Since its inception 31 years ago, the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience (JoCN) has followed the latest science and trends in the field, becoming one of the preeminent journals publishing in the brain sciences. First led by Michael Gazzaniga, a founder of CNS, and then by Mark D’Esposito, who was Editor in Chief (EiC) for 17 years, the journal is now heading into its next phase of evolution with initiatives on tap to decrease gender bias in citation practices, make peer review more transparent, and increase preregistration. 

CNS spoke with Brad Postle, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the new EiC at JOCN, about these efforts and his goals for the journal.

CNS: Congrats on your new position as Editor in Chief at JoCN… First, how is it going? What has it been like taking on this new role during a global pandemic?

Postle: Thanks! (and “Thanks?). It’s been like everything else, arrange things over zoom and via telephone instead of in person. My one regret is that the only principals I’ve never met in person are the production and publishing people at MIT Press. Had CNS 2020 not gone virtual, I was planning to meet them in person while in Boston.

CNS: What is your biggest goal for the next year for JoCN?

Postle: Well, “don’t break it” is of course the most important. If the community doesn’t notice any inconvenient changes or new kinds of problems that didn’t exist previously, then that would be a win. In terms of specific initiatives, I hope that the gender citation balance tool that we’ll soon be introducing rolls out reasonably smoothly, and that people don’t find it burdensome to work with. In a sentence or two, Jacqueline Fulvio and Ileri Akinnola in my group have found that the same thing is true for JoCN that Jordan Dworkin and Dani Bassett and her group found (in Nature Neuroscience, 2020) for a broader set of neuroscience journals: Authors cite papers first- and last-authored by men at higher rate than would be predicted from the base rate of “man-man” author teams who are active in our community, relative to author teams with a woman in the first or last position. The JoCN-specific number crunching will be published soon, and Jackie Fulvio is now working on a tool that will calculate, for each reference list fed into it, a “gender citation balance index” (GCBI catchy, right?). Our plan is to make the calculation of a GCBI voluntary, but those who choose to do it will include this with their manuscript submission. Depending on a manuscript’s GCBI, reviewers will be encouraged to suggest relevant citations from an underrepresented author category that the authors might consider  including in their revision. It’s a straightforward idea and, you know, “what could possibly go wrong” with its implementation?.

CNS: What responsibility do journal editors and publishers have in addressing gender bias in citation practices?

Postle: The simple act of articulating and modeling prosocial behavior can influence one’s peers. In social psychology, this has been formalized as social norms messaging, and it’s been shown to work in many contexts. At the journal we’re trying to take the additional modest step of providing a mechanism that allows authors to actively engage with this long-standing issue in our field, whenever they are ready to do so. 

CNS: Have you seen any new trends in terms of gender bias during COVID-19, or have concerns been brought up in that context?

Postle: I’ve read about it, but not detected anything first-hand. What I have noticed is an increase, with both women and men, of prospective reviewers invoking childcare responsibilities when either declining or asking for a longer timeline. I really empathize with colleagues with younger children and wish I knew what we could do to help them get through this. 

CNS: What role will the new “Consulting Editor” play in the publication?

Postle: Let me answer in terms of what goals they help us achieve. The first is diversity. We currently have six North Americans in the top editorial positions, are transitioning from two women to three (woo hoo!), and all of us are White. On top of that, all of us would be characterized by some snarky trainees who I know as “olds.” Because the position of “Consulting Editor” (CE) is brand new, we’ve been able to populate it with an eye toward increasing the regional, gender, racial/ethnic, and stage-of-career diversity at the journal. 

The other primary goal is transparency, and the CE contributes to this by providing second opinions on editorial rejections. JoCN is a small operation that depends on the efforts of just a few dedicated editors who all have “day jobs.” It’s simply not possible for us to give full consideration to every manuscript we receive, and, indeed, more than half get rejected without going out for peer review. In standard operating practices, the reason for an editorial rejection is unknown to the authors, and so can seem arbitrary and capricious. Our new practice is that, for a manuscript that I or an Associate Editor (AE) thinks is a candidate for editorial rejection, we first get a second opinion from a CE, sharing with them our rationale. If the CE agrees, then we also share this rationale with the authors, and hope that this makes the outcome less opaque, if not less disappointing. If the CE disagrees and this has already happened on several occasions then the editor’s initial decision is overridden, and the paper goes out for peer review. In this way, the procedure at least decreases the likelihood that one’s manuscript will receive treatment that is outright wrong or unfair.

CNS: How is JoCN incorporating preregistration in its next phase of evolution?

Postle: Just a day or so ago, we posted on the web page that we now accept Registered Reports. I hope it goes well because I and many of the AEs think it’s a really important way to contribute to the improvement of scientific practices. Of course, there are even more exotic models out there, like a consortium that I just learned about today, in which the journal agrees to take into account the substance of “crowdsourced” reviews that anyone can post (publicly) for a preprint that they’ve read. We want to be flexible and responsive, but also stay true to the journal’s identity and its values.

CNS: How can CNS members get the most out of JoCN?

Postle: We try to highlight what we see as important developments in the field with Special Focus collections of papers. To date, all Special Focuses that have appeared in JoCN have come out of symposia at CNS, with the chair of the symposium organizing fellow participants, plus sometimes a select couple of additional groups, to each submit a paper related to the topic of the symposium. But CNS isn’t the sole source of exciting new ideas in our field, so I’d encourage members to contact me with Special Focus ideas that stem from a different meeting, or perhaps just from an important development that merits this kind of in-depth treatment. More generally, as a journal of, by, and for our community, we hope we can be more responsive to the needs of our community than might be a journal that answers to commercial or bureaucratic factors. 

There are currently a few theoretical/computational frameworks that have proven to be quite successful in addressing problems in different fields, and this gives rise to the kinds of unifying principles that I find particularly valuable. These include divisive normalization, predictive coding, and reinforcement learning.

CNS: What trends do you see in cognitive neuroscience right now that are really exciting to you in your new role?

Postle: There are currently a few theoretical/computational frameworks that have proven to be quite successful in addressing problems in different fields, and this gives rise to the kinds of unifying principles that I find particularly valuable. These include divisive normalization, predictive coding, and reinforcement learning. And, of course, because the brain is a massive nonlinear dynamical system, I think that attempts to bring to bear on our field some of the relevant formalisms and tools from physics and allied disciplines are exciting and in some cases quite promising. And then there’s the continual improvement of all of our methods, and the periodic addition of new ones, that prevent the growth of moss between our toes.

CNS: What trends in publishing are you seeing and how are those impacting the direction you take with JoCN?

Postle: The clearest one is open access. For the time being at JoCN, as with many other legacy journals, one has to pay extra for one’s paper to be fully open. Our associates at MIT Press assure me that it’s only a matter of time, maybe a few years, before all scientific publishing will convert to this model.

CNS: Anything else you’d like to add that I didn’t ask about?

Postle: Well, I guess that there’s yet another ‘part’ of my answer about CEs that I left out, and that’s that our hope is that at least a subset of today’s CEs will stay with the journal to become tomorrow’s AEs and EiCs, and so we’re hoping that the diversity that we’ve sought to “bake in” at this entry level of editorial responsibility will, over time, propagate throughout.

-Lisa M.P. Munoz



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