Thursday, November 11, 2004

Project Watch: NET GEMS

Eric Sowell announces that his company (Lexel Software) and the Biblical Studies Foundation are working on the NET Greek-English Morphology and Syntax, a joint open-source project that will be making available a syntactically tagged Greek New Testament. Details about the project can be found here.

I've read with interest Eric's article on Doing Online Collaborative Biblical Studies. I took the time to read it all, and would suggest you do too if you want to know more about the application of open-source projects to the field of biblical studies. He makes some excellent points, which have, in some way or another, been discussed in different biblioblogs (see my blogroll) under the general theme of "Open-source Scholarship" in the past few months.

I agree with the principles of open-source software, but personally I'm a bit pessimistic about the possibilities of producing "good quality sharable data for the benefit of the field of biblical studies, from the scholar to the layman" simply as a result of an open-source development. I'm not saying it isn't possible. What I am suggesting is that, nine times out of ten, is unrealistic (much to my chagrin). One thing is what many of us would like to do, and quite a different one what we can do given our family, job, time, and money constraints.

To me, the key is the trade-off between "free" and "quality." And this applies to both the people involved and the content produced.

Let's start with the people. Eric maintains that only "qualified" individuals should be involved in projects of this nature. That makes sense, but (and forgive me for acting as the devil's advocate here) when are they supposed to work on it? On their spare time, maybe? Do we really want the crumbs of their intellectual energy? Unless they are on a sabbatical leave or properly funded, I don't see how the project can be accomplished within a reasonable time-span.

With regards to the content, well... Houston, we have a problem. To start with, even the "raw data" (i.e., the critical text of the Greek New Testament) is copyrighted. Eric quite rightly admits that "The data of the past is largely controlled by publishers who would not be willing to free up their data without monetary compensation; compensation that many of us just cannot afford (though there are exceptions, but that is often the case)." The problem in biblical studies is that we rely very heavily on "the data of the past", and I believe that unless this situation changes (not the data itself, but the availability of it), chances are that open-source development will be seriously affected.

Let me finish by drawing an analogy with the Bible software industry. There are some remarkable freeware Bible software programs, but none can compare with some of the good commercial packages in terms of features AND content. The reason is quite simple: programmers need to make a living, and their freeware software is not their top priority, but also they are unable (legally, at least) to provide any materials that are not in the public domain. They might be excellent, even brilliant, programmers, but they cannot spend enough time or energy developing advanced features. And since their programs are made freely available, to pay royalties for copyrighted Bibles and tools is out of the question. See the dilemma? Of course you can provide free materials and resources, but unless there is some sort of monetary investment in both manpower and content, you will probably not get very far.

Now, having said all that, I'm all for the NET GEMS :-) I think very highly of the NET Bible, but let's not forget that a lot of money has been invested in that project. I have no doubt that this new project will become a reality. I am equally certain that it will cost quite a bit of money. The bottom line is, somebody has to pay for "open-source" scholarship in order for it to remain scholarship. Or so it seems... at least in this not-so-perfect world of ours.

Update (November 12): Eric Sowell interacts with my comments above. I appreciate his insights, and do think that this exchange of ideas can be really worthwhile. So, here goes a few more comments:

I think he's got it right when he says, "I think that, as a general rule, most things that are commercially produced in the software industry are of at least slightly higher quality, all things considered, than things that are not commercially produced." This, of course, should come as no surprise. There are many reasons for it, and I won't repeat them here. And then he adds, "We are going to be that exception." I tend to think that he's right again (and I certainly WANT to believe he is). But, and this is my whole point, success won't be achieved by following what we usually understand as "open-source development." At least not entirely. Big bucks will have to be invested. It may be freely available for end users, but it will cost a lot of money. Perhaps there is some mutual misunderstanding when we talk about "open-source" in this context. I am using it as opposed to "proprietary." So, my understanding is that NET GEMS will follow very closely the business/ministry model of the NET Bible. That I consider to be a good example of open scholarship, but doesn't quite fit my idea of open-source.

I'm not sure the analogy of Linux is a good one. I bet its founder is not on welfare. Just think for a moment that Bill Gates decided to go the open-source route. He could afford to do it, and his product could still be the same (i.e., buggy, unstable, clunky, etc. ;-)) What am I getting at? "Open" and "free" are two completely different things. You and I may not pay for a given product, but that doesn't mean it's free. Somebody, somewhere, has paid for it.

As for publishers controlling the content, I understand Eric's position. I suppose a case could be made for copyrighting critical apparatuses, but holding the rights to original language texts seems a bit too much. I don't want to open a can of worms here, so suffice it to say that THAT has got to change, or else we'll get nowhere.

Lest there be any misunderstandings, let me repeat that I am not against open-source development, much less open scholarship. I commend Eric for this project. He thinks I'm "a little bit too pessimistic." I believe I'm just being realistic. I know what it means to work for free, to work as part of a team, to work by myself, to make good money, to be unemployed. I've tried them all! I have said it before, and I will say it again: biblical scholarship cannot be considered as mere business. It is also a ministry. However, ministries cost a lot of money, even if you don't get paid for it yourself. If we want quality, then we're going to have to pay for it. It won't come out of the blue.

Thank you, Eric, for a most stimulating blog conversation. Hope you and your wife enjoyed watching the movie last night :-)