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Some thoughts on Cognition's refusal to go Open Access

Earlier this year, David Barner (UC San Diego) and Jesse Snedeker (Harvard) launched a petition to ask the editors of the psychology journal Cognition to move their journal to 'fair' open access: All articles should be made freely available for anyone to read, and publishing fees should be far lower than the current $2150 per-article option (authors can currently choose to pay this to make their article open access).

If Elsevier, the publisher of Cognition, would refuse to cooperate, the entire editorial board should resign and relaunch the journal under a different name and with a fair open-access model; this bold move would not be unprecedented: the editorial board of Lingua—reborn Glossa—did just that.

This petition was signed by 1660 people, many of which are prominent academics. I signed it as well.

Image adapted from Michael Eisen (license: CC-by)

The editorial board of Cognition responded with an editorial in which they suggested the following 'compromise': Things stay as they are, but authors can request a discounted publishing fee. How much of a discount? And by which criteria? They don't say.

This is typical Elsevier maneuvering: Whenever academics revolt, Elsevier respond with a counterproposal. This gives the impression that they are open to negotiation. But they are really not: The counterproposal is not an acceptable compromise at all—just a rhetoric trick to smother the conversation.

Like this:

  • Scientist: There are two apples on the table. You always have both, but I don't think that's fair. I propose that we each have one apple.
  • Elsevier: I understand that you're unsatisfied. A fair and equal division of fruit is very important to me. Therefore I propose the following: I have both apples. But if the second apple has a brown spot, then I will spit it out on the floor and you can have it. Ok?
  • Scientist: Ok …

That's pretty much what happened here. Elsevier made an insulting counterproposal in the hope of killing the debate. In itself, this is not surprising, because Elsevier does this all the time. But what is surprising is that this counterproposal comes from the editorial board of Cognition; that is, it comes from the scientists and not the publisher.

The editorial is pure Elsevier apologetics. For example:

Elsevier provides a number of services that may not be obvious to authors: It employs several people (…). Elsevier also maintains electronic systems to handle the workflow (…). Elsevier provides a reliable archive (…). Elsevier provides legal support (…). They also provide training. Elsevier remunerates editors (though not reviewers or, obviously, authors).

This a list of services that Elsevier provides. This list is correct, but it's also a smoke screen. Here's how I would phrase it:

Although Elsevier provides a number services that may not be obvious to authors, these services are not why publishing and subscription fees are so high. Elsevier's 40% profit marginthat's why publishing and subscription fees are so high. Also, these services are no excuse for locking scientific articles away from the general public that paid for them.

Why does the editorial board of Cognition play along with the Elsevier propaganda game? I don't know. But I suspect that this editorial resulted from an internal discussion in which Elsevier rejected all serious reform proposed by the editorial board. In the end, the editorial board grudgingly admitted defeat; and to justify their defeat to the outside world, they wrote this weak editorial. (This is not a fact—I wasn't privy to this discussion. It's just my best guess of what happened behind the scenes.)

Last Sunday, David Barner and Jesse Snedeker, this time joined by Roger Levy (MIT), responded to the editorial board with a new proposal: that all articles submitted to Cognition should also be made available as public preprints (working drafts of the manuscript). That way, at least the preprints would be freely available for everyone to read, even if the final articles end up behind Elsevier's paywalls. They acknowledge that this solution may not satisfy die-hard open-access proponents, but offer it as a pragmatic temporary solution.

I fully support their new proposal. But I fear that it will not catch on. Too many researchers are skeptical of making their work available as preprints. So the new proposal is likely to meet resistance from both sides: from Elsevier, who will try to find some way of blocking it (even though preprints are currently allowed by Elsevier); and from researchers, many of whom feel uncomfortable with the idea of preprints. But perhaps I'm overly pessimistic—we'll see.

Finally, I would like to applaud David Barner, Jesse Snedeker, and Roger Levy for their work. They are leading the way. The editorial board of Cognition, for the moment, is not.