An open access fail

In this post I dissect the response by the editors of Cognition to a mass appeal for open access by the researcher community. I hope that my rather critical comments will improve understanding of the issues and help the community achieve better outcomes in the future.

Cognition is a scientific journal published by Elsevier that was traditionally available only by subscription. Some years ago, like most other Elsevier journals, Cognition became a “hybrid” journal: authors can make their particular paper open access, for a fee termed an APC or author processing charge. In the case of Cognition the APC is very high – $2150. And as to the subscription fees, most universities subscribe to Cognition as part of a larger “big deal” package, the very high fees for which help give Elsevier their operating profit of over 30% – well exceeding that of BMW, Google, and Apple, and off the public taxpayer’s tit, not by developing new products or services.

Lingua was a prestigious linguistics journal published by Elsevier and in much the same situation as Cognition. Its editors, including the editor-in-chief, Johan Rooryck, told Elsevier that they’d like to transition to what they called “Fair Open Access” – making the journal open access rather than requiring an expensive subscription to read the journal, with an APC fee of 400 Euros or less, CC-BY licensing of articles with copyright remaining with the authors, and full editorial control of the journal.

Fair Open Access is how journals really should be set up, with the publisher in the role of a service provider, not in the role of owner of research articles (the content of which are typically almost entirely funded by university or government funds). When Elsevier refused to agree to this model, Rooryck and the other editors walked. They started a new journal, Glossa, published by the non-profit Open Library of the Humanities (OLH). The OLH model easily exceeds the ambition of Fair Open Access – thanks to monetary contributions by over one hundred university libraries, authors are charged no APC feeGlossa is free to publish in (although authors with open-access funds available to them are asked to optionally contribute 400 Euros) and its content is free to read and re-use. Thanks to Rooryck’s leadership and no doubt the community rallying together, all  of the editors and the editorial board and many or all of the authors moved over to Glossa, bringing their prestige along with them.

Wouldn’t it be great if other scientific journals followed suit? David Barner (UCSD) and Jesse Snedeker (Harvard) of the editorial board of Cognition thought so. They appealed to the main Cognition editors to investigate the possibility of Fair Open Access. And they started a petition, which was signed by more than 1500 members of the Cognition community, including many famous (such as Noam Chomsky, Nancy Kanwisher, and Liz Spelke) as well as not famous researchers(like me) who publish in Cognition.

The response by the editors of Cognition appeared as an editorial in the journal. The editors say that in response to Barner and Snedeker’s appeal and the associated petition, they polled the editorial board about their opinions on “their satisfaction with the journal and their attitudes about the journal’s role in the open dissemination of science” and got a response rate of 60%. Sixty percent? This looks like a failure of leadership by the editors. Here he is asking critically important questions about the nature and future of the journal, and he gets responses from not much more than half of the editorial board. Presumably every member of the editorial board is doing serious work for the journal – editing the occasional manuscript, in response to the editors. If not, those editorial board members should be asked to resign. So there’s essentially a 100% (eventual) response rate to editing requests, which is a lot more work than answering questions about satisfaction with the journal and their attitudes about the journal’s role in the open dissemination of science. Of course, I do not know how much of this is a failure of leadership by the editor in chief, real recalcitrance by the editorial board, or an intentionally weak effort by an editor in chief who doesn’t want to change anything.

The editorial continues:

While the editorial board expressed a range of opinions, most members were happy with the journal’s relationship with Elsevier.

I’d expect well-informed and public-minded, or even just university-minded, scholars to be less than happy. I’d expect them to resent how much money Elsevier sucks out of our universities as corporate profit, and to resent Elsevier’s ownership of the copyright to the research. Still, being “happy with the relationship” is an ambiguous statement; the editorial board members might still strongly support some of the planks of Fair Open Access.

After a list of the services that Elsevier provides (with no indication that those services couldn’t be provided by OLH or others), the editorial continues:

The poll also indicated striking consensus on the open access issue: The editorial board was happy with the journal’s mixed approach to dissemination, but it felt strongly that open access fees are too high. They felt that a substantial reduction in open access fees would make the option more attractive to authors, with the effect of increasing access around the world to scientific work published in the journal, work that is frequently publicly funded.

By now one can infer that the editors have already given up on (or never tried for) four out of five of the Fair Open Access points. More about that in my next post. But here, we do have a strong statement in support of the request for reasonable APCs.

the editors at Cognition approached Elsevier with a request to lower open access fees. A process of negotiation ensued with the result that Elsevier will start a fund to defray open-access costs for those authors with limited means of support.

OK, negotiation and compromise was to be expected. But what exactly is this fund? The editorial continues:


Authors whose articles are accepted after 1st May, 2016 can apply by requesting a form from the editorial office:

Decisions to grant discounts are at the discretion of the Editor-in-Chief, in consultation with the Publisher.

Accepted authors always have the choice to publish their article as a subscription article at no cost (even after requesting an APC fee reduction), and the subscription option includes Green Open Access Cognition has an embargo period of 12 months.

APC discounts must be requested within one week of acceptance, and will have no impact on the decision made by an editor whether or not to accept the associated paper.


What does this amount to? There’s no information about how large the discounts will be or how many are available. Elsevier will continue to charge an outrageous $2150 APC fee to most, with a completely unknown discount for some. I have it on good authority that the actual cost (not counting the contributions from university libraries that bring the author cost to zero) to publish an article open access for OLH is much less than $1000.

Is this discount of variable amount and unknown total extent a decent outcome of the editors’ (ostensible) attempt to fight for scholars’ interests? Let’s set aside the point that only one of the original five requests was put to Elsevier. Even with the one remaining, there is no information provided about the value of the limited concession they got.

As a signatory to the Fair Open Access petition and a researcher who’s published in Cognition, I’m very upset by both the outcome and the process. I’d expect a large minority or significant majority of the other 1,650 other signatories to also be unhappy.

Barner, Levy, and Snedeker have described their reaction. Yes, they too are unhappy. They consider the “reasonable compromise” with Elsevier (in the words of the editorial) to be not only unreasonable but also unethical:

While paying APCs to Elsevier might make individual articles publicly available, this is neither necessary, since there exist FREE ways to accomplish this same goal (see below), nor ethical, because it spends even more taxpayer dollars without significantly affecting the global problem of access.

To top it all off,  as if to say who’s really the boss, the editors’ editorial is not legally their own. As it says at the bottom of the article, it is “copyright Elsevier B.V., 2016”.

In my next post, I’ll try to consider what we should learn from all this, with a view towards new efforts. If you want to jump to a specific new effort, see the end-run action around Elsevier being promoted by Barner, Levy, and Snedeker.



One thought on “An open access fail

  1. I’ve written a blogpost about Elsevier’s publishing and open-access failures (including experiences of applying to that “open-access fund”; it was ridiculous!) which might be of interest here:

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