manufacturing and other activities. In particular, the scholar who is expert in a field and producing original research may not be the best choice for instructional design.

If you take as a given that academic publishing must change to meet the new realities of the Internet economy (i do), which parts will become essentially free goods, and which parts will continue to require a high level of professional competence. Even more importantly, assuming some of these services can’t be easily replaced, what are the new economic models that will provide the required compensation for them?