FAQ: Fair Open Access at Cognition


Contributed by David Barner and Jesse Snedeker, in consultation with Johan Rooryck


Here are some briefs replies to Frequently Asked Questions we’ve encountered in response to our previous post, “Fair Open Access at Cognition.” We thank those of you who asked these questions, and encourage you to continue to ask them, so we can collectively understand what’s at stake. 

1. Why is this important?

Nearly all of the research published in Cognition is funded by taxpayer dollars. However, the results of this research are not made available to the general public. Instead, readers are charged access fees to view publications. Likewise, university libraries pay substantial subscription fees to give researchers access to journals. Thus, both the taxpayers who fund research and the researchers who are responsible for generating it are currently charged to access the knowledge we generate, while publishers earn profits exceeding 30%. Although this model made more sense in a pre-internet era, the distribution of knowledge has now become considerably cheaper. Fair Open Access promises a world in which anyone with a cell phone is able to access the full wealth of accumulated human knowledge.

2. Will authors be charged a prohibitive fee?

At Glossa, which recently formed after its Editorial Board left Lingua, no fees are charged to authors. Instead, fees are paid by a general fund, which is sourced from both author contributions (when they have grant dollars earmarked for fees), and from the not-for-profit organization Open Library of Humanities (OLH). Other Open Access journals like PLoS provide fee waivers to cover publication costs for those without funding (https://www.plos.org/publications/publication-fees/).

3. Does a move to Fair Open Access threaten the quality of journals?

The quality of a journal (e.g., as measured by its Impact Factor) is determined by its editors, its editorial policies, and its contributors. There is no evidence that Impact Factor is affected by copywriting, typesetting, or other similar publishing parameters. If the editors and contributors of a journal collectively decide to move to a Fair Open Access platform, no difference in the intellectual assets of the journal should occur (e.g., see “Glossa” and “The Journal of Machine Learning Research”).

4. Are the Open Access fees at for-profit journals really that high?

Large publishers like Elsevier charge upwards of $2000 for Open Access. For example, at Cognition, fees are currently $2150. This number can be compared to two existing alternatives. First, article fees at PLoS are $1,495, but include support for authors who cannot pay. Second, at Ubiquity Press, the new home of Glossa, fees are approximately $400, and are generally not paid by authors. Though costs across journals are likely to differ, even savings of $600 per article (PLoS vs. Cognition) are worthwhile pursuing.

Critically, the current system at Cognition results in a journal that is primarily available only to subscribers. Because Open Access is not universal and the fees are high few authors consider it.  For example, of the 56 articles published in the first two months of 2016 (volumes 146 & 147), only 10 were Open Access.

5. Won’t the production quality journals suffer?

PLoS, which has a reputation for high quality production values, pays for copy editing from Open Access fees, as do Glossa and other open access journals. Many not-for-profit publishers (e.g., MIT Press) maintain strong reputations for high quality publishing standards. There is no evidence that production quality is superior under a for-profit publication model.

6. Will this require editorial board members to do the same job for free? If so, won’t the quality suffer?

At many major journals editorial board members receive a fee for their services. This is a factor that must be negotiated in any Open Access effort. In principle, paying editors for their services is not impossible in an Open Access model, though it would place pressures on it.

In many cases we suspect that editors do not weigh financial incentives strongly when deciding to accept a position. However, one reason that they might decline a position is the heavy workload associated with editing papers. Ironically, this problem may be exacerbated, in part, by the expectation that editorial duties be paid. In a model without remuneration, a larger editorial board may be assembled without incurring costs, thereby allowing duties to be distributed and minimized for all parties.

7. Is there anything wrong with journals making money?

In absence of other considerations, no, there’s nothing wrong with making money. However, there are other considerations. The publishing industry does not operate under the normal free market capitalist model. Instead, it is highly subsidized by public funds and voluntary human capital. Taxpayers fund most academic research, and researchers add indispensable value by acting as unpaid reviewers. Publishers pay nothing to acquire this content yet it is the source of their products’ value. Because each publisher has a monopoly on particular contents, they can charge libraries essentially whatever they can extract.  

If there is a market force that can slow correct this equation, it is us. We can reconceptualize this relationship and think of the publisher as an entity that is hired by our community to distribute our work to the world.  Seen this way, the question becomes whether their profits are in proportion to the value that they are adding or whether we can obtain these same services elsewhere at a more reasonable price. The value that the publisher adds is in supporting the editorial infrastructure of the journal, providing copy editing, printing and distribution. Some of these services have become largely unnecessary (printing). Others have grown cheaper with outsourcing (copyediting). Some are only necessary on a publishing model where readers pay (sales). Understanding some of the other costs will require more careful consideration.

Some observers have suggested that the high profits of publishers are necessary because the revenues of big healthy journals like Cognition are used to support smaller more specialized journals that are circulated by the same publisher. Such subsidization may indeed occur, and perhaps in some cases is necessary. However, publisher profits should not be confused with journal profits. A publisher’s profit reflects all of their gains and losses: It is calculated after accounting for the subsidization of unprofitable journals by profitable ones. For context, Nature reported in 2013 that the before tax profit margin for Elsevier’s scientific, technical and medical division was estimated to be between 40% and 50%.

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