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Érudit’s First Steps

On the occasion of Érudit’s 25th anniversary, discover the behind-the-scenes story of its creation through an interview with its two key founders, Guylaine Beaudry and Gérard Boismenu, now respectively Trenholme Dean of Libraries at McGill University and Emeritus Professor in the Department of Political Science at the Université de Montréal.

 1. In a few lines, could you talk about the birth of Érudit in 1998, and about your motivations behind such a project?

The path that led to the creation of Érudit in 1998 was, all told, pretty quick, despite some hesitation and a few setbacks. When I was named Director of the Presses de l’Université de Montréal (PUM) in 1994, I was asked to consider the use of digital technology in academic publishing. The PUM were publishing six scholarly journals for which they were also financially responsible, and were thinking of adding a journal published exclusively electronically. In 1996, Guylaine Beaudry was doing her master’s in information science at the Université de Montréal and her research project focused on the publication of scholarly journals using the SGML structured language.

The 1996 federal budget announced a reduction in credits for research council programs. Two years later, senior public officials at Industry Canada wanted to find a Canadian academic publisher who could work on the digital publication of scholarly journals, as they saw this as a source of savings for their subsidy programs (which was not the case, we must add). The Université de Montréal showed interest in exploring this hypothesis through the PUM. The Bureau de la recherche de l’Université asked the PUM to consider the question and come up with a structured proposal.

It became clear that the conditions were not right and that the expertise, experience and skill set available within the PUM had to be put to work. In that context, Guylaine Beaudry was invited to develop a project for a space where scholarly journals could be published and disseminated in Canada. A network had to be developed that relied on the complementarities between academic and governmental institutions in order to obtain institutional and financial support. The first feasibility and proof of concept studies were followed by a production run of journal issues with the help of a federal grant. Oppositions to the federal project within Canada’s academic community meant that it was prevented from going further. In parallel, there was a clearly expressed will in Québec to support an initiative aimed at the journal community in Québec. The Fonds FCAR (the Fonds de recherche du Québec’s ancestor) became the key public player in the process leading to the creation of ÉruditIndividual motivation or willpower would not have been enough, as nothing was certain. What might seem to have been inevitable twenty-five years later definitely did not seem that way to several stakeholders involved at the start. The desire to build something new was essential, and the PUM displayed it clearly. In two years, colossal work was done and the PUM provided the space where a small, but enthusiastic team (mostly composed of graduates from the École de bibliothéconomie et des sciences de l’information at first) could be formed, driven by a dedication and a conviction that it was playing the role of pioneer. At that moment, some flagship initiatives in the United States served as models.

2. What were the objectives for Érudit at the time of its creation?

We can highlight six main objectives for Érudit: 

  1. Putting in place a structuring initiative for the publication and dissemination of scholarly journals based on the highest norms for digital publishing, while integrating into its processes conventions inspired by print media publishing.
  2. Ensuring the survival of the published documents by relying on a norm for structured language (SGML, followed by XML) that could distinguish between text encoding and online formats. The survival of collections was a key principle.
  3. Acting as a non-commercial entity in collaboration with scholarly journals conceived as institutions within the scientific community whose stability and expansion had to be promoted.
  4. Developing an economic model that ensured the financial stability of both Érudit and the scholarly journals themselves, while also promoting open access.
  5. Building in Québec a world-class space for digital journal publishing that promoted a consistent strategy for dissemination and an international network with similar platforms.
  6. Participating in the “revolution” that was coming, but above all, playing a decisive influential role in it: it was self-evident that digital publishing would change the ecosystem not only of publishing, but also of the dissemination and circulation of scientific knowledge. We wanted to be part of that.

3. What were the initial reactions of the academic community to Érudit, and how has that perception evolved over time?

Curiously, our main funding sources, governmental for the most part, considered that journals would be if not hostile, at least resistant or reticent. It was quite the opposite.

It is important to recognize that journal editorial teams are aware that their journals are scientific institutions that have a history and a future within their scholarly community. They are prudent, they do not want to compromise the institution in their care, be it on quality, legitimacy, notoriety, or organizational stability. That is the foundation of the discussion, and it is on those criteria that a project’s value is assessed. We were associated with the PUM who were already publishing six scholarly journals. We shared this concern and the exchanges that we were having were based on that.

An anecdote about that. The Fonds FCAR wanted to go forward with a pilot project, involving the publication of a digital version for the regular issues from five journals over a year (1998), parallel to their print version. The pilot project covered the entire operation: publishing process, technical and organizational aspects, communications with journals, etc. A call for proposals was made to find candidate journals for this pilot project. The deadlines were very tight. Our expectations were more than met, as the number of proposals we received was far beyond the expected five or eight candidates, to the point where the Fonds had to establish a selection committee to sort out and choose from among the candidates, creating disappointment in the process.

The pilot project confirmed the relevance of the idea. The Fonds FACR launched a call for proposals to conduct a feasibility study on the creation of a publishing and dissemination platform for journals. With backing from its interuniversity partners, Érudit was chosen to conduct this study (in 2000), which delved into every aspect of the infrastructure to be created. This was followed by working sessions organized in Montréal and Québec to discuss the ins and outs of the project with journal editorial teams. That was an opportunity to share visions, concerns and aspirations. This was all done in direct conversation and in deliberations. That participation was valuable when it came time to lay out the main proposals. The feasibility study was discussed during a conference, again with the journal community.

Subsequently, with the project now reaching cruising speed, the Érudit Board of Directors, formally constituted in 2004, wished to maintain this formal dialogue with journal editorial teams, creating ties through regular assemblies. This relationship became an integral part of the decision-making process at the various steps of the platform’s development.

4. In 2004, you succeeded in making Érudit an interuniversity project by creating a Consortium made up of the Université de Montréal, the Université Laval and the Université du Québec à Montréal. How did you pull off such a feat?

This was not something that came out of thin air. Very early on, we realized that a process aimed at setting up a publicly funded national infrastructure aimed primarily at Québec’s humanities and social sciences journal community would have to bring together the skills, commitments and institutional will capable of supporting such a project. While the PUM was the anchoring point for this initiative at the start, the number of partners quickly grew.

Beyond the PUM, and then the Direction des technologies de l’Université de Montréal, the Bibliothèque and the Presses de l’Université Laval as well as the Service des publications de l’Université du Québec à Montréal were our core partners, already involved since the feasibility study in 2000 and then again for the Proposal submitted to the Conférence des Recteurs et des Principaux des Universités du Québec (CREPUQ, Conference of Rectors and Principals of Québec Universities) aimed at creating a platform for scholarly journals in Québec. This proposal, submitted in 2001, was the responsibility of the Groupe interuniversitaire pour l’édition numérique (Interuniversity group for digital publishing).

This collaboration in charge of the Érudit project needed a formalized operational framework, something that was established in September 2004. Beyond individual initiatives and skill sets, institutions were committing personnel and means to the project, something that was key to creating a stable footing for the project, which also benefited from consistent institutional funding. It is important to understand that, while the proposal was accepted by the CREPUQ, the planned funding had only always been partial, and had to be supplemented by the academic institutions. But that is another story.

Mobilizing partners with different skills, interests and perspectives is not always easy, but we succeeded. In terms of project management, we learnt that a project in an innovative sector, involving many skill sets, distinct interests and an interinstitutional context, presents a high degree of risk. We were all the more proud when we overcame those obstacles.

It was our shared conviction in the project that carried us through as we laid down the groundwork for an institution that would play a capital role over time in scientific communication. Every single person was committed to this mission, personally contributing as much as they could. In addition, the respect and friendship of the partners played an important role, which was the basis for the camaraderie that infused our working relationships and joint decisions. Some would say this is something that often defines the “pioneer” era (I can give a few names: Claude Bonnelly, Guy Teasdeal, Chantal Bouthat, Benoît Bernier, and we would have to add collaborators from each team).

5. Over its 25 years of existence, which of Érudit’s achievements are you most proud of as its founders?

It is hard to choose. We will limit ourselves to five achievements and we will make a few observations about the first 10 or 15 years. Globally, overcoming the obstacle of sustainability, which confirmed the strong footing of the project and enabled its expansion and reach, is the greatest achievement. But that was the result of constant progress on several fronts.

The Scope and Richness of the Collection. Very early on, we had to think of how the collection would be deployed through a service offering covering publication and dissemination. Progress was regular, and in a ten-year span, the collection went from five to close to ninety journals. In 1999, we could offer journals the possibility of digitizing their archives. This allowed Érudit to really play its role as a research infrastructure, as it created a richer journal collection. A few years later, the corpus, which at first mostly covered the social sciences and the humanities, was expanded to include cultural journals. The growth was staggering, and we now have over 300 journals. It has become impossible to ignore this platform.

A World-Class Platform. From 1998 to 2008, the team at Érudit went through three generations of the platform. Each constitutes a step. The second generation realized the original concept. The journal, with the article as its editorial unit, rose to the level of other editorial formats in scientific research, such as the book, the prepublication and the thesis, all grouped in distinct areas. It became possible to seamlessly browse an expanded corpus containing all of these formats. The search tools had also become more sophisticated. In 2002, 6,000 documents were already available. The platform’s third generation was a major step forward: Érudit offered a digital library which innovated not only by the diversity of its documentary resources, but also by the tools and the features it provides. The third generation marked Érudit’s tenth anniversary, and was a testament to the excellence of the team that had been brought together. The platform had not completed its evolution, far from it.

A Distinct and Authoritative Hotbed for Innovation. After only two years of existence, Érudit had gathered a small team, which grew into a larger one based on interdisciplinarity. Although the members of the initial group possessed a similar skill set (based on information science), while contributing complementary individual skills, this core group grew by adding different specializations, in publishing, IT, communications, administration, subscription management and so on. This group has had an impressive impact on the transformation and automation of all processes, as it chose and amalgamated tools and practices based on XML as the format for production and dissemination.  From digital publishing to dissemination, all the way down to the platform’s features, everything in the third generation was reworked from scratch, and new standards were created through the use of the XML norm for journal publishing, such as the “Érudit Article framework.”

A Sustainable Economic Model for Journals. From the start, Érudit has advocated for open access to scientific content, including the content found in journals. The first studies conducted (the feasibility studies) estimated the costs of that ambition. At that moment, the public decision makers, the documentary institutions and the universities were not able to work in that direction when it came to journals published in Québec or Canada. The journals did not want to put their existence in jeopardy by cutting off their revenue. Those conditions led Érudit to set up its own service for subscription management. The economic model rested on minimal subscription fees and a two-year rolling barrier. Everything published over two years prior was made available in open access. Among other opportunities, this enabled Érudit to group its collection of journals into a single bundle to which the Canadian consortium of academic libraries could subscribe, allowing the journals to not compromise their already fragile financial situation by joining Érudit. Since then, things have evolved positively and, following various modalities, libraries have become active partners in the project. The subscription service step was a necessary first stepping stone.

Leadership in Digital Publishing. Taking notice of Érudit’s accomplishments, the leadership team at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and the public officials from Industrie Canada proposed that Érudit undertake a Canadian initiative. In the early 2000s, a concerted and collaborative approach led to the establishment of a network of university institutions across Canada. Under the leadership of the Université de Montréal (and Érudit), this network submitted a project to the Canada Foundation for Innovation in 2005 and again in 2006. Érudit’s executive team took up the leadership of Synergies (name given to the Canadian project). Since then, Érudit has been a key player at the national level. In the meantime, Érudit has established collaborations with platforms such as Cairn and Persée, with the CNRS, and also with the PEPS project in Belgium, which was unsuccessful due to a lack of public funding. This type of activity is ongoing today even as the context keeps evolving.

Photo de Guylaine Beaudry

Guylaine Beaudry

Trenholme Dean of Libraries at McGill University

Photo de Gérard Boismenu

Gérard Boismenu

Professor Emeritus at the Department of Political Science at the Université de Montréal