Tuesday, 15 April 2014

GJW and the status of online academic discussion: will you cite this?

Thursday last week (10 April) the results of the testing of the papyrus fragment containing the so-called Gospel of Jesus' Wife (GJW) were finally published in the Harvard Theological Review (HTR 107/2), one and a half year after Karen L. King first presented a paper on it at the 10th International Congress of Coptic Studies in Rome (18 September 2012). The current issue of HTR includes, e.g., King's revised paper "Jesus said to them, 'My wife...': A New Coptic Papyrus Fragment", three essays presenting the various test results (Yardley & Hagadorn; Azzarelli, Goods & Swager; Hodgins), an essay on paleographical features by Macolm Choat, Leo Depuydt 's  discussion of authenticity, in addition to King's response to Depuydt.
Both the test results and the formal publication of King's revised article have been eagerly awaited. At the same time, although not "properly published" until last week (the first version of the article was made available at the Harvard Divinity School website), GJW and King's interpretation of it were discussed with high intensity in a number of widely read blogs and other online fora from the very moment of its initial mention in Rome. During the weeks and months that followed, online academic discussion among specialists in the field contributed both important new information and alternative perspectives that challenged and supported King's initial points of view, the most intense discussion concerned the assumed status of the fragment as a possible modern forgery.
This post will neither discuss aspects of the textual contents of GJW nor the possible status of the fragment or its text as a forgery - I am not a Coptologist. Rather, this post concerns the function, use and status of online academic discussions: the discussions that take place in blogs, in their commentary fields, and sometimes even on Facebook, and which sometimes may turn out to make a difference to wider academic debates. Just like numerous others, I have followed the discussions on GJW online ever since a first post appeared on my Facebook newsfeed while King was still on stage in Rome. And since I am interested in media culture and the history of editing and publishing, I have been curious about whether, how, and the extent to which, these online platforms and the discussions taking place there would in fact be used and referred to when the traditionally published article on the issue would finally materialize. 
I have read through King's essay, as well as other relevant articles of the current issue of HTR (the online, html-version) with this in mind, looking for allusions and references to, as well as explicit mention of online contributions. Here is what I find:
On the one hand, the online discussion is indeed referred to in King's essay. In the introduction to her essay, King explicitly mentions contributions in online media as one among other reasons for her revision. In other words, these online contributions figure alongside "three peer reviews" and "private communications"  as inputs King have taken seriously and allowed to shape the revised version of her essay. In a history of publishing perspective, this is interesting since it brings in online media contributions as a legitimate part of the shaping of a published academic essay. 
On the other hand, the online discussion and individual contributions still serve primarily as intertexts, or as backdrops in King's essay. In other words, the online discussion may well be affecting the choice of topics, focus, and be decisive for the level of detail in discussions, but it is not referred to explicitly as such. When reading, for instance, the sections on "Language" and "Dating the Manuscript and Question of Forgery", several passages ring a bell, for instance the mention of the speculation about the ink on the lower layers of the recto fibers, the clumsiness of the script, the use of a brush, etc. One could, further, have expected references to the online debate of or individual contributions to the discussion of the variant spelling of  "my wife". Even though all these issues were discussed on various occasions by identifiable scholars online, these individual contributions are not explicitly mentioned.
When looking at the sources referred to in the footnotes in King's essay, the explicit references to online contributions to the debate in question are not many. I find ten references (n. 52; 112; 114; 116; 117), most of them appearing in the final part of the essay where King explicitly addresses the issue of forgery. In the rest of the essay, references to online debates are scarce, in fact I see only one: the reference to Hugo Lundhaug and Alin Suciu's negative aorist (n. 52). The effect is that contributions made by individual scholars are hard to retrieve, and the existence of the cultural phenomenon/social practice of online academic debate is blurred.
This is interesting, since in other essays in HTR, the place of the online discussion is much more prominent. In the essay "The Gospel of Jesus's Wife: A Preliminary Paleographical Assessment," for instance, Malcolm Choat shares the following spot-on reflection, capturing much of the complexity involved:
"As the discussion concerning this fragment has taken place almost exclusively online or via the media since it was made public, I respond here inter alia to points that have been raised by various commentators in conversation (which I have not attributed) and in fora such as blogs: [Choat mentions blog posts by Head, Lundhaug & Suciu, Askeland, and Peppard]. I should emphasize (with apologies to others who have contributed paleographical observations) that this list is not exhaustive and that I do not respond here to every point made in these blogs (n. 3)".
As Choat points out, between the initial presentation in Rome and the publication of HTR 107, important parts of the discussion has taken place online, and Choat considers his essay as, among other things, a response to these debates.
For those of us who either participate in online academic debates from time to time, who read and learn from others who are contributing to these debates, or who publish academic books and essays and wonder how to deal with and refer to online debates Choat's reflections matter. We are doing scholarship at a time when the conditions of scholarly discussion and circulation of information, as well as knowledge-sharing and publication practices are changing. Online media change the pace of discussion and offer venues for scholarly exchange outside the formally accredited academic channels. This gives us new possibilities for sharing and learning. At the same time, the status of  online discussions in social/new media are somewhat vague, and the platforms that mediate them are sometime not regarded as "scholarly enough" to even be cited. When the first suggestion of the parallel between the HTR text and Gospel of Thomas line 7 was assumedly made in a comment on Facebook, do you refer to it, or do you not? 
How we refer to online discussions and individual contributions on line is still not settled. It is still not entirely clear who "owns" the utterances, and the extent to which we feel that we should, or have to, refer to them in traditional channels of publication. To me, the history of discussion of GJW, which is still very much alive both online and offline, is a perfect test case for studying how new scholarly practice matters to the overall academic knowledge production and practices of publication.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks, Mike. There is much more to be said about this issue, though.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. « the discussions that take place in blogs, in their commentary fields, and sometimes even on Facebook : not forgetting electronic mailing lists (e. g. this one) – maybe postal mailing lists ?… ;-) –, TwitPic, Twitter… all of them vanishing medias… :-(

  3. Thanks for your comments, Richard. You are certainly right that it is hard to get an overview of the online debate. It is bewildering and sometimes posts and debates are hard to retrieve. In addition, some of the online knowledge production may appear more like a wiki where everyone can contribute. Still, we have to find ways of dealing with new technology and the academic cultures that develop around it. It is no wonder that we have no good solutions yet - this media change has just started. Regarding professor King: I would never doubt her integrity, I worked with her on a research project back in 2007, and her integrity is not what this debate is about. I am discussing a practice that most of us share but which we might have to look for better ways of dealing with. King figures prominently in a discussion that displays the complexity of the issue particularly well, and as such her essay warrants discussion.

  4. Note that my comment above is a response to a comment I later decided to delete.

  5. That is great work, I like this very much

  6. This is a great discussion with relevance to current debate about the tomb of Tutankhamun.