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Access Agility

Sociology Professor Pivots From Publishers to Politicians to Ensure Free Flow of Information

By Chris Carroll

Papers flying around bars

Background photo by Utsman Media via Unsplash; Cohen headshot courtesy of Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0

Sociology Professor Philip Cohen (below) founded the open access SocArXiv in 2016 for social scientists, and it’s now a platform for working papers.

It took a federal judge to make President Donald Trump stop blocking UMD sociology Professor Philip Cohen and six others from viewing and commenting on his Twitter account.

But now Cohen and the administration seem to be allied in a fight for another kind of access—to government-funded research. According to recent reports, the administration is weighing an order to make publications freely available immediately, instead of allowing journals to initially charge for access.

Philip Cohen headshotThat alarms publishers ranging from corporations to august scientific societies, but for Cohen, it’s a step toward, er, making academic publishing great again. He founded the open-access SocArXiv in 2016 for social scientists (modeled after the ArXiv system used in STEM fields), and it’s now a platform for working papers. Some of Cohen’s drafts posted there—including one that explored the dropping divorce rate among younger Americans—have gotten wide attention.

Common cause doesn’t connote chumminess though, and Cohen, who is still tangling with Trump in court over Twitter, spoke to Maryland Today about the ins and outs of access.

With litigation ongoing, does it feel weird to agree with the Trump administration?
This was being debated and negotiated long before Trump came into office. The earlier compromise that was reached was that federally funded research has to be made public, but publishers have a one-year embargo on it. The policy to provide access immediately has been working its way through Washington, and it’s arriving during the Trump administration—although the biggest threat to this policy might be the president actually finding out about it.

You blog a lot and interact with nearly 20,000 Twitter followers—why?
In addition to me being just sort of social, it really has increased the metabolism of the research process. I put out graphs and drafts and comments and questions and ask people for ideas and also respond to other people's ideas, and the research process benefits. 

What’s the problem with academic publishing today? 
Universities produce information in the form of research, and then, essentially give it for free to publishers who sell it back to them. I'm not against profits morally, but that’s really an inefficiency. 

Is there anything good about the for-profit, closed-access model?
In the closed and for-profit parts? No. But the system does a lot of things that are very valuable. We obviously need a way to do peer review. The journals also play sort of a curation function—telling the world these are the 10 most important pieces of research in this area this month. No one wants to read every draft of every working paper and decide for themselves.

Speaking broadly, what needs to change?
The way we ended up in this mess is that once upon a time, it was really expensive and difficult to produce research articles and to literally print and ship and archive them. All of these other functions like peer review and curation got attached to that very valuable service they were providing. So the answer is now we just have to extract those functions again. 

How do you do that?
It's a challenge with a system this big with this much money and inertia within it. What we came up with SocArXiv is to hit the sweet spot of something that's constructive and useful right now that also moves the whole system in the right direction. So we call this a paper server or a preprint server, and we introduce a stage in the publishing process where you can freely disseminate unpublished work. You're taking out the cost access barriers and the delay aspect, and the authors who post their papers on SocArXiv can still submit them to journals and publish them.

Do you have a bigger goals?
SocArXiv could also be a platform that we do something like peer review on. It has the potential to be an accessible, open platform for more of the publishing process. So yes, we can do more.



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