[Version française ci-dessous]
On September 14, 2018 the Guardian’s columnist George Monbiot published a violent charge against the publishers of scholarly journals and this should please us who have been fighting for open access for a long time. However, is the target the right one?
Imagine a very select and reputable travel agency that sells you a dream cruise for 250,000€. You obviously don’t have to bleed yourself to death to buy it. You can find other ways to travel, especially if you take the initiative and organise you own trip.
Now suppose that your career depends on a commission that will judge your merits based on the number and type of cruises you have completed and that will have a special indulgence for those you have purchased from the prestigious agency in question. The simple name of the agency is enough to convince the members of this committee of the quality of the trips it offers. Chances are you will try by any means to obtain the necessary funds to order a cruise there.
Now suppose that your employer decides that the prestige you have gained or strengthened in this way will reflect on his company. He’ll buy you the cruise, even if it’s outrageously expensive.
So let us ask ourselves the question: who is guilty ?
À. The ultra-chic travel agency ?
B. The traveller, that is, yourself ?
C. The members of the jury who use this criterion to evaluate you ?
Certainly not A, and that’s where everyone gets the wrong target. Indeed, the travel agent does business, not philanthropy, and as long as there are enough customers to buy the prestigious cruises in which he/she holds a near-monopoly, he/she has no reason to lower his/her prices and every reason to raise them.
In searching for the culprit, we think of B. But put yourself in the traveller’s shoes. Indeed, he/she was always made clear that such trips would give him/her a top-of-the-range reputation and that the prestige of the cruise would reflect on him/her. We can therefore not blame him/her for doing everything possible to try to obtain this cruise, which will ensure a bright future for him/her when he/she returns.
There is only C left, the members of the jury. It is quite obvious that it is them who are responsible and that it is their own mentality that must be changed. It is their thinking that must be rid of the prejudice of transferring the prestige of the cruise to the individual traveller. If the merits of the cruise are undeniable (we hope they are, at this price!), transferring them to the person who can afford them is abusive. It is imperative that they learn to stop considering as better the one who comes back from this cruise compared to the one who went pedal-boating on the ponds in his neighbourhood.
The transposition into the world of scientific publishing is quite obvious, even if the comparison has its flaws. The whole issue of free access to public research results lies in a fundamental and radical change in the evaluation of research and researchers, without which nothing will change. Transposed to the field of research and its evaluation, the members of our jury are in fact many different actors: the academic hierarchy, the decision-makers of the research funds, doctoral committee members, in short, all the evaluators in charge of an assessment procedure.
And the next worry is: the influence of prestige on judgment is such a constant in the human species, and it is so deeply rooted in our genes, that thinking that we can eradicate it from our reasoning seems an insurmountable task. Not enough to stop us from trying, however….