Philip Cohen’s ASA Publications Committee platform

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The American Sociological Association’s Committee on Nominations invited me to stand for election to the ASA’s Committee on Publications. I accepted the invitation reluctantly, because I am pessimistic about the opportunities to make progress on the most pressing issues before ASA, which I discuss below. I think it’s likely we’ll be in better shape for making big decisions in a few years, after the economics of publishing have gotten worse and (hopefully) alternatives such as SocArXiv and Sociological Science have gotten stronger.

But I appreciate the invitation, and I think there is something to be gained even if all I can do is raise the issues, and help disseminate important information (and my opinions) to the membership. And of course I can’t predict the future, and what the other present and future committee members will do, so who knows. Plus, it’s as a chance to spend time with the interesting and dedicated members of the committee and ASA staff.

Note on conflict of interest

I am the director of SocArXiv, a non-profit, open source, open access paper server for the social sciences, which I founded with a group of sociologists and library community leaders. I don’t draw a salary as director of SocArXiv, but if I can get grants for the project I might use them to buy off some of my time (meaning my salary doesn’t go up, but I work on SocArXiv instead of teaching), so you could say I stand to gain from promoting SocArXiv. And one of my ambitions in that role is to have ASA work with SocArXiv, for example in the dissemination of preprints and postprints from ASA journals, conference papers, and possibly innovative new projects like open peer review. I hope serving on this committee will help me advance SocArXiv’s agenda as well as ASA’s. So if that makes you uncomfortable you might not want to vote for me. In that case you might also consider the similar conflicts of interest held by the committee members who are, were, or hope to be editors of journals Sage publishes for ASA, or who otherwise benefit in their careers from the paywalled publishing status quo in academia. We’re all trying to do what we think is right and get paid and at the same time.

Basic perspective

In 2016 I wrote a short essay about ASA and publishing, and my basic perspective hasn’t much changed. Here is the gist from that essay.

The scholarly communication system is broken, and ASA lives off the money that brokenness creates. According to the 2016 budget report (I don’t see an update to this), 35% of total revenue comes from journal operations. That is $2.2 million that came from institutional subscriptions (mostly paid by the libraries of colleges and universities where ASA members work), under the contract with Sage. Increasingly, these subscriptions are part of big “bundles” of journals, in which individual libraries have little say over what they’re actually buying. Publishing the journals, in turn, costs 11% of total expenses, or about $717,000. So journal publishing produces money for other things the association does.

At the same time, ASA — like other paywall publishers — is in an increasingly defensive position, as open access alternatives spread and the cost of technologically and legally defending the paywall increases under pressure from Sci-Hub (which I wrote about here) and various other breaches. In a quasi-official statement from the ASA, publications director Karen Edwards wrote that Sci-Hub, “threatens the well-being of ASA and our sister associations as well as the peer assessment of scholarship in sociology and other academic disciplines.” Without the paywall, she implied, peer review itself cannot survive. I disagree.

More generally, ASA staff has raised alarms about the sustainability of the current model. From the Publications Committee minutes in spring 2016:  “The possibility exists that the journal world may not be as profitable in the future as it is now. The journal marketplace is shifting, and will continue to do so, so Council and EOB should keep an eye on this revenue source.”

We know that free journals could be published for a fraction of what ASA and Sage now spend and reap (one of the major expenses of any paywall publisher is developing and maintaining the technology to keep publications out of the hands of non-paying customers). That would mean giving up a substantial share of the association’s current income. And of course, it’s not a simple task. The basic goal is a future in which scholarly societies, academic libraries, and granting agencies together pay for scholarly publication, and cut out the for-profit publishers. That is instead of universities and federal agencies paying for research twice — once for the researchers, and once again for their published output — and all of it gets to be open access. This requires some institutional mechanism for collecting and distributing the funds used to produce open-access research output. Such solutions will require creativity, collaboration, and hard work. Designing a new system is relatively easy, but moving today’s institutional actors in that direction is not.

Platform

Here’s what I’d like to do, more and less implausible. These are overlapping and not mutually exclusive.

1. Adopt TOP guidelines for ASA journals

The Center for Open Science has published Transparency and Openness Promotion (TOP) Guidelines. The guidelines are incremental.  With almost 5,000 signatories — journals and associations — they include eight standards, each with three levels of stringency. Journals select which standards they will adopt and a level of implementation for each, ranging from disclosure requirements to verified replications. For example, we could say ASA journals will encourage data and code for analyses be posted publicly and require a statement about whether they are or not. We could encourage publication of replication studies. And so on. Even at low levels of implementation, they set an important tone and direction. This could be done for all of ASA, or individual journal editorial boards could implement them. In addition, by assigning openness badges to journals, authors, or papers, we can symbolically reward open scholarship practices.

2. Adopt preprints and data sharing

When people submit papers for ASA journals, they should be encouraged or required to post them on a public server (such as SocArXiv), along with data and code. When papers are published they can be linked to the preprints, ensuring readers are let to the final versions, while disseminating the research earlier, and free. As a model, consider the American Psychological Association, which has designated a preferred preprint server (PsyArXiv) and data archive (the Center for Open Science, which hosts SocArXiv and PsyArXiv).

3. Open conference papers

ASA requires complete papers be submitted for presentation at the annual meetings. We should make these papers available in a public archive, properly identified and preserved as part of the scholarly record. This is a key step in developing the working paper culture in sociology.

4. No new paywall journals

I will oppose the creation of any new paywalled journals, by ASA or its sections.

5. Flip ASA journals

The Holy Grail. Flipping journals refers to transitioning them from paywalled to open access. We can disseminate more sociology, better and faster, for less money. University libraries and university presses, and some foundations, can be mobilized to raise the money needed to launch sustainable models. For example, if a few hundred libraries would agree to give ASA what they spend on subscriptions to our journals, we could produce the same journals and open them to the public, cutting out Sage’s profits. My goal is for the ASA membership to task our association’s staff with figuring out how to pay for the journals without paywalls, which might require research and grants, and then bring proposals to the membership for approval.

6. Reduce revenue

ASA should make less money. Instead of making money from publications, we should just raise the money we need to publish journals, with the appropriate academic partners (universities and funding agencies). The many laudable things ASA does should be paid for voluntarily, by institutions or people who want to support them, rather than being paid for by publication profits from consumers (our employers) who have no choice but to subsidize ASA operations (and Sage profits).

7. Disseminate information

Too many sociologists don’t know how ASA works, how academic publishing works, and how we all fit into the overall system of research production and dissemination, the “scholarly communications ecosystem.” I would like to see us (starting with students) learning more about the politics and economics of this system, to have a better grasp of the big issues we face. On the publications committee I would hope to learn a lot, and help communicate this to our members and the public.

Conclusion

Here are some relevant experiences I’ve had. As editor, with Syed Ali (who is also running for publications committee!) of Contexts for three years (just completed), I was a non-voting member of the publications committee and got to see how it works. This included participating on a task force on the future of Contexts, which resulted in Sage agreeing to allow free downloads of the journal for the first 30 days of each issue, and in perpetuity after the first year. I’m the current chair of the Family section, and secretary treasurer of the Population section. I also successfully agitated for a new rule requiring ASA-award-winning dissertations to be publicly available. (For previous posts and activity related to ASA, visit the tag on this blog.) All that gives me some useful experience and knowledge.

I’d love for this election to help spur a more widespread discussion and debate over these questions. Without a majority on the publications committee or the ASA Council (and even with such a majority) this is a pretty daunting set of goals. I couldn’t pretend to promise results on any of these, but I pledge to at least promote these ideas, in the service of more research transparency and openness at lower cost.

The ASA election ballots will go out in April. To see what the Committee on Publications does, check out the committee records here.

14 Comments

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14 responses to “Philip Cohen’s ASA Publications Committee platform

  1. As a founding editor of an open access journal, you have my support!

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  2. I am with you on Soc ArXiv but not on pay-to-publish open access model. Not only has it opened the floodgates of predatory publishers, esp making money off the ill informed and desperate, but even legitimate pay-to-publish sites are impossible for unfunded researchers, especially but not only from the global South. US researchers with piles of cash from NIH or (smaller) piles from NSF can consider this principled but in my view it leaves many researchers to do the equivalent of sleep under bridges.

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  3. Pingback: Let’s improve the ASA /Sage journal author agreement | Family Inequality

  4. I will vote for you because I respect you and I find your approach thoughtful and important. However, I am extremely pessimistic about items 5 and 6 on your list, and suspect that (a) they will not be possible, and (b) if they were the negative unintended consequences would likely outweigh the positives. I am less devoted to the open-access model than you are, but consider it more of a good thing than bad.

    Most importantly, I see no reason why cash-strapped universities will agree, in perpetuity, to pay for content that is made available for free. For item 5 on your list to happen, they have to do that — pay forever (not just once, not just a little bit) with no selective benefit.

    And I don’t think applying for grants to publish journals is an adequate source of such funds. So while I fully agree that the system as it stands sucks, I’m not sure that any other viable system sucks less.

    In the specific case of the ASA journals, while of course Sage makes money on them, you’re absolutely correct that the ASA itself survives on the money that’s made. So, while there’s certainly a for-profit middleperson, it’s worth pointing out that the main thing that’s happening is our employers are subsidizing the work of our voluntary association by buying a product whose creation that association organizes. I don’t think that’s as bad as a for-profit publisher simply claiming a large portion of value created by us and paid by our employers.

    I think there is significant awareness among the staff and leadership of ASA that the current funding model is problematic in the medium term. I don’t think there’s consensus about what to do about it. My guess is that most members would not be enthusiastic about increasing dues (likely in the range of $175-$200 per member, based on my calculations — nothing official) to make up for the revenue lost from ending the publishing contract. And it’s not clear to me, having seen ASA budgets for a couple of years now, that there are areas where significant budget cuts can be made without harming things the association does that a significant number of members value. I don’t think this is an easy fix, but it will be a necessary conversation, I suspect sometime in the next decade.

    I enthusiastically agree with item 7: all members and all sociologists should understand the role of the journals, good, bad, and indifferent, in the association.

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    • Yes it’s a big problem that requires big solutions. But look what you did here: “I see no reason why cash-strapped universities will agree, in perpetuity, to pay for content that is made available for free.” Did you just assume that market logic is the only way for universities to operate? Woe to us. It controls how many people think, and makes money for rich people, but it’s not yet the only law.

      One thing you underestimate is the capacity of libraries to act consortially – they do it all the time to various degrees. You need to make some long-term commitments (which, if course, no one makes under the current model either, including not Sage and not ASA and not libraries). So it’s hard.

      One other big picture insight we need is to think about the different functions journals perform eg, peer review for quality, peer review for status, editing, marketing, distribution, etc, and consider models that might break those functions up — functions that were arbitrarily stuck together way back when but no longer need to be.

      We need more imagination!

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      • Yeah, I’d agree we need more imagination – because I’m very skeptical that the ideas that exist right now will work!

        I’ve spent my career at a chronically cash-strapped public university. I honestly cannot fathom a world in which UNC-CH would voluntarily pay a large sum of money in perpetuity for material that is available to all. I don’t think market logic is necessarily “the only way for universities to operate,” but let’s be real here. When — not if — the legislature sends down repeated 2, 3, 4% cuts to campus, under what conditions would it be better for the university to preserve payments for freely-available publications while cutting faculty, staff, building maintenance, student support, etc.?

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        • Under the condition that it would be less money than they are currently throwing away on subscriptions.

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          • I’m really sorry to keep pushing, but I just don’t see this. Sure, it’s great to be able to drop subscriptions now and pay less. No problem. But five years from now, When there’s a budget cut or a different pressing need, what would prevent libraries’ simply deciding to stop paying? If we were in the position of, say, having to choose between hiring a new faculty member of continuing the payments, I would certainly choose hiring the faculty member since stopping the payments would have no effect on access to the material, but not hiring the faculty member would have an immediate effect on the work of the university. What am I missing?

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          • This logic of course applies to all thing that don’t produce market value at universities. Like philosophy departments. Why do we have them? It’s dumb, they bring nothing to the university except positive attention from other universities.

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          • Now that’s ridiculous Philip. It’s not about market value, it’s about the capacity to do the work of the university. We have philosophy departments because without them we couldn’t teach philosophy or perform research and scholarship in philosophy, which is a core function of the university.

            By contrast, under the scenario you’re proposing, if we don’t pay for scientific publications we can do precisely the same amount of our core functions as if we do pay for them. Any reasonable person would cut the latter instead of the former if forced to make that choice.

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          • Fortunately, a lot of institutions don’t take this myopic view. Eg, https://arxiv.org/help/support/faq#2B

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          • But arXiv is not a journal (nor certainly a lot of journals). The kind of money you’d be expecting from libraries is certainly enormously more than the mid-four-figures committed to arXiv, and my bet is that even the arXiv funding will be sacrificed to budget cuts if and when crunch time comes.

            I get that you don’t like this way of thinking, which you’re calling “myopic.” But not liking it isn’t an argument; it’s a pervasive way of thinking, and if your plan for the future of scholarly communication rests upon altruistic generosity, I believe it’s doomed to fail.

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  5. There are some internal bureaucratic issues that really need to be addressed as well. For example making a much clearer distinction between ASA governance of ASA journals versus ASA section journals. Section journals do not get the kind of administrative support as ASA journals, as yet they appear to be governed by some of the same rules — e.g. having to get ASA approval for a cover redesign, increased page count (even if the publisher is not charging for additional print pages etc). It’s extremely frustrating. I voted for you.

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  6. I find the issues you bring up intriguing.
    However, I think it’s more important that you focus on both making alternatives to the status quo more viable and maintain a vehicle for open debate about your concerns instead of promoting “change” for its own sake.
    Anybody can do the latter and I’m not so sure anyone should.
    I’m doubtful the committee is the right platform for you to put your energy to good use so I won’t be voting for you, but I wanted you to know I agree with your goals.

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