Scholars Who Fear Sharing Knowledge Democratically

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by Neil Godfrey

Anyone following biblical studies on the web soon learns that there are some scholars who fear the potential of the internet. Anyone following certain scientists with larger than average egos also soon learns that some of them, too, don’t like what damage the web can do to their influence. And anyone attempting to engage in a scholarly or professional manner with political and social viewpoints that are very controversial in some quarters soon learns that some people cannot handle a truly free exchange of ideas and information.

Everybody, but scholars especially, should welcome the full potential of knowledge sharing that the internet has made possible. The Open Access movement can be said to have begun with the Budapest declaration of 2002:

By “open access” to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.

What is the point of OA?

An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good. The old tradition is the willingness of scientists and scholars to publish the fruits of their research in scholarly journals without payment, for the sake of inquiry and knowledge. The new technology is the internet. The public good they make possible is the world-wide electronic distribution of the peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it by all scientists, scholars, teachers, students, and other curious minds.

One might also argue that those who have had the privilege of higher learning have a responsibility to others in society. How can anyone justify keeping knowledge that has a public benefit away from the public, or how can one justify setting up hurdles to leap in order to access it?

Another benefit of OA is that it has the potential to keep researchers and academics generally just a little more accountable and honest. Surely most academics would presume that anything that works at increasing the appearance of public accountability is a good thing. Why would any object?

This is where we also enter the realm of free discussion. It is clear that too many scholars are not at all comfortable with defending their views in a public arena unless it is filled with sympathetic supporters of their ideas. The excuse sometimes given is that there are “trolls” out there, and time-wasters, and all sorts of problem commenters. Yup, there are. But that’s the beauty of the web — each of us has the ability to ban/delete etc the undesirables. Unfortunately too many researchers define undesirables so broadly as to include serious critics. Biblical studies seems far more than some other disciplines to be populated with scholars who are more interested in a form of evangelizing their own biases than in engaging seriously with critical discussion.

Some scholars are very stuck in an elitist pre-web mentality. They scoff at Wikipedia as a source when they could quite easily make a correction to an article they find in error. Do they despise the idea of getting their fingers dirty by engaging in a democratic sharing of knowledge?

They scoff at the bizarre ideas found “out there” — forgetting, it seems, that what they read on the internet are the same sorts of “bizarre ideas” that have always been in the public domain. Some of them even viciously insult those who remain committed to ideas and beliefs that they themselves once held before they learned better. They seem to forget, some of them, how lucky they have been to have been in the circumstances that allowed them to know better, to acquire a superior education. Does not such luck and privilege bring a responsibility with it? Not all seem to think so, unfortunately. Perhaps they believe they have had no luck or privilege at all but have worked and sacrificed hard to achieve their good fortune. If so, they still have more to learn, like how lucky they have been to have had the genes, the make-up from birth or environment, the opportunities, to apply such effort so successfully.

Added later….


(One prominent scholar has placed a different kind of hurdle to leap for anyone wanting to hear him air his views on his professionally developed blog. One is obliged to donate to a charity of his choosing. That, too, is another elitist technique that functions to filter out those less likely to disagree with his view or at least risk offending him; it is also a barrier to all but the more affluent who have the means to donate to charities above and beyond what they already do. (I say that on the basis of my past experience in collecting for charities: many of us who have done that sort of work door to door learn that it is often the poorest who are the biggest givers.) Perhaps Bart Ehrman thinks the minimal amounts he is asking are hardly onerous. I guess that’s true for many Americans.

Does Bart really think his own approach is one that others should follow — so that everyone would have to be paying every time they want to tap in to a more privileged person’s learning?

Sorry, but Bart Ehrman would do everyone a greater service if he joined up with the open access movement and accepted the public responsibility that comes with (educational) privilege.


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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “Scholars Who Fear Sharing Knowledge Democratically”

  1. I think dear Bart is concerned he might be living on ”borrowed time” with some of his theological views, especially the mythological nature of the character Jesus of Nazareth.
    By running a ”closed shop” he doesn’t put himself directly in the firing line.
    The internet can be a very hostile place.
    Carrier once had little truck with the notion of a mythical Jesus, but he now holds a different view.
    Maybe Bart is waiting for the right moment to ‘come out?’ Perhaps after he gets a nice fat pension? 🙂

  2. Another related issue is the paternalistic nature of charity, especially when extremely rich people publicly say they’re “giving away” their fortune — but then you find out they try very hard maintain control over how that fortune gets doled out to the unwashed masses. Should we decide which problems to focus on as a society, through democratically elected representatives, or should a small group of elites decide for us?

  3. Bart Errman derives his prestige and gravitas from his position as a tenured professor at a state funded tax supported institution.
    He makes his research, funded by public monies available only to those who can afford to pay the entry fee to his blog site, or the access fee to by pass the paywalls of the journals he submits his work to, or the fee to buy one of his books.
    I believe the term for this is “double-dipping” using his state funded position to reap private monies, a practice that is generally considered unethical and a conflict of interest when done in other areas.

    1. That’s an interesting and correct application of the term “Double dipping”. Another meaning is the one I have been used to and is applied to publishers who charge subscription fees for journals while at the same time including a limited number of articles in those same journals as open access. They are open-access because they have charged the author (or the author’s institution) up to around $5000 for the privilege of making their work OA — in a journal that already charges a subscription fee!

      I know of some authors who are so concerned about the social value of their research that they want it read as widely as possible so they pay their publisher to make their books open access. That is, free to all.

      Those authors are from research areas related to the sciences and social sciences — something of practical value. Can one imagine a biblical scholar doing that? (Well, okay, apart from evangelical apologists.)

  4. I doubt Ehrman does the pay-to-view requirement for the purposes of walling people off from his views. I think his stated purpose (it’s a clever way to raise money for charity) checks out. I also think that he has done a lot to bring scholarship to laypeople: his popular books do exactly that, and are available for free in public libraries.

    The Internet has become a democratic source of information, it’s the freest form of data delivery known to man, free of the authoritarian controls that plague other forms of data delivery (corporate controlled media, and theologically controlled scholarship). Brings a smile to this guy’s face!

    Of course, pulling away the authority has both a positive and a negative: the positive is that the Internet has its way of exposing the flaws and biases of the authorities which allows the skeptical layman to have better informed beliefs. The negative is that Un-skeptical people are now believing all kinds of garbage because of inaccurate Facebook memes, chain emails, and conspiracy theories promoted by blogs and YouTube videos. I think the positives outweigh the negatives. I also think we should find ways to minimize the negatives. I’ve been in favor of a critical thinking class through at least high school if not early. Grassroots education about having a critical mind (i.e. A YouTube video about Ockham’s Razor) can help, too.

    1. It’s a paywall. It is opposed to the principles of open access. It might be a nice charity fundraiser but it is not professionally responsible. Ehrman stands opposed to the Open Access movement which is all about the democratisation of knowledge and the public responsibility of public intellectuals.

      Ditto for his charging fees to publicly speak. Someone tried to explain to me that it’s necessary for him to do so in order to control the number of invitations he gets. What poppycock. So he does it for charity. I’m sure little would be lost if he quietly gave all his book royalties and salary surplus to charity. What would be his reaction if someone offered to give money to a charity of their own choosing in return for him to come and speak? What would be his response to someone asking to read his blog if they showed him receipts for charities they had donated to? What of those who are not in a position to give? It’s a paywall. Ehrman like so many other biblical scholars has scoffed at the “degeneracy” of what is on the open web. He doesn’t buy it. He’s an elitist.

      You’re right about ignorance being spread on the web. But that was spread long before the web emerged. Social connections are more numerous now. All the more reason for public intellectuals to be committed to the principles of Open Access.

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