The American Sociological Association is collapsing and its organization is a perpetual stagnation machine

I am at the end of a three-year term as an elected member of the American Sociological Association (ASA) Committee on Publications, during which time, despite some efforts, I achieved none of the goals in my platform. I would like to say I learned a lot or whatever, but I didn’t. I enjoyed the time spent with colleagues at the meetings (and we did some rubber stamping and selecting editors, which someone had to do), but beyond that it was a waste of time. Here are some reflections.

First, some observations about sociology as a discipline, then about the ASA generally, and then about the situation with the Committee on Publications.

Sociology

Sociology has occupied a rapidly declining presence in US higher education for two decades. The percentage of bachelor’s, masters, and PhD degrees that were awarded in sociology peaked at the end of the last century:

soc degree share

Looking just at the number of PhDs awarded, you can see that among the social sciences, since the 2009 recession (scaled to 0 on this figure), sociology is one of the social sciences disciplines that has slipped, while psychology, economics, business, and political science have grown (along with STEM disciplines).

phds relative to 2009

The American Sociological Association

So, sociology as an academic discipline is in decline. But how is ASA doing — is it fair for me to say “collapsing” in the title of this post? The shrinking of the discipline puts a structural squeeze on the association. In order to maintain its organizational dimensions it would need a growing share of the sociology milieu. The prospects for that seem dim.

On the plus side, the association publishes several prominent journals, which were the ostensible subject of our work on the publications committee. Metrics differ, but two ASA journals are in the top ten sociology journals by five-year citation impact factor in Web of Science (American Sociological Review and Sociology of Education [the list is here]). In the Google Scholar ranking of journals by h5-index, which uses different subject criteria, only one (ASR) is in the top 20 of sociology journals, ranking 20th out of the combined top 100 from economics, social science general, sociology, anthropology, and political science  (the list is here). In terms of high-impact research, among the top 100 most cited Web of Science sociology papers published in 2017 (an arbitrarily chosen recent year), seven were published in ASA journals (five in American Sociological Review [the list is here]). The 2020 Almetric Top 100 papers, those gaining the most attention in the year (from sources including news media and social media), includes 35 from humanities and social sciences, none of which were published by ASA (although several are by sociologists). So ASA is prominent but not close to dominant within sociology, which is similarly situated within the social sciences. In terms of publications, you can’t say ASA is “collapsing.” (Plus, in 2019 ASA reported $3 million in revenue from publications, 43 percent of its total non-investment income.)

But in terms of membership, the association is leading the way in the discipline’s decline. The number of members in the association fell 24 percent from 2007 to 2019, before nosediving a further 16 percent last year. Relative to the number of PhDs completing their degrees, as one scale indicator, membership has fallen 42 percent since 2007 — from 26 paying members per PhD awarded to 15. Here are the trends:

asa membership

Clearly, the organization is in a serious long-term decline with regard to membership. How will an organization of sociologists, including organizational sociologists, react to such an organizational problem? Task force! A task force on membership was indeed seated in 2017, and two years later issued their report and recommendations. To begin with, the task force reported that ASA’s membership decline is steeper than that seen by 11 other unnamed disciplinary societies:

discsocmem

They further reported that only 36 percent of members surveyed consider the value of belonging to ASA equal to or greater than the cost, while 48 percent said it was overpriced. Further, 69 percent of members who didn’t renew listed cost of membership as an important reason, by far — very far — the most important factor, according to their analysis. Remarkably, given this finding, the report literally doesn’t say what the member dues or meeting registration fees are. Annual dues, incidentally, increased dramatically in 2013, and now range from $51 for unemployed members to $368 for those with incomes over $150,000 per year, apparently averaging $176 per member (based on the number of members and membership revenue declared in the audit reports).

Not surprisingly, then, although they did recommend “a comprehensive review of our membership dues and meeting registration fee structures,” they had no specific recommendations about member costs. Instead they recommended: Create new ways for sociologists to create subgroups within the association, “rethink the Annual Meeting and develop a variety of initiatives, both large and small,” remove institutional affiliations from name badges and make the first names bigger, give a free section membership to new members (~$10 value), anniversary- instead of calendar-based annual pricing, hold the meeting in a wider “variety of cities,” more professional development (mechanism unspecified), more public engagement, change the paper deadline a couple of weeks and consider other changes to paper submission, and provide more opportunities for member feedback. Every recommendation was unanimously approved by the association’s elected council. The following year membership fell another 16 percent, with some unknown portion of the drop attributable to the pandemic and the canceled annual meeting.

With regard to the membership crisis, my assessment is that ASA is a model of organizational stagnation and failure to respond in a manner adequate to the situation. The sociologist members, through their elected council, seem to have no substantial response, which will leave it to the professional staff to implement emergency measures as revenue drops in the coming years. One virtually inevitable outcome is the association further committing to its reliance on paywalled journal publishing and the profit-maximizing contract with Sage, and opposing efforts to open access to research for the public.

Committee on Publications

But it is on the publications committee, and its interactions with the ASA Council, that I have gotten the best view of the association as a perpetual stagnation machine.

I can’t say that the things I tried to do on the publications committee would have had a positive effect on ASA membership, journal rankings, majors, or any other metric of impact for the association. However, I do believe what I proposed would have helped the association take a few small steps in the direction of keeping up with the social science community on issues of research transparency and openness. In November I reported how, more than two years ago now, I proposed that the association adopt the Transparency and Openness Promotion Guidelines from the Center for Open Science, and to start using their Open Science Badges, which recognize authors who provide open data, open materials, or use preregistration for their studies. (In the November post I discussed the challenge of cultural and institutional change on this issue, and why it’s important, so I won’t repeat that here.)

The majority of the committee was not impressed at the beginning. At the January 2019 meeting the committee decided that an “ad hoc committee could be established to evaluate the broader issues related to open data for ASA journals.” Eight months later, after an ad hoc committee report, the publications committee voted to “form an ad hoc committee [a different one this time] to create a statement regarding conditions for sharing data and research materials in a context of ethical and inclusive production of knowledge,” and to, “review the question about sharing data currently asked of all authors submitting manuscripts to incorporate some of the key points of the Committee on Publications discussion.” The following January (2020), the main committee was informed that the ad hoc committee had been formed, but hadn’t had time to do its work. Eight months later, the new ad hoc committee proposed a policy: ask authors who publish in ASA journals to declare whether their data and research materials are publicly available, and if not why not, with the answers to be appended in a footnote to each article. And then the committee approved the proposal.

Foolishly, last fall I wrote, “So, after two years, all articles are going to report whether or not materials are available. Someday. Not bad, for ASA!” Yesterday the committee was notified by ASA staff that, “Council is pleased that Publications Committee has started this important discussion and has asked that the conversation be continued in light of feedback from the Council conversation.” In other words, they rejected the proposal and they’ll tell us why in another four months. There is no way the proposal can take effect for at least another year — or about four years after the less watered-down version was initially proposed, and after my term ends. It’s a perpetual stagnation machine.

Meanwhile, I reviewed 24 consecutive papers in ASR, and found that only four provided access to the code used and at least instructions on how to find the data. Many sociologists think this is normal, but in the world of academic social science, this is not normal, it’s far behind normal.

I don’t know if the Council is paying attention to the Task Force on Membership, but if they were it might have occurred to them that recruiting people to run for office, having the members elect them based on a platform and some expertise, having them spend years on extremely modest, imminently sensible proposals, and then shooting those down with a dismissive “pleased [you have] started this important discussion” — is not how you improve morale among the membership.

Remember that petition?

While I’m at it, I should update you on the petition many of you signed in December 2019, in opposition to the ASA leadership sending a letter to President Trump against a potential federal policy that would make the results of taxpayer-funded research immediately available to the public for free — presumably at some cost to ASA’s paywall revenues. At the January 2020 meeting the publications committee passed two motions:

  1. For the Committee on Publications to express opposition to the decision by the ASA to sign the December 18, 2019 letter.
  2. To encourage Council to discuss implications of the existing embargo and possible changes to the policy and to urge decisionmakers to consult with the scientific community before making executive orders.

We never heard back from the ASA Council, and the staff who opposed the petition were obviously in no rush to follow up on our entreaty to them, so it disappeared. But I just went back to March 2020 Council minutes, and found this profoundly uninformative tidbit:

Council discussed a recent decision of ASA’s authorized leadership to sign a letter expressing concern about an executive order related to scientific publishing rumored to be coming out with almost no notice or consultation with the scientific community. A motion was made by Kelly to affirm ASA’s policy for making time sensitive decisions about public statements and to confirm that the process was properly followed in this instance. Seconded by Misra. Motion carried with 16 for and 2 abstentions.

This doesn’t mention that the substance of the dispute, that the publications committee objected to the leadership’s statement, or the fact that more than 200 people signed a letter that read, in part: “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 scholarship, including our own.” To my knowledge no member of the ASA leadership, whether elected sociologists or administrative staff, has responded publicly to this letter. Presumably, the terrible statement sent by the ASA leadership still represents the position of the association — the association that speaks for a rapidly dwindling number of us.

Side note: An amazing and revealing thing happened in the publications committee meeting where we discussed this statement in January 2020. The chair of the committee read a prepared statement, presumably written by the ASA staff, to introduce the voting on my proposal:

The committee has a precedent that many of you are already aware of, of asking people to leave for votes on the proposals they submitted…. This practice is designed to ensure that the committee members can have a full and open discussion. So, Philip, I’d like to ask you to recuse yourself now for the final two items, which you can simply do by hanging up the phone…

Needless to say, I refused to leave the meeting for the discussion on my proposal, as there is no such policy for the committee. (If you know of committee meetings where the person making a proposal — an elected representative — has to leave for the discussion and vote, please let me know.) It was just an attempt to railroad the decision, and other members stepped in to object, so they dropped it. The motion passed, and council ignored it, so seriously who cares, but still. (The minutes for this meeting don’t reflect this whole incident, but I have verbatim notes.) 

You will forgive me if, after this multi-year exercise in futility, I am not inclined to be optimistic regarding the Taskforce on Membership’s Recommendation #10: “Enhance and increase communications from ASA to members and provide opportunities for ASA members to provide ongoing feedback to ASA.” I have one more meeting in my term on the publications committee, but it doesn’t seem likely I’ll be there.

Sociologist, scientist? Toward transparency, accountability, and a sharing culture

With the help of the designer Brigid Barrett, I have a new website at philipncohen.com, and a redesigned blog to match (which you’re looking at now). We decided on the tagline, “Sociologist / Demographer” for the homepage photo. It’s true I am those two things, but I also like how they modify each other, a type of sociologist and a type of demographer. First some reflections, then a little data.

I shared the website on Twitter, and wrote this in a thread:

Having “sociologist” attached to your name is not going to signal scientific rigor to the public in the way that other discipline labels might (like, I think, “demographer”). A lot of sociologists, as shown by their behavior, are fine with that. Your individual behavior as a researcher can shape the impression you make, but it will not change the way the discipline is seen. Until the discipline — especially our associations but also our departments — adopts (and communicates) scientific practices, that’s how it will be. As an association, ASA has shown little interest in this, and seems unlikely to soon.

A substantial portion of sociologists rejects the norms of science. Others are afraid that adopting them will make their work “less than” within the discipline’s hierarchy. For those of us concerned about this, the practices of science are crucial: openness, transparency, reproducibility. We need to find ways at the sub-discipline level to adopt and communicate these values and build trust in our work. Building that trust may require getting certain publics to see beyond the word “sociologist,” rather than just see value in it. They will see our open practices, our shared data and code, our ability to admit mistakes, embrace uncertainty, and entertain alternative explanations.

There are other sources of trust. For example, taking positions on social issues or politics is also a way of building trust with like-minded audiences. These are important for some sociologists, and truly valuable, but they’re different from science. Maybe unreasonably, I want both. I want some people to give my work a hearing because I take antiracist or feminist positions in my public work, for example. And also because I practice science in my research, with the vulnerability and accountability that implies. Some people would say my public political pronouncements undermine not just my science, but the reputation of the discipline as a whole. I can’t prove they’re wrong. But I think the roles of citizen and scholar are ultimately compatible. Having a home in a discipline that embraced science and better communicated its value would help. A scientific brand, seal of approval, badges, etc., would help prevent my outspokenness from undermining my scientific reputation.

One reply I got, confirming my perception, was, “this pretence of natural science needs to be resisted not indulged.” Another wrote: “As a sociologist and an ethnographer ‘reproducibility’ will always be a very weak and mostly inapplicable criterion for my research. I’m not here to perform ‘science’ so the public will accept my work, I’m here to seek truth.” Lots of interesting responses. Several people shared this old review essay arguing sociology should be more like biology than like physics, in terms of epistemology. The phrase “runaway solipsism” was used.

I intended my tweets to focus on the open “science practices” which which I have been centrally concerned, centered on scholarly communication: openness, transparency, replicability. That is, I am less interested in the epistemological questions of what is meaning and truth, and solipsism, and more concerned with basic questions like, “How do we know researchers are doing good research, or even telling the truth?” And, “How can we improve our work so that it’s more conducive to advancing research overall?”

Whether or not sociology is science, we should have transparency, accountability, and a sharing culture in our work. This makes our work better, and also maybe increases our legitimacy in public.

Where is ASA?

To that end, as an elected member of the American Sociological Association Committee on Publications, two years ago I proposed that the association adopt the Transparency and Openness Promotion Guidelines from the Center for Open Science, and to start using their Open Science Badges, which recognize authors who provide open data, open materials, or use preregistration for their studies. It didn’t go over well. Some people are very concerned that rewarding openness with little badges in the table of contents, which presumably would go mostly to quantitative researchers, would be seen as penalizing qualitative researchers who can’t share their data, thus creating a hierarchy in the discipline.

So at the January 2019 meeting the committee killed that proposal so an “ad hoc committee could be established to evaluate the broader issues related to open data for ASA journals.” Eight months later, after an ad hoc committee report, the publications committee voted to “form an ad hoc committee [a different one this time] to create a statement regarding conditions for sharing data and research materials in a context of ethical and inclusive production of knowledge,” and to, “review the question about sharing data currently asked of all authors submitting manuscripts to incorporate some of the key points of the Committee on Publications discussion.” The following January (2020), the main committee was informed that the ad hoc committee had been formed, but hadn’t had time to do its work. Eight months later, the new ad hoc committee proposed a policy: ask authors who publish in ASA journals to declare whether their data and research materials are publicly available, and if not why not, with the answers to be appended in a footnote to each article. The minutes aren’t published yet, but I seem to remember us approving the proposal (minutes should appear in the spring, 2021). So, after two years, all articles are going to report whether or not materials are available. Someday. Not bad, for ASA!

To see how we’re doing in the meantime, and inspired by the Twitter exchange, I flipped through the last four issues of American Sociological Review, the flagship journal of the association, to assess the status of data and materials sharing. That is, 24 articles published in 2020. The papers and what I found are listed in the table below.

There were six qualitative papers and three mixed qualitative/quantitative papers. None of these provided access to research materials such as analysis code, interview guides, survey instruments, or transcripts — or provided an explanation for why these materials were not available. Among the 15 quantitative papers, four provided links to replication packages, with the code required to replicate the analyses in the papers. Some of these used publicly available data, or included the data in the package, while the others would require additional steps to gain access to the data. The other 11 provided neither data nor code or other materials.

That’s just from flipping through the papers, searching for “data,” “code,” “available,” reading the acknowledgments and footnotes, and so on. So I may have missed something. (One issue, which maybe the new policy will improve, is that there is no standard place on the website or in the paper for such information to be conveyed.) Many of the papers include a link on the ASR website to “Supplemental Material,” but in all cases this was just a PDF with extra results or description of methods, and did not include computer code or data. The four papers that had replication packages all linked to external sites, such as Github or Dataverse, which are great but are not within the journal’s control, so the journal can’t ensure they are correct, or that they are maintained over time. Still, those are great.

I’m not singling out papers (which, by the way, seem excellent and very interesting — good journal!), just pointing out the pattern. Let’s just say that any of these authors could have provided at least some research materials in support of the paper, if they had been personally, normatively, or formally compelled to do so.

Why does that matter?

First, providing things like interview guides, coding schemes, or statistical code, is helpful to the next researcher who comes along. It makes the article more useful in the cumulative research enterprise. Second, it helps readers identify possible errors or alternative ways of doing the analysis, which would be useful both to the original authors and to subsequent researchers who want to take up the baton or do similar work. Third, research materials can help people determine if maybe, just maybe, and very rarely, the author is actually just bullshitting. I mean literally, what do we have besides your word as a researcher that anything you’re saying is true? Fourth, the existence of such materials, and the authors’ willingness to provide them, signals to all readers a higher level of accountability, a willingness to be questioned — as well as a commitment to the collective effort of the research community as a whole. And, because it’s such an important journal, that signal might boost the reputation for reliability and trustworthiness of the field overall.

There are vast resources, and voluminous debates, about what should be shared in the research process, by whom, for whom, and when — and I’m not going to litigate it all here. But there is a growing recognition in (almost) all quarters that simply providing the “final” text of a “publication” is no longer the state of the art in scholarly communication, outside of some very literary genres of scholarship. Sociology is really very far behind other social science disciplines on this. And, partly because of our disciplinary proximity to the scholars who raise objections like those I mentioned above, even those of us who do the kind of work where openness is most normative (like the papers below that included replication packages), can’t move forward with disciplinary policies to improve the situation. ASR is paradigmatic: several communities share this flagship journal, the policies of which are serving some more than others.

What policies should ASA and its journals adopt to be less behind? Here are a few: Adopt TOP badges, like the American Psychological Association has; have their journals actually check the replication code to see that it produces the claimed results, like the American Economic Association does; publish registered reports (peer review before results known), like all experimental sciences are doing; post peer review reports, like Nature journals, PLOS, and many others do. Just a few ideas.

Change is hard. Even if we could agree on the direction of change. Brian Nosek, director of the Center for Open Science (COS), likes to share this pyramid, which illustrates their “strategy for culture and behavior change” toward transparency and reproducibility. The technology has improved so that the lowest two levels of the pyramid are pretty well taken care of. For example, you can easily put research materials on COS’s Open Science Framework (with versioning, linking to various cloud services, and collaboration tools), post your preprint on SocArXiv (which I direct), and share them with the world in a few moments, for free. Other services are similar. The next levels are harder, and that’s where we in sociology are currently stuck.

COS_Culture_and_Behavior_Change_model.width-500 1

For some how-to reading, consider, Transparent and Reproducible Social Science Research: How to Do Open Science, by Garret Christensen, Jeremy Freese, and Edward Miguel (or this Annual Review piece on replication specifically). For an introduction to Scholarly Communication in Sociology, try my report with that title. Please feel free to post other suggestions in the comments.


Four 2020 issues of American Sociological Review

ReferenceQuant/QualData typeData available?Code available?Note
Faber, Jacob W. 2020. “We Built This: Consequences of New Deal Era Intervention in America’s Racial Geography.” American Sociological Review 85 (5): 739–75.QuantCensus+NoNo
Brown, Hana E. 2020. “Who Is an Indian Child? Institutional Context, Tribal Sovereignty, and Race-Making in Fragmented States.” American Sociological Review 85 (5): 776–805. QualArchivalNoNo
Daminger, Allison. 2020. “De-Gendered Processes, Gendered Outcomes: How Egalitarian Couples Make Sense of Non-Egalitarian Household Practices.” American Sociological Review 85 (5): 806–29. QualInterviewsNoNo
Mazrekaj, Deni, Kristof De Witte, and Sofie Cabus. 2020. “School Outcomes of Children Raised by Same-Sex Parents: Evidence from Administrative Panel Data.” American Sociological Review 85 (5): 830–56. QuantAdministrativeNoUpon requestInfo on how to obtain data provided.
Becker, Sascha O., Yuan Hsiao, Steven Pfaff, and Jared Rubin. 2020. “Multiplex Network Ties and the Spatial Diffusion of Radical Innovations: Martin Luther’s Leadership in the Early Reformation.” American Sociological Review 85 (5): 857–94. QuantNetworkNoNoSays data is in the ASR online supplement but it’s not.
Smith, Chris M. 2020. “Exogenous Shocks, the Criminal Elite, and Increasing Gender Inequality in Chicago Organized Crime.” American Sociological Review 85 (5): 895–923. QuantNetworkNoNoCode described.
Storer, Adam, Daniel Schneider, and Kristen Harknett. 2020. “What Explains Racial/Ethnic Inequality in Job Quality in the Service Sector?” American Sociological Review 85 (4): 537–72. QuantSurveyNoNo
Ranganathan, Aruna, and Alan Benson. 2020. “A Numbers Game: Quantification of Work, Auto-Gamification, and Worker Productivity.” American Sociological Review 85 (4): 573–609. MixedMixedNoNo
Fong, Kelley. 2020. “Getting Eyes in the Home: Child Protective Services Investigations and State Surveillance of Family Life.” American Sociological Review 85 (4): 610–38. QualMixedNoNo
Musick, Kelly, Megan Doherty Bea, and Pilar Gonalons-Pons. 2020. “His and Her Earnings Following Parenthood in the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom.” American Sociological Review 85 (4): 639–74. QuantSurveyYesYesOffsite replication package.
Burdick-Will, Julia, Jeffrey A. Grigg, Kiara Millay Nerenberg, and Faith Connolly. 2020. “Socially-Structured Mobility Networks and School Segregation Dynamics: The Role of Emergent Consideration Sets.” American Sociological Review 85 (4): 675–708. QuantAdministrativeNoNo
Schaefer, David R., and Derek A. Kreager. 2020. “New on the Block: Analyzing Network Selection Trajectories in a Prison Treatment Program.” American Sociological Review 85 (4): 709–37. QuantNetworkNoNo
Choi, Seongsoo, Inkwan Chung, and Richard Breen. 2020. “How Marriage Matters for the Intergenerational Mobility of Family Income: Heterogeneity by Gender, Life Course, and Birth Cohort.” American Sociological Review 85 (3): 353–80. QuantSurveyNoNo
Hook, Jennifer L., and Eunjeong Paek. 2020. “National Family Policies and Mothers’ Employment: How Earnings Inequality Shapes Policy Effects across and within Countries ,  National Family Policies and Mothers’ Employment: How Earnings Inequality Shapes Policy Effects across and within Countries.” American Sociological Review 85 (3): 381–416. QuantSurvey+YesYesOffsite replication package.
Doering, Laura B., and Kristen McNeill. 2020. “Elaborating on the Abstract: Group Meaning-Making in a Colombian Microsavings Program.” American Sociological Review 85 (3): 417–50. MixedSurvey+NoNo
Decoteau, Claire Laurier, and Meghan Daniel. 2020. “Scientific Hegemony and the Field of Autism.” American Sociological Review 85 (3): 451–76. QualArchivalNoNo“Information on the coding schema is available upon request.”
Kiley, Kevin, and Stephen Vaisey. 2020. “Measuring Stability and Change in Personal Culture Using Panel Data.” American Sociological Review 85 (3): 477–506. QuantSurveyYesYesOffsite replication package.
DellaPosta, Daniel. 2020. “Pluralistic Collapse: The ‘Oil Spill’ Model of Mass Opinion Polarization.” American Sociological Review 85 (3): 507–36. QuantSurveyYesYesOffsite replication package.
Simmons, Michaela Christy. 2020. “Becoming Wards of the State: Race, Crime, and Childhood in the Struggle for Foster Care Integration, 1920s to 1960s.” American Sociological Review 85 (2): 199–222. QualArchivalNoNo
Calarco, Jessica McCrory. 2020. “Avoiding Us versus Them: How Schools’ Dependence on Privileged ‘Helicopter’ Parents Influences Enforcement of Rules.” American Sociological Review 85 (2): 223–46. QualEthnography w/ surveyNoNo
Brewer, Alexandra, Melissa Osborne, Anna S. Mueller, Daniel M. O’Connor, Arjun Dayal, and Vineet M. Arora. 2020. “Who Gets the Benefit of the Doubt? Performance Evaluations, Medical Errors, and the Production of Gender Inequality in Emergency Medical Education.” American Sociological Review 85 (2): 247–70. MixedAdministrativeNoNo
Kristal, Tali, Yinon Cohen, and Edo Navot. 2020. “Workplace Compensation Practices and the Rise in Benefit Inequality ,  Workplace Compensation Practices and the Rise in Benefit Inequality.” American Sociological Review 85 (2): 271–97.QuantAdministrativeNoNo
Abascal, Maria. 2020. “Contraction as a Response to Group Threat: Demographic Decline and Whites’ Classification of People Who Are Ambiguously White.” American Sociological Review 85 (2): 298–322.QuantSurvey experimentNoNoPreanalysis plan registered. Data embargoed.
Friedman, Sam, and Aaron Reeves. 2020. “From Aristocratic to Ordinary: Shifting Modes of Elite Distinction.” American Sociological Review 85 (2): 323–50.QuantArchivalNoNo

Sci-Hub users cost ASA journals thousands of downloads, and that’s OK

UPDATED to include Sci-Hub data from six months: September 2015–February 2016, and correcting a coding error that inflated download counts.


Well, they might not have lost the downloads, but they didn’t get them.

Sci-Hub is a pirate operation that uses stolen university login credentials to harvest, store, and distribute for free virtually every academic article published anywhere. It is a simple, if criminal, solution to a very big problem: the lack of access to published research for people who can’t pay for it. When someone goes to the Sci-Hub site and requests an article, by simply pasting in the DOI or URL, the system either serves them the paper, or goes and steals it for them and then keeps a copy for the next user. For us university people who are used to dealing with the maze of logins and forwarding and proxies that come between us and the information we seek, it’s unbelievably fast and almost never fails.

Their most recent claim is an archive of 76 million papers and 400,000 users per day.

Currently available at sci-hub.se or –.tw, it sometimes moves, but this site always lists where you can find it now. Naturally, both civil and criminal authorities are trying to shut it down, preferably by catching its mastermind, Alexandra Elbakyan, the elusive student programmer from Kazakhstan.

elbakyan-paywallthemovie

That picture is from the excellent (free streaming) documentary Paywall: The Business of Scholarship. Chris Bourg, the Director of Libraries at MIT (and a sociologist), also interviewed in the movie, said of Sci-Hub:

Those of us who work in scholarly communications, writ large, really have to look at Sci-Hub as sort of a poke in the side that says, “Do better.” We need to look to Sci-Hub to say, “What is it that we could be doing differently about the infrastructure that we developed to distribute journal articles, to distribute scholarship?” … I think we need to look at what’s happening with Sci-Hub, how it evolved, who’s using it, who’s accessing it, and let it be a lesson to us for what we should be doing differently.

Sociology’s stolen papers

Science magazine writer John Bohannon reached Elbakyan in 2016, and she turned over to him a 6-month cache of Sci-Hub server logs for a piece titled, “Who’s downloading pirated papers? Everyone.” He analyzed 28 million downloads, and Science made the data available for analysis, here. Eight million of those hits were from India and China, and the busiest location was Tehran.

The data archive includes only the time and date, the DOI number of each paper downloaded, and the location of the user. I’m not expert in DOI analysis, but Bohannon included a guide that shows the prefix 10.1177 is associated with Sage Publications, which publishes the American Sociological Association’s journals. Looking at the entire six-month series, September 2015 — February 2016, I found 171,000 Sage items, downloaded 377,000 times. Of those (if I got the DOIs right), 805 titles downloaded 1628 times came from the ASA research journals (my Stata code is here).


ASA / Sage downloads from Sci-Hub, Sept 2015 – Feb 2016
Articles Downloads
American Sociological Review 239 693
Teaching Sociology 221 269
Journal of Health and Social Behavior 94 188
Social Psychology Quarterly 77 152
Sociology of Education 73 157
Sociological Methodology 57 76
Sociological Theory 44 93
Total 805 1628

On an annualized basis, that would be 750,000 Sage downloads, and 3,200 from ASA journals specifically. For comparison, the most popular article in ASR in 2017 was downloaded about 10,000 times from the Sage site, so it’s a small share of the legitimate traffic. So over the life of Sci-Hub it cost (and saved) ASA thousands of downloads, probably a few tens of thousands. [Note in the first version of this post, I had a coding error that multiplied the counts, and this read “hundreds of thousands”. I regret the error.]

The most-downloaded ASR paper for the entire period was:

Mears, Ashley. 2015. “Working for Free in the VIP: Relational Work and the Production of Consent.” American Sociological Review 80 (6): 1099–1122. (downloaded 33 times)

The most-downloaded from a different journal was:

Kanazawa, Satoshi. 2010. “Why Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent:” Social Psychology Quarterly, February. (29 times)

I looked at a couple of them in more detail, and found, for example, that Paula England’s 2015 ASA Presidential Address was downloaded by users in Seoul (South Korea), Durban (South Africa), New Delhi, London, Chicago, Washington, and Virgie (Kentucky).

Interestingly, at least one of the popular papers, Lizardo et al.’s introduction to their editorial tenure at ASR, is already ungated on the Sage site, so you don’t need to use Sci-Hub to get it. This suggests, as Bohannon also noted, that some Sci-Hub users are just using the site because it’s convenient, not because they don’t have access to the papers.

Do you Sci-Hub?

I use Sci-Hub a lot, often for things that I also have subscription access to. (I do not, however, contribute anything to the system; I free-ride off their criminality.) Why? I’m not in the paywall game business, I’m in the information business. I am always behind on my work, and adding a few seconds or minutes of hunting for the legitimate way to get each of the many articles I look at every day is not worth it. (And when I find my university doesn’t subscribe? Interlibrary loan is wonderful, but I don’t want to spend more time with it than necessary.) Does my choice cost the American Sociological Association a few cents, by reducing legitimate downloads, which somehow factors into the profits that get kicked back to the association from Sage? I don’t know.

Of course, one of the dumb things about the paywall system is that it’s expensive and time-consuming to manage who has access to what information — it’s not a small task to keep information from reaching millions of determined readers from all around the world. (I assume one of the reasons my university recently introduced two-factor authentication — requiring me to click a pop-up on my phone every time I log in to university resources [even when I’m in my office] — is because of Sci-Hub. Ironic!)

Chris Bourg is right: “let it be a lesson to us for what we should be doing differently.” Elbakyan may have committed the most efficient product theft in history, in terms of list price of stolen goods per unit of effort or expense on her part. Her archive has been copied and distributed to different sites around the world (it fits in a large suitcase). And it was made possible by the irrational, corrupt nature of the scholarly communication infrastructure. Her success is the system’s failure.

For more information, read my report, “Scholarly Communication in Sociology.

 

ASA’s letter against the public interest and our values

youdidwhat

Update 1: I submitted a resolution to the ASA Committee on Publications, for consideration at our January meeting. You can read and comment on it here.

Update 2: The Committee on Publications on January 23 voted to approve the following statement: “The ASA Committee on Publications expresses our opposition to the decision by the ASA to sign the December 18, 2019 letter.”

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: https://forms.gle/ecvYk3hUmEh2jrETA.

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.

Two talks on public sociology (with audio)

I gave two talks at the American Sociological Meetings in New York City this week. I recorded them and removed some of the ums for you here. They’re each less than 11 minutes.

The first was in a session titled, “Tools for Communicating Sociology Outside the Discipline: What Works, What Doesn’t Work, and What’s Promising,” organized by Chris Uggen and presided over by Paul Calarco. I was following talks by Lisa Wade, Rashawn Ray, and Gabriel Rossman, Eszter Hargattai, and Sarah Lageson (some of whom you’ll hear mentioned). This is mostly about interacting with the news media.

The second talk, later the same day, was about the debate over activism in sociology. I think it paired well, and there are some themes in my talks that overlap. The session was titled, “Scholarly Activism in and for Sociology,” organized by Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra and including Daniel Laurison, Margaret Weigers Vitullo, and Fabio Rojas. This was after ASA President Mary Romero’s speech the night before, which she called, “Sociology: Engaging with Social Justice,” and I start by discussing that.

I recommend recording your talks (these are just phone recording) even if you’re not going to share them. It can be excruciating but also good for improving your public speaking. Also if I said anything really wrong I might want to correct it publicly. And sharing them is good for people who couldn’t be there.

Proposal for ASA to adopt TOP Guidelines and Open Science Badges

open

My term on the American Sociological Association Committee on Publications begins in January, so I drafted the first proposal from my platform.

This is for ASA to adopt the Transparency and Openness Promotion Guidelines from the Center for Open Science, and to start using their Open Science Badges, which recognize authors who provide open data, open materials, or use preregistration for their studies.

I put the proposal up in Google Docs, where you can read and comment on it if you like: here.

Amend your ASA/Sage author agreement!

open

This is a followup to a previous post, and contains some duplication.

I have spoken well of the policy that permits authors to post preprint versions of their papers before submitting them to journals of the American Sociological Association. That means you can get your work out more broadly while it’s going through the review process. The rule says:

ASA authors may post working versions of their papers on their personal web sites and non-peer-reviewed repositories. Such postings are not considered by ASA as previous publication.

The policy goes on to ask that authors modify their posted papers to acknowledge publication if they are subsequently published. That’s all reasonable. This is why SocArXiv and other services offer authors the opportunity to link their papers to the DOI (record locator) for the published version, should it become available. This allows citation aggregators such as Google Scholar to link the records.

The problem

Unfortunately, the good part of this policy is undermined by the ASA / Sage author agreement that authors sign when their paper is accepted. It transfers the copyright of the paper to ASA, and sets conditions under which authors can distribute the paper in the future. The key passage here is this:

1. Subject to the conditions in this paragraph, without further permission each Contributor may …

  • At any time, circulate or post on any repository or website, the version of the Contribution that Contributors submitted to the Journal (i.e. the version before peer-review) or an abstract of the Contribution.
  • No sooner than 12 months after initial publication, post on any non-commercial repository or website the version of the Contribution that was accepted for publication.

This is not good. It means that if you post a paper publicly, e.g., on SocArXiv, and then submit it to ASA, you can’t update it to the revised version as your paper moves through the process. Only 12 months after ASA publishes it can you update the preprint version to match the version that the journal approved.

This policy, if followed, would produce multiple bad outcomes.

One scenario is that people post papers publicly, and submit them to ASA journals for review. Over the course of the next year or so, the paper is substantially revised and eventually published, but the preprint version is not updated until a full year after that, often two years after the initial submission. That means readers don’t get to see the improved version, and authors have to live with people reading and sharing their unimproved work. This discourages people from sharing their papers in the first place.

In the other scenario, people update their preprints as the paper goes through the revision process, so they and their readers get the benefit of access to the latest work. However, when the paper is accepted authors are expected to remove from public view that revised paper, and only share the pre-review version. If this were feasible, it would be terrible for science and the public interest, as well as the author’s career interests. Of course, this isn’t really feasible — you can’t unring the bell of internet distribution (SocArXiv and other preprint services do not allow removing papers, which would corrupt the scholarly record.) This would also discourage people from sharing their papers in the first place.

The individual solution

Fortunately, you are a volitional agent in a free market information ecosystem, and you don’t have to just sign whatever PDF some corporate conglomerate puts in front of you. My suggestion is that you amend the agreement before you sign it. After receiving your acceptance, when the managing editor sends you the author agreement for your signature, politely notify the editor that you will be happy to sign the agreement with a minor amendment. Then strike through the offending text and add the amendment. I recommend the following text:

  • No sooner than 12 months after initial publication, post on any non-commercial repository or website the version of the Contribution that was accepted for publication.
  • At any time, post to SocArXiv (a non-commercial, open-access repository) the version of the Contribution that was accepted for publication, with a DOI link and bibliographic reference to the published Contribution.

Then sign the agreement and return it. Here’s a visual depiction of the amendment:

sage amendment

Don’t panic! Yes, this publication may be the last thing standing between you and tenure or a better job. But the journal will not cancel your publication when you do this. The very worst thing that will happen is they will say “No!” Then you can roll over and accept the original agreement. (After the dust settles, I’d love it if you let me know this happened.) People amend these agreements all the time. Give it a try!

Here’s the relevant passage in “Alice’s Restaurant” (@ 14:32)

And the only reason I’m singing you this song now is cause you may know somebody in a similar situation, or you may be in a similar situation,

And if you’re in a situation like that there’s only one thing you can do and that’s walk into The shrink wherever you are, just walk in say “Shrink, You can get anything you want, at Alice’s restaurant.” And walk out.

You know, if one person, just one person does it they may think he’s really sick and they won’t take him. And if two people, two people do it, in harmony – they may think they’re both faggots and they won’t take either of them. And three people do it, three, can you imagine, three people walking in singing a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. They may think it’s an organization. And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day, I said fifty people a day walking in singin a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out.

And friends they may think it’s a movement And that’s what it is, the Alice’s Restaurant Anti-Massacree Movement, and all you got to do to join is sing it the next time it comes around on the guitar. With feeling.

Fix the policy

So, what possible reason can there be for this policy? It is clearly intended to punish the public in order to buttress the revenue stream of Sage, which returns some of its profits to ASA, at the expense of our libraries, which pay for subscriptions to ASA journals.

I assume this policy is never enforced, as I’ve never heard of it, but I don’t know that for a fact. It’s also possible that whoever wrote the Publications policy I linked above didn’t realize that it contradicted the Sage author agreement, which basically no one reads. I also assume that such a policy does not in fact have any effect on Sage’s profits, or the profits that it kick backs to ASA. So it’s probably useless, but if it has any effects at all they’re bad, by discouraging people from distributing their work. ASA should change this author agreement.

I just got elected to the ASA Publications Committee, so I will add making this change to my platform, which I outlined here. I’m not optimistic about making policy changes at ASA in the current environment, but I am sure that the more people who join in the individual efforts, the greater our chances will be.

Michael Kimmel’s American Sociological Association Award

UPDATE: I am disappointed to report that the American Sociological Association did not follow this advice, and announced Kimmel as the winner of this award at their annual meeting award ceremony — while falsely claiming that he was “unable” to be there.

How the American Sociological Association can stop Michael Kimmel from winning the Jessie Bernard Award.

The ASA meetings are happening now in Philadelphia, and the association is confronting the case of Kimmel, a famous senior sociologist who specializes in men and masculinity studies from a feminist perspective. He was named as the winner of the association’s Jessie Bernard Award, which recognizes feminist sociologists. After the award was announced, but before it was formally given to him (which was to happen at the conference), the Chronicle of Higher Education (paywalledbootlegged) reported that a former student accused him of sexual misconduct, and a senior sociologist affirmed the existence of rumors about a long history of sexual misconduct, in particular unwanted advances and demeaning comments toward women. Another former student, Bethany Coston, accused Kimmel of sexism and abusing students who worked for him. Kimmel told the Chronicle he would “delay” accepted the award to give people time to file complaints against him.

ASA has no authority over Kimmel. You don’t need to be a member of ASA to practice sociology. All the association can do is revoke people’s membership, although doing so publicly would presumably have damaging reputation effects. To do that, ASA would need to do an investigation, and that takes time (not a time specified by Kimmel, but time nonetheless).

However, because the award has not yet been awarded, so to speak, it would be entirely appropriate for the award committee to reconvene and continue consideration of the award in light of the new information that they have. This does not require a full investigation, because it is action limited to the award, which has not yet been formally bestowed. It doesn’t require action by the association’s top leadership. If committee decides they no longer believe he should win the award — which I believe is the correct decision — then he doesn’t get it. The leadership only has to acknowledge the decision. That’s my suggestion.

The very idea of a man winning a feminism award, over the objections of the feminists in the association, and maybe over the objections of the award committee members themselves, while he is under investigation for sexual harassment and other abuse, is intolerable for the association. Reconvening the committee solves the immediate crisis, and allows the association to pursue an ethics case on its own time.

Some people will object to this action because they want more procedural fairness. But an award is a privilege, not a right. Losing an award is not a death sentence, it’s not career-ending. It’s not even job-ending. It’s not an overreaction. It’s a prudent response to the emergence of credible damaging information. The association should err on the side of not giving a major award, which is totally discretionary, to a person under this major cloud. If it all blows over and turns out to be a big misunderstanding, give it to him later.

If the alternative is between doing nothing, or next to nothing, even for six months — and the fallout from that — versus the decision to not award the award, which some people may perceive as unfair, the choice is clear. You can’t give the award under these conditions, and there is no reason to drag that decision out. The MeToo experience has shown that swift institutional responses are considered prudent and reasonable, while dallying and equivocating is harshly punished by public opinion.

To respect the sentiments of the membership, and to protect the association from well-deserved humiliation, ASA has to find a way not to give this award to Michael Kimmel, and the award committee is the appropriate body to make that decision.

Let’s improve the ASA/Sage journal author agreement

open

I have spoken well of the policy that permits authors to post preprint versions of their papers before submitting them to journals of the American Sociological Association. That means you can get your work out more broadly while it’s going through the review process. The rule says:

ASA authors may post working versions of their papers on their personal web sites and non-peer-reviewed repositories. Such postings are not considered by ASA as previous publication.

The policy goes on to ask that authors modify their posted papers to acknowledge publication if they are subsequently published. That’s all reasonable. This is why SocArXiv and other services offer authors the opportunity to link their papers to the DOI (record locator) for the published version, should it become available. This allows citation aggregators such as Google Scholar link the records.

Unfortunately, the good part of this policy is undermined by the ASA / Sage author agreement that authors sign when their paper is accepted. It transfers the copyright of the paper to ASA, and sets conditions under which authors can distribute the paper in the future. The key passage here is this:

1. Subject to the conditions in this paragraph, without further permission each Contributor may …

  • At any time, circulate or post on any repository or website, the version of the Contribution that Contributors submitted to the Journal (i.e. the version before peer-review) or an abstract of the Contribution.
  • No sooner than 12 months after initial publication, post on any non-commercial repository or website the version of the Contribution that was accepted for publication.

This is not good. It means that if you post a paper publicly, e.g., on SocArXiv, and then submit it to ASA, you can’t update it to the revised version as your paper moves through the process. Only 12 months after ASA publishes it can you update the preprint version to match the version that the journal approved.

This policy, if followed, would produce multiple bad outcomes.

One scenario is that people post papers publicly, and submit them to ASA journals for review. Over the course of the next year or so, the paper is substantially revised and eventually published, but the preprint version is not updated until a full year after that, often two years after the initial submission. That means readers don’t get to see the improved version, and authors have to live with people reading and sharing their unimproved work. This discourages people from sharing their papers in the first place.

In the other scenario, people update their preprints as the paper goes through the revision process, so they and their readers get the benefit of access to the latest work. However, when the paper is accepted authors are expected to remove from public view that revised paper, and only share the pre-review version. If this were feasible, it would be terrible for science and the public interest, as well as the author’s career interests. Of course, this isn’t really feasible — you can’t unring the bell of internet distribution (SocArXiv and other preprint services do not allow removing papers, which would corrupt the scholarly record.) This would also discourage people from sharing their papers in the first place.

So, what possible reason can there be for this policy? It is clearly intended to punish the public in order to buttress the revenue stream of Sage, which returns some of its profits to ASA, at the expense of our libraries, which pay for subscriptions to ASA journals.

I assume this policy is never enforced, as I’ve never heard of it, but I don’t know that for a fact. It’s also possible that whoever wrote the Publications policy I linked above didn’t realize that it contradicted the Sage author agreement, which basically no one reads. I also assume that such a policy does not in fact have any effect on Sage’s profits, or the profits that it kick backs to ASA. So it’s probably useless, but if it has any effects at all they’re bad, by discouraging people from distributing their work. ASA should change this author agreement.

I will be on the ballot for the ASA Publications Committee this spring. If elected, I will add making this change to my platform, which I outlined here. If I’m not elected, I’ll try to do this anyway.

Philip Cohen’s ASA Publications Committee platform

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[with addendum at the end]

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.


Addendum: I got elected. Also, I added a plank on revising the ASA/Sage journal author agreement, described here. Follow the ASA tag for updates.