ASA’s letter against the public interest and our values


Updated: I submitted a resolution to the ASA Committee on Publications, for consideration at our January meeting. You can read and comment on it here.

The American Sociological Association has signed a letter that profoundly betrays the public interest and goes against the values that many of us in the scholarly community embrace.

The letter to President Trump, signed by dozes of academic societies, voices opposition to a rumored federal policy change that would require federally funded research be made freely available upon publication, rather than according to the currently mandated 12-month embargo — which ASA similarly, bitterly, opposed in 2012. ASA has not said who made the decision to sign this letter. All I know is that, as a member of the Committee on Publications, I wasn’t consulted or notified. I don’t know what the ASA rules are for issuing such statements in our name, but this one is disgraceful.

The argument is that ASA would not be able to make money selling research generated by federal funding if it were required to be distributed for free. And because ASA would suffer, science and the public interest would suffer. Like when Trump says getting Ukraine to help him win re-election is by definition in the American interest — what helps ASA is what’s good for science.

The letter says:

Currently, free distribution of research findings is subject to a 12-month embargo, enabling American publishers to recover the investment made in curating and assuring the quality of scientific research content. … The current 12-month embargo period provides science and engineering society publishers the financial stability that enables us to support peer review that ensures the quality and integrity of the research enterprise.

That is funny, because in 2012 ASA director Sally Hillsman (since retired) said the 12-month embargo policy “could threaten the ability of scholarly societies, including the ASA, to continue publishing journals” and was “likely to seriously erode and eventually jeopardize our financial ability to perform the critical, value added peer review and editorial functions of scientific publishing.”

The current letter, at least with regard to ASA, tell this whopper: “we support open access and have a strong history of advancing open access through a broad array of operational models.” They literally oppose open access, including in this letter, and including the current, weak, open access policy.

The ASA-signed letter is very similar to one sent about the same time by a different (but overlapping) large group of publishers, including Elsevier, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, claiming the rumored policy would hurt ‘merica. But there are subtle differences. The ASA letter refers to “the current proven and successful model for reporting, curating and archiving scientific results and advancing the U.S. research enterprise,” which should not be tampered with. The other letter warns of the danger of “step[ing] into the private marketplace” in which they sell research. Knowledge philosopher Peter Suber offered an excellent critique of the market claims here in this Twitter thread:

ASA and the other money-making societies really want you to believe there is no way to do curation and peer review without them. If we jeopardize their business model, ASA says, the services they provide would not happen. In fact, the current subscription models and paywalls stand in the way of developing the cheaper, more efficient models we could build right now to replace them. All we need to do is take the money we currently devote to journal subscriptions and publisher profits, and redirect it to the tasks of curation and peer review without profits and paywalls — and free distribution (which is a lot cheaper to administer than paywalled distribution).

The sooner we start working on that the better. In this effort — and in the absence of leadership by scholarly societies — the university libraries are our strongest allies. This is explained by UNC Librarian Elaine Westbrooks in this Twitter thread:

Compare this forwarding thinking librarian’s statement with Elsevier. In proudly sharing the publishers’ statement, Elsevier vice president Ann Gabriel said, “Imagine a world without scientific, medical societies and publishers who support scholarship, discovery and infrastructures for peer review, data archiving and networks.” Notice two things in this statement. First, she does not mention libraries, which are the academy-owned institutions that do literally all this as well. And second, see how she bundles publishers and societies. This is the sad reality. If instead of “societies and publishers” we had “societies and libraries” maybe we’d be getting somewhere. Instead, our societies, including the American Sociological Association, are effectively captured by publishers, and represent their interests instead of the public interest, and the values of our community.

I remain very pessimistic about ASA, which is run by a professional group with allegiance to the paywall industry, along with mostly transient, naive, and/or ineffectual academics (of which I am certainly one). But I’m torn, because I want to see a model of scholarly societies that works, which is why I agreed to serve of the ASA Committee on Publications — which mostly does busy work for the association while providing the cover of legitimacy for the professional staff.

Letter of opposition

So I posted a letter expressing opposition to the ASA letter. If you are a sociologist, I hope you will consider sharing and signing it. We got 100 signatures on the first day, but it will probably take more for ASA to care. To share the letter, you can use this link:

It reads:

In light of a rumored new White House Open Access Policy, the American Sociological Association (ASA), and other scholarly societies, signed a letter to President Trump in support of continued embargoes for federally-funded research.

We are sociologists who join with libraries and other advocates in the research community in support of federal policy to make the results of taxpayer-funded research immediately available to the public for free. We endorse a policy that would eliminate the current 12-month waiting period for open access to the outputs of taxpayer-funded scientific research. Ensuring full open access to publicly-funded research contributes to the public good by improving scientific productivity and equalizing access — including international access — to valuable knowledge that the public has already paid for. The U.S. should join the many other countries that already have strong open access policies.

We oppose the decision by ASA to sign this letter, which goes against our values as members of the research community, and urge the association to rescind its endorsement, to join the growing consensus in favor of open access to to scholarship, including our own.

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