Thursday, November 11, 2004

It won't be easy. Most good things aren't.

I always like a challenge. How boring would life be if everything just fell at your feet? Well, I guess it would be nice sometimes, but there is a great deal of satisfaction in hard work. Though I have some words of disagreement to say in regard to what Ruben Gomez has said about my last post on the NET GEMS project, he certainly sees the difficulty in what we are trying to accomplish. Kudos for the sober mind.

I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that the same issues in regard to open source ideas found in the software industries would also rear their head in this very related discussion. "Free" versus "quality" is something I have thought about quite a bit in that regard. 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. They more often have the advantage of having funds to pay people to make their software more reliable, easier to use, and better documented. All these things contribute to make a higher quality product. The commercial world has a distinct advantage in such projects. They have money. They have deadlines. The bosses have the ability to say "get this done, or you're fired." This we must recognize. But we also must recognize that there are notable exceptions to this rule, Linux being the best known.

We are going to be that exception. I believe thoroughly that we will succeed in our task. But you know what? If we don't, I want at least have the satisfaction that I tried my best to do the right thing. I see a better world. I'd rather fail miserably trying to succeed than to not try, despite the difficulties ahead.

Now, the "free" versus "quality" issue is real. We must recognize that. We considered various possibilities on how to organize this work to as to highten quality. One idea bounced around in the ranks was to let anyone participate. I guess it would be more like the famous wikipedia project in that regard. But, we decided not to do that. As everyone probably knows, reputation in the biblical studies world is probably a bigger thing than quality in regard to widespread usage. I buy books all the time based on reputation without any real understanding of the content of the book. Some authors write consistently good work, and so I read as much as I can of what they write. We decided that it would be crucial to the reputation of the work that we not keep the project open to all who want to participate, because we all can imagine folks who are unqualified who would come and mix in terribly bad data with the good. We also decided to take a significant editorial role. We decided to make sure all work is associated on a per-contributor basis. That way we can more easily communicate about individual choices in tagging. All this because, to me, something like this isn't worth doing if it isn't worth doing well.

I think, Ruben, you hit the nail square on the head in regard to the biggest issue that this open scholarship movement is going to have to deal with: publishers still control some of the most basic building blocks of what we need to be using, like Greek texts and the like. I think that is something that is going to significantly have to change. But, I must apologize, because I can't say anything more on this at the moment. For the same reasons I said little in the docs on a distributable text, I can't say anything yet here. I'll be sure to say something when I am at liberty to do so. Hopefully that will be really soon. Sorry for the very unsatisfying response on this point...but it is hopefully only temporary.

And you make another good point about Bible software. The problem is not the software primarily; it is the content. That is where it all must begin. That's why we're doing this sort of thing. In my mind it is all about good content. I'll usually use an inferior program if it has better content, unless the program is so bad or offends my sensibilities as a computer user and programmer. Of course that's one real difference between open source software and open scholarship. One is about making functional software. The other is about making the good content. I think that makes what we're doing a little harder.

This is getting to be way too long of a post, but I guess I have a little more to say that is significant. First, getting this done in a reasonable time span. That is an issue, but not one I'm too worried about. I don't want the project to lag on too long, of course, because then it might just get tiresome. But on the other hand, we don't want to hurry this. We realize that this is going to be a huge time investment and will take a while. We're happy with that.

And finally, who is our target? You mentioned contributions as the crumbs of scholar's intellectual energies. You know, you're right. We don't really want that. I don't want people to come do this half-heartedly. I don't want people who can't really involve their minds in the process because of everything else they're doing. Here are the three main types of people I see this appealing to from a contributor's perspective. First are those who because of passion for the subject matter want to see a change in who owns scholarship. This is really the driving force for me. I bet it will be for others. Second are those upcoming scholars who want to make their mark in the world. Most publishers won't touch a seminary graduate with a ten-foot pole, whether or not he's really qualified or not to do quality work. This kind of project will give up and coming folks a chance to contribute. Third are those who have really wanted something like this when they were learning Greek. I can't tell you how many times I said to myself "I really wish someone would come out with a thorough, word-for-word syntactical analysis of the NT Greek text." Some tools exist in print that go this direction, but none that ever satisfied me. And none that are nearly as thorough as we intend this to be.

And all we really need is for some people to tag a limited amount of text. If a lot of people want to tag everything, well, more power to them! But we only need so many people saying "this noun is the object of such and such preposition." For some, contribution to this project will be very small, and that's okay with us.

Just so I can rest my fingers and go watch a movie with my wife, I guess I'll stop here! All in all, Ruben, its not that I think you're wrong; your words reflect wisdom and knowledge of the real world. I just think you're a little too pessimistic. But I very much appreciate your comments! If you have more, I would love to hear them.

[Update: 11/12/2004]
Oops...forgot to actually link to Ruben's post! Sorry. Thanks, Dave, for pointing that out. I added the link in the first paragraph, or you can read it here.

4 Comments:

At 8:19 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Hey, Firefox is free, and Internet Explorer is not (really). Now, which would I rather use, which is the better project? Or is that a no-brainer? Quality does not lie in the price, but in what the product does...

 
At 8:26 PM, Blogger Eric Sowell said...

I could not agree more.

 
At 2:36 AM, Blogger Kirk H. Sowell said...

This entry is way too long.

 
At 6:58 AM, Blogger Eric Sowell said...

Sorry. I had a lot to say :)

 

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