Bryn Williams Jones discusses how he is trying to make a positive difference in Canadian bioethics, by promoting Canadian scholarship, bilingualism, and teaching the next generation of Canadian bioethicists
As now an “established” if not yet “senior” member of the Canadian bioethics community, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in and watch the development of Canadian bioethics over the past 20 years.
This experience has at times made me hopeful, at other times disillusioned, and sometimes disinterested…but I invariably come back to “hopeful”, which is probably a personality issue as I’m an incorrigible enthusiast! Since becoming a professor in bioethics, I’ve had the privilege of teaching and mentoring numerous Masters and PhD students, and their enthusiasm and energy is a continuing source of inspiration which fuels my desire to build, to innovate, and to try to make a lasting difference in Canadian bioethics. Here, I want to share an experience that, like so many in my career, started with being pissed off by things that simply didn’t work and which I knew could be done better.
Publishing Canadian Content
For many years now, I’ve complained to colleagues about the difficulty in getting Canadian content published in US or international academic journals, in light of responses such as “Its an interesting piece, but its too regional” or “It doesn’t talk about US legislation, so our readers won’t care; can you make it more general?” But the stories I was trying to tell were not about the US or international contexts, even if the ideas could clearly be extended beyond Canada’s borders. Fine, I added generalizations in the Introduction and Conclusion of my papers, talked about “Canada as a case study”, etc., but this was invariably instrumental. True, it helped reach an international audience…but what if the people I wanted to reach were next door, or in the next province? The problem was that there was no academic bioethics journal dedicated to or at least interested in publishing explicitly Canadian content. Yes, we’re a small community, so there’s not a huge critical mass to support a traditional academic journal…but growing up a child of the Internet age I was convinced that other models were possible.
As a fluently bilingual (English and French speaking) Canadian, I know I have an advantage in being able to step across the language divide that has for so long and still separates the English and French speaking bioethics communities. Despite the best efforts of the Canadian Bioethics Society to accept presentations at the annual conference in French, and to engage in costly simultaneous translation, there remains a divide that inhibits the sharing of research and ideas, primarily from French to English. So I now encourage, persuade and cajole the graduate students in my programme to present in English at any conference outside Quebec, because the goal is to share their ideas, not fight old language battles, and that means presenting in English. Despite their hesitancy to make fools of themselves – they invariably have the (unfounded) fear that their accents and vocabulary will be the source of ridicule – the French speaking students make the effort because they know it’s important, and the results invariably warrant the effort. But there’s a big difference between giving a 20 minute talk in English, and writing an academic paper in English. The disincentive to publish in English, when it’s not one’s primary language, is substantial…but publishing in French bioethics journals – of which there are a only handful, and mostly European – ensures that the ideas will not make it to the English speaking bioethics world, who still predominantly do not read French, thereby reinforcing a ghettoization of French language bioethics. What to do?
“Build it, and They Will Come”?
In 2012, with a small group of intrepid graduate students from the Université de Montréal, I helped launch a new bilingual bioethics journal, BioéthiqueOnline. Motivated in large part by my gripping about the difficulty in and importance of publishing Canadian content, as well as a need to bridge the language divide, we created a journal with the aim of filling an important gap in the Canadian academic and professional bioethics communities: that is, the journal would provide a space for publishing innovative content, including that with a regional or national focus, in either of Canada’s two official languages and with bilingual abstracts (Williams-Jones 2012).
To avoid being seen as parochial or “second string”, we have aimed high and created a rigorous manuscript review process equal to that of more established academic journals. Following a “failed” experiment with a non-peer reviewed platform – we tried to run an interactive, comment driven system of community feedback and discussion but just got spam – the journal has moved to a full peer-review process for submitted articles. This move was in part motivated by the credibility that peer-review status would bring to our journal, recognition essential to building a readership and submissions, and because we realized that funding support was invariably tied to this type of journal structure: “no peer-review = no grants” (Williams-Jones, et al. 2012).
But what makes BioéthiqueOnline different, and I would argue, innovative, is our philosophy of mentoring and our focus on transparency.
1. Instead of setting the bar for publication extremely high and thus discriminating against junior scholars (students, post-docs, new professors, professionals) or those not writing in their first language, we made a conscious choice to mentor authors who may be new to academic publishing. So when we receive a manuscript with potential but that is not yet ready for publication, the editors invest substantial time and energy in providing detailed feedback to help the author(s) improve the manuscript.
2. We have opted for a fully transparent (i.e., non-blinded) evaluation and peer-review process. On the grounds that transparency is the first step towards building trust and credibility in academic research and publication, the names of editors and peer-reviewers involved in the evaluation of each manuscript are disclosed to authors during the review process, and are listed at the top of the final published paper. While this was the source of some initial trepidation on the part of peer-reviewers, to date none have refused to review a manuscript on these grounds, and many have welcomed the openness and feedback on their support.
3. Despite having little if any operating funds, for both ethical and pragmatic reasons we have opted for a fully open access no-fee journal – i.e., free to read and to publish – where all authors retain full rights to their work. In line with the broader open access movement, and in the context of a shifting world of academic research and publishing, we felt that there should be the fewest barriers possible to knowledge dissemination and acquisition (Smith et al. 2013). But pragmatically, we were also well aware that if we wanted people to read bioethics scholarship in English or in French, and with Canadian content, then it had to be easily accessible, and that means free and online.
At times, I am still disillusioned or disinterested about the fate of Canadian bioethics, in part because of its often parochial nature and the persistent language divide; this has taken me and other more senior colleagues into other areas of scholarship, to our benefit but likely also to the detriment of the broader bioethics community in Canada. Yet, the enthusiasm of the students with whom I have the privilege of working gives me renewed energy and convinces me that there are interesting ways to make a difference in Canadian bioethics, and in the community more generally, if we can simply set aside our historical baggage and get on with doing interesting scholarship. Clearly, the ongoing experiment that is BioéthiqueOnline cannot “save” Canadian bioethics. But with this journal, we have created an innovative and dynamic place for the rapid dissemination of Canadian and international bioethics scholarship, free from the constraints of publication charges or language barriers. In so doing, I hope that we can encourage individuals, groups and communities who are interested in and dedicated to conducting innovative bioethics research, to collaborate across borders (linguistic, geographic and ideological) and to share stories that are of interest to the Canadian and international bioethics communities.