Interview with Jean-Claude Guédon

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Over the past several years, Jean-Claude Guédon, a leading advocate in the open access movement, has been actively calling for a revival of the true purpose of scholarly research—what he calls the Great Scientific Conversation. In support of this idea, the former Université de Montréal comparative literature professor took part in the Budapest Initiative for Open Access (2002) and the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities (2003). 

Prof. Guédon also served as editor-in-chief for Surfaces, a journal issued between 1991 and 1999, and one of the ten first scholarly publications worldwide—and the first in Canada—to be digitally disseminated in open access. As the journal’s archives have recently become available on Érudit, we took the opportunity to look back on the history of Surfaces in conversation with Prof. Guédon. 

The inaugural issue of Surfaces was published in 1991. At the time, what were you hoping to achieve by disseminating the journal in digital format? 

In 1991, digital publishing appeared as a potential solution to a difficult problem: the comparative literature department wished to have its own journal, but the idea of funding such an endeavour seemed wildly unrealistic. After contemplating several other solutions, we put forward the digital path, which we hoped would appeal to ministries and organizations seeking to invest in innovation. Our projections turned out to be accurate: the SSHRC gave us a helping hand, Apple provided equipment, and a federal ministry granted a major sum to the project. 

Did you face some level of disbelief or skepticism from academics regarding the digital format and the open dissemination of their work?

Rather than disbelief, we faced resistance from certain colleagues, some from within our own department. At the launch of the publication, René Simard, the university provost, though he was sympathetic to our project, expressed quite a bit of skepticism. Granted, at the time, the idea of asking humanities researchers to browse an FTP website, download a document, decode it (using uudecode or binhex), and view it with a word processing software (Word for Mac or WordPerfect for PC) could appear preposterous. 

The open access movement seems to be more popular than ever. Nevertheless, major commercial publishers seem to be maintaining their stronghold over the field. In your opinion, in what ways can the movement work towards fostering a richer bibliodiversity and ensuring publication and access equality for all? 

Photo de Jean Claude Guédon

Jean-Claude Guédon
Photo de Andrei Romanenko, CC BY-SA

This question reaches beyond Surfaces, but it raises an important issue. In its current historic phase, the struggle is semantic: what is the meaning of open access? There are irreconcilable differences between the notion of open science and that of APC-Gold OA, applied by commercial publishers.

The APC-Gold model reproduces the inequalities created by the subscription model by transferring the financial burden from readers to authors, thereby further increasing the imbalance between poor and rich researchers. Ultimately, considering that basic research is usually publicly funded and that the cost of publication comprises only 1 to 2 percent of research costs, the best solution seems to be to create a public infrastructure that would be freely accessible to readers and authors alike. If this is the chosen solution—as I hope it will be—, the central issue will be one of governance. In this perspective, efforts to unite libraries and research funding agencies are rather fruitful, as both these types of institutions currently monopolize the funds supporting scholarly communication and publication.

Together, these institutions can afford to shape the field in an innovative way, while overseeing it through governing bodies stemming from the research community itself. Indeed, a public platform can also be a research “territory” attuned to sociopolitical issues, with research topics determined by specific needs and inquiries. Typically, these topics relate to pressing issues faced by easily identifiable countries, regions, or communities.

At a time when articles can be shared individually (on Academia, institutional repositories, blogs, etc.), how do you think the purpose of journals will evolve in the future? 

In an ever-increasingly digital world, the central issue concerns platforms rather than journals in their current form. A platform can be defined as a portal that, along with its algorithms, gives way to three types of sociological networks: between individuals, between individuals and documents, and between documents themselves. In the post-war era, journals have developed into poor indicators of quality and outreach due to irrelevant metrics, such as the impact factor. As the platform has become the main vector for scholarly communications, journals can now be revitalized as publications aiming to cover a research field or to represent an academic community. In this return to a prior purpose, held by journals published by 19th-century learned societies, one can envision the future of digital scholarly publications.