Opening access to academic writing: On supporting the petition against Elsevier

Opinion by Ramya Balasingam
Feb. 2, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

Getting a manuscript published has always been an extensive process. From finding an editor who will publish to spending hours editing the manuscript, authors often spend months just working through the publishing process. Given the length and demanding nature of the publishing process, we might expect that authors are reasonably compensated.

For academic authors, however, there are only two real choices: submit to a publisher who pays the author but gets the rights to the work and the profits from the author’s piece, or pay a hefty article-processing charge (APC) to a publisher to print and release the material to the public for free. The latter is usually the more desirable option. But unfortunately, the APC often seems forbidding to scholars with little funding. Thus it would be beneficial to both academic scholars — as well as to the public, who would have open access to these articles — if APCs were reduced.

Recently, academics have started to advocate for better options, with the latest efforts being made by researchers in the cognitive science community who are trying to get Elsevier, a publishing company, to lower fees to publish universal-access academic papers in the journal Cognition.

Cognition’s APC is $2,150 — a large sum, especially for scholars whose research is not well-funded and just want their research findings published and available to a broad audience. The petition to reduce the APC is led by David Barner, a professor of psychology at UC San Diego, and Jesse Snedeker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University.  

Though both are passionate about this cause, neither has given any concrete way through which Cognition may be compensated for this fee reduction; both just say that Elsevier should charge significantly lower fees.” However, despite this, the petition has gotten much attention, including signatures from more than 1,200 people — the most prominent being Noam Chomsky, a world-famous logician and linguist at MIT.

The petition to reduce Cognition’s APC comes after the resignation of six editors at Lingua — another Elsevier journal — for similar reasons. In November, editors and board members of Lingua requested lower APCs, asked that published authors be able to maintain copyright over their own material and demanded ownership of the journal.  Elsevier, of course, refused, so the disgruntled editors left to start their own journal — Glossa.

Glossa charges a $400 APC but waives the fee for authors who are unable to pay this amount. Lingua still maintains its original APC. Thus, still reeling from all of the criticism it accrued from the Lingua situation, Elsevier might be compelled to act — and, this time, favorably for the academic scholars.

Glossa’s small APC makes it a feasible and welcoming option for academics to publish work without having to spend too much of their funding on the publishing cost. Although prestige is a factor that could influence scholars to pay a higher APC and publish at a more well-known journal, the creation of Glossa is a step in the right direction.

We still have a ways to go, though. The fate of the petition to Elsevier is still unclear. Hopefully Elsevier will evaluate the situation at hand fairly and work with academic scholars to determine a reasonable APC amount. This compromise could serve as a model and trigger changes at other major journals in other disciplines, thereby opening up the academic literature to a broader audience.


Contact Ramya Balsingam at ramyab ‘at’

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