Why I’m leaving the American Sociological Association

Photo by Markus Meier flic.kr/p/Qyv1HN.

I have come to the difficult decision not to renew my membership in the American Sociological Association (ASA). I tried to change the organization for the better over a period of years, including service in elected office, but I failed. Although the association does some good things, for me the good/bad balance has tipped sufficiently that I need to withdraw.

ASA is too expensive. As membership tumbles, a survey showed the biggest problem was the expense of membership and the annual meeting, and they did nothing substantive about it. Association operations are top heavy, bloated, and wastefully inefficient.

ASA lacks the capacity for change. As is common with academic associations, the academic leadership is transient while the staff stay. The staff are working in the associations industry, the membership are working in the academia industry, and their interests conflict. The association won’t make structural changes because they simply take too long to happen — when members try to make changes the staff don’t like, they just stall it out.

ASA is inequitable. The greatest source of income for the association is publications, which is mostly subscriptions to journals paid by academic libraries, which are being bled dry by profit-making publishers that ASA organizes academic labor to subsidize with free content and editorial services. This is a wealth transfer from poorer, teaching-intensive libraries to richer, research-intensive libraries. ASA could publish its journals at much lower cost, and make them open access, but the association wants the money. People say open access will cost cash-strapped authors more, and claim this model is good for scholars at less prestigious universities, but they’re wrong. Publication in ASA journals is overwhelmingly dominated by elite institutions, and they should be paying for it. Instead, ASA has more than doubled subscription fees in the last 8 years.

Image
PNC figure.

ASA opposes open access. The association has had many years to consider alternative publishing models, and it simply never has. The leadership signed a new 7-year contract with the for-profit publisher Sage in 2018, with no substantive discussion with the membership and no advance notification. The Sage paywall and subscriptions from broke academic libraries are the association’s lifeblood. To pacify open access advocates, Sage gave ASA Socius, the open access journal, which is great — even though it’s subsidized by the association’s immoral business model, I like it and publish in it (and I will continue to, even though I will have to pay more when my membership expires). This is part of a broad strategy by legacy publishers to undermine fundamental change in the industry.

In 2019 the association leadership and staff signed a letter to the White House voicing opposition to the open distribution of federally-funded science reports. I organized a petition against it. More than 200 people signed, including many members. The Publications Committee managed to pass a resolution stating our opposition to the letter and urging the ASA Council to take up the issue — which the Council ignored.

ASA opposes open science. A number of members of the Publications Committee spent several years trying to get the association’s journals to adopt several versions of a simple policy to notify readers of whether published work includes access to research materials, such as data, questionnaires, and statistical code (detailed here). After two subcommittees eventually produced an extremely moderate policy, the Council rejected it. Last I checked, only 1-in-6 articles in American Sociological Review meet minimal standards of research transparency.

ASA leadership and staff block change. Back to that petition. The effort to get member voices heard on the issue of the ASA letter to the White House, involved a truly ridiculous and insulting struggle against the staff in the Publications Committee — in which, among other shenanigans, the staff invented a rule that would prohibit me from participating in the discussion of my own proposal. They have perfected the art of bureaucratic stagnation, which includes various strategies to pacify the academic leadership by allowing minor reforms that don’t touch the association’s basic workings. And Sage throws the leadership a nice party at the conference.


ASA does some good things. It publishes good research. It offers mechanisms for community and collaboration. In recent years it has, through member elections, elevated the visibility and prestige of women and scholars of color. The leadership sometimes makes good, important public statements. For myself, these things are no longer enough. I devote a lot of my time to running SocArXiv (for which I am not “paid”), which publishes any sociologist’s research for free. I do trainings and give talks to help sociologists communicate about their work, to develop community and collaboration. In my public work, mostly on social media, I try to elevate the visibility and prestige of women and scholars of color. If ASA makes good statements, I’ll share them, too.

It’s not personal, it’s just not worth the effort anymore. I’ve come to the conclusion ASA is going to have to hit bottom before it has a chance to turn itself around. I hope that people declining to fund its dysfunction with their membership dues — while taking our efforts to develop and promote sociology outside the association — may be a useful part of that process.


Read all posts about ASA at the tag.

Sociologists: Don’t embargo your dissertation

Your work is important. Don’t hide it. (PNC video)

This post is about the practice of putting your dissertation under an embargo, which means your university library, and probably its agent, ProQuest, don’t let people read it for a certain amount of time, sometimes only a few months, sometimes many years. At my school, the University of Maryland, the graduate school is implementing a new policy that allows two-year embargoes without special permission (down from six years), and longer embargoes only with permission of the advisor and the dean.

Are you in this to advance knowledge? If so, don’t embargo your dissertation. By definition, a dissertation is a contribution to knowledge. By definition, keeping people from reading it stops that from occurring.

Many PhD graduates embargo their dissertations because it feels like the safer thing to do, because they’re vaguely worried about sharing their work, either because it’s so good someone will steal it, or it’s so bad it will embarrass them — or, weirdly, both. Many people don’t seriously think about it, don’t read up on the question, don’t discuss it with knowledgeable mentors (which your PhD advisor is very likely not, at least when it comes to this question). Lots of good people make this mistake, and that’s a shame. I’m writing this post so that, if you see it before you face this choice, there’s a chance my nagging voice will get stuck in your head.

Some graduate students think they’re being exploited and someone is going to make money off their work. Probably not. (You may have been exploited as a graduate student, and you might have good reasons for disliking your university, but this isn’t about making your university happy.) Maybe your dissertation will lead to an important book that lots of people will read — that is wonderful, and I hope it does. Of course, that’s a very small minority of dissertations, even among really good ones that make important contributions to knowledge. That’s just not in the cards in the vast majority of cases. But unless you already have a contract and a publisher telling you that without an embargo the deal is off — a situation that is vanishingly rare if it occurs at all, at least in sociology — making your dissertation publicly available will not hurt (and will probably help) your chances of accomplishing that goal. And if you’re going to publish articles based on your dissertation, no reputable journal will turn them away because they have overlapping content with your dissertation.

Some graduate students are afraid they will get “scooped” or their ideas will be “stolen.” This is profoundly misguided. You are doing the work so that people will read it. People are going to do what they do. You might be taking a small risk to your personal interest by making your work public, but consider it against the benefit of people reading it (which is, after all, the reason you should have written it). This is your finished work. It’s done. By definition it can’t be scooped. It can be plagiarized, like anything else. Would it be awkward or disappointing if someone published something similar that made similar contributions? Maybe. Will that substantially harm your career or personal interests? Very unlikely.* If you had a good idea, it will probably lead to more. Your ideas and your efforts in the dissertation are on the record now. Be proud of them, take credit for them, encourage people to engage with them, and hope that they will be inspired to do work that follows your lead. If your dissertation is good, it’s worth the risk — because you want people to read it. If your dissertation is bad, there is no risk anyway.

Will making your dissertation public hurt your chances of publishing a book? Almost certainly not. As an editor at Harvard University Press wrote:

“Generally speaking, when we at HUP take on a young scholar’s first book, whether in history or other disciplines, we expect that the final product will be so broadened, deepened, reconsidered, and restructured that the availability of the dissertation is irrelevant.”

And they quoted an assistant editor who went further: making your dissertation available improves your chances of getting a book contract:

“I’m always looking out for exciting new scholarship that might make for a good book, whether in formally published journal articles and conference programs, or in the conversation on Twitter and in the history blogosphere, or in conversations with scholars I meet. And so, to whatever extent open access to a dissertation increases the odds of its ideas being read and discussed more widely, I tend to think it increases the odds of my hearing about them.”

Or, as the editorial director at Columbia University Press, Eric Schwartz wrote in a tweet about sharing dissertations: “No problem. Book and dissertation are for different audiences.”

Of course there may be exceptions. If you have an editor on the hook who insists on an embargo, consider the pros and cons. If you have only a vague hope of publishing it down the road, don’t bother.

Do you want to win awards so everyone is talking about your dissertation? Don’t embargo it. Thanks to a 2015 change in policy at the American Sociological Association:

“To be eligible for the ASA Dissertation Award, nominees’ dissertations must be publicly available in Dissertation Abstracts International or a comparable outlet. Dissertations that are not available in this fashion will not be considered for the award.”

There are real, important principles at stake. Hate on your universities all you want, but some of their lofty rhetoric is true and good — and we should be holding them to it, not scoffing at it. Many universities, like the University of California system, have policies based on such high-minded statements as this:

“The University of California is committed to disseminating research and scholarship conducted at the University as widely as possible…. The University affirms the long-standing tradition that theses and dissertations, which represent significant contributions to the advancement of knowledge and the scholarly record, should be shared with scholars in all disciplines and the general public.”

Embargoing the work for years absolutely violates the spirit of such a principled policy, even if they do allow an embargo. Making your work accessible years later is clearly depriving the public of “significant contributions to the advancement of knowledge and the scholarly record” for the most important period in the life of the work — the years right after it’s done.

Here’s the statement from the University of Chicago:

“The public sharing of original dissertation research is a principle to which the University is deeply committed, and dissertations should be made available to the scholarly community at the University of Chicago and elsewhere in a timely manner. If dissertation authors are concerned that making their research publicly available might endanger research subjects or themselves, jeopardize a pending patent, complicate publication of a revised dissertation, or otherwise be unadvisable, they may, in consultation with faculty in their field (and as appropriate, research collaborators), restrict access to their dissertation for a limited period of time.”

Some people might skim through this policy and say, “Oh, cool, they allow an embargo,” and just check the box requesting it. But that’s making a powerful statement against the important principle articulated in this policy. If you don’t have a really good reason to embargo your dissertation — and you almost certainly don’t — the public interest demands that you make it public. Take the value of your work seriously. Not it’s commercial value, it’s actual value — which is to people who want to read it.

There is also an important accountability principle at stake. Should PhDs be awarded in secret, with no accountability beyond the committee room walls, until years later? For those of us on the faculty, how are we to evaluate programs and their candidates if we can’t scrutinize their most important works? How can we claim to be reputable programs if we shroud our work behind embargoes. Without at least this bottom-line transparency, there can be little accountability.

I write this post out of a certain sense of shame. I’m the director of graduate studies in our department, and I haven’t made it a priority to talk to students about this, because I didn’t know it was happening. When I looked at the dissertations from our department, which are archived in the Digital Repository at the University of Maryland (or, if they are embargoed, merely listed), I saw that among the last 19 dissertations, 12 were currently embargoed. The seven that were made public have been downloaded 1,200 times.

If you want to embargo your dissertation, or if someone is telling you that you should, the burden is on you (or them) to prove that the real benefits of the embargo — not just for you, but for the contribution to knowledge that your work represents — are greater than the harm of denying readers access to your research. The default must be to share our dissertations, with rare exceptions only when real (not imagined or rumored) circumstances demand that the public interest in access to knowledge be sacrificed.


* My dissertation, completed in 1999, although excellent, was not especially original. My major contributions were updating research on a longstanding theory to (a) use more recent data, (b) include women, and (c) use hierarchical linear models. My dissertation was titled, “Black Population Size and the Structure of United States Labor Market Inequality.” In 1997, as I was hard at work, and had a chapter under review at Social Forces (which I had already presented at two conferences), an article appeared (in Social Forces!) titled, “Black Population Concentration and Black-White Inequality: Expanding the Consideration of Place and Space Effects.” The authors used (a) the new data I was using, they (b) included women, and their (c) models were fancier than mine. I was crushed. And then, with my advisor’s help, I got over it. My article (with a citation to theirs added) got published the next year anyway, titled, “Black Concentration Effects on Black-White and Gender Inequality: Multilevel Analysis for U.S. Metropolitan Areas.” People read both articles. And then I went on to do a bunch more work in that area, with great collaborators, building up a body of research that drew from my dissertation but went much further in terms of theory, methods, and data. My article got cited plenty, partly because it was part of a group of articles that traveled together. I was “scooped,” but they didn’t get their ideas from sneaking a look at my brilliant work in progress, they were logical next steps in a 40-year trajectory of research on an established set of questions. Their publication strengthened the field in which I was working. (In fact, if they had stolen my ideas their paper would have been worse for them, and less damaging to me.)

What the editors of 6000 journals tell us about gender, international diversity, open access, and research transparency

Micah Altman and I have written a paper using the new Open Editors dataset from Andreas Pacher, Tamara Heck, and Kerstin Schoch. They scraped up data on almost half a million editors (editors in chief, editors, editorial board member) at more than 6000 journals from 17 publishers (most of the big ones; they’ve since added some more). Micah and I genderized them (fuzzily), geolocated them in countries, and then coded the journals as either open access or not (using the Directory of Open Access Journals), and according to whether they practice transparency in research (using the Transparency and Openness Promotion signatories). After just basic curiosity about diversity, we wondered whether those that practice open access and research transparency have better gender and international diversity.

The results show overwhelming US and European dominance, not surprisingly. And male dominance, which is more extreme among editors in chief, across all disciplines. Open access journals are a little less gender diverse, and transparency-practicing journals a little more internationally diverse, but those relationships aren’t strong. There are other differences by discipline. A network analysis shows not much overlap between journals, outside of a few giant clusters (which might indicate questionable practices) although it’s hard to say for sure — journals should really use ORCIDs for their editors. Kudos to Micah for doing the heavy lifting on the coding, which involved multiple levels of cleaning and recoding (and for making the R markdown file for the whole thing available).

Lots of details in the draft, here. Feedback welcome!

Here are the editors, by country:

Citizen Scholar: new book under contract

PN Cohen photo

My new book, Citizen Scholar, is under contract with Columbia University Press (thanks to the support of editor, and Editorial Director, Eric Schwartz).

Some of the writing I’ve been doing here is part of the book’s development, including the piece on “policy implications,” essays on transparency and accountability in research, as well as talks and materials about preprints, open science and the pandemic, politics and science, and others. It’s time for a book (and also more talks, if you’d like to invite me!). I will post essays and excerpts as I go, here, and I welcome your critiques, suggestions, and ideas. The first post describes my ambitions, and plan, for the book.

I love Family Inequality and everyone here but it seemed awkward to repeatedly post stuff for the new book under this heading. So I set up a blog style page, and I’ll post links here, too (and I’ll figure out you can subscribe, for those who want their blog posts via email).

Wish me luck!

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.

Basic self-promotion

Five years ago today I wrote a post called “Basic self promotion” on here. There has been a lot of work and advice on this subject in the intervening years (including books, some of which I reviewed here). So this is not as necessary as it was then. But it holds up pretty well, with some refreshing. So here is a lightly revised version. As always, happy to have your feedback and suggestions in the comments — including other things to read.


48943567406_2ccfa2b882_k
Present yourself. PN Cohen photo: https://flic.kr/p/2hyYzqs.

If you won’t make the effort to promote your research, how can you expect others to?

These are some basic thoughts for academics promoting their research. You don’t have to be a full-time self-promoter to improve your reach and impact, but the options are daunting and I often hear people say they don’t have time to do things like run a Twitter account or write for blogs and other publications. Even a relatively small effort, if well directed, can help a lot. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It’s fine to do some things pretty well even if you can’t do everything to your ideal standard.

It’s all about making your research better — better quality, better impact. You want more people to read and appreciate your work, not just because you want fame and fortune, but because that’s what the work is for. I welcome your comments and suggestions below.

Present yourself

Make a decent personal website and keep it up to date with information about your research, including links to freely available copies of your publications (see below). It doesn’t have to be fancy. I’m often surprised at how many people are sitting behind years-old websites. (I recently engaged Brigid Barrett, who specializes in academics’ websites, to redesign mine.)

Very often people who come across your research somewhere else will want to know more about you before they share, report on, or even cite it. Your website gives your work more credibility. Has this person published other work in this area? Taught related courses? Gotten grants? These are things people look for. It’s not vain or obnoxious to present this information, it’s your job. I recommend a good quality photo, updated at least every five years.

Make your work available

Let people read the actual research. For work not yet “published” in journals, post drafts when they are ready for readers (a good time is when you are ready to send it to a conference or journal – or earlier if you are comfortable with sharing it). This helps you establish precedence (planting your flag), and allows it to generate feedback and attract readers. It’s best to use a disciplinary archive such as SocArXiv (which, as the director, I highly recommend) or your university repository, or both. This will improve how they show up in web searches (including Google Scholar) indexed for things like citation or grant analysis, and archived. You can also get a digital object identifier (DOI), which allows them to enter the great stream of research metadata. (See the SocArXiv FAQ for more answers.)

When you do publish in journals, prefer open-access journals because it’s the right thing to do and more people can read your work there. If a paper is paywalled, share a preprint or postprint version. On your website or social media feeds, please don’t just link to the pay-walled versions of your papers, that’s the click of death for someone just browsing around, plus it’s elitist and antisocial. You can almost always put up a preprint without violating your agreements (ideally you wouldn’t publish anywhere that won’t let you do this). To see the policies of different journals regarding self-archiving, check out the simple database at SHERPA/RoMEO, or, of course, the agreement you signed with the journal.

I oppose private sites like Academia.edu, ResearchGate, or SSRN. These are just private companies making a profit from doing what your university and its library, and nonprofits like SocArXiv are already doing for the public good. Your paper will not be discovered more if it is on one of these sites.

I’m not an open access purist, believe it or not. (If you got public money to develop a cure for cancer, that’s different, then I am a purist.) Not everything we write has to be open access (books, for example), but the more it is the better, especially original research. This is partly an equity issue for readers, and partly to establish trust and accountability in all of our work. Readers should be able to see our work product – our instruments, our code, our data – to evaluate its veracity (and to benefit their own work). And for the vast majority of readers who don’t want to get into those materials, the fact they are there increases our collective accountability and trustworthiness. I recommend using the Open Science Framework, a free, nonprofit platform for research sharing and collaboration.

Actively share your work

In the old days we used to order paper reprints of papers we published and literally mail them to the famous and important people we hoped would read and cite them. Nowadays you can email them a PDF. Sending a short note that says, “I thought you might be interested in this paper I wrote” is normal, reasonable, and may be considered flattering. (As long as you don’t follow up with repeated emails asking if they’ve read it yet.)

Social media

If you’re reading this, you probably use at least basic social media. If not, I recommend it. This does not require a massive time commitment and doesn’t mean you have to spend all day doomscrolling — you can always ignore them. Setting up a public profile on Twitter or a page on Facebook gives people who do use them all the time a way to link to you and share your profile. If someone wants to show their friends one of my papers on Twitter, this doesn’t require any effort on my part. They tweet, “Look at this awesome new paper @familyunequal wrote!” (I have some vague memory of this happening with my papers.) When people click on the link they go to my profile, which tells them who I am and links to my website.

Of course, a more active social media presence does help draw people into your work, which leads to exchanging information and perspectives, getting and giving feedback, supporting and learning from others, and so on. Ideally. But even low-level attention will help: posting or tweeting links to new papers, conference presentations, other writing, etc. No need to get into snarky chitchat and following hundreds of people if you don’t want to. To see how sociologists are using Twitter, you can visit the list I maintain, which has more than 1600 sociologists. This is useful for comparing profile and feed styles.

Other writing

People who write popular books go on book tours to promote them. People who write minor articles in sociology journals might send out some tweets, or share them with their friends on Facebook. In between are lots of other places you can write something to help people find and learn about your work. I still recommend a blog format, easily associated with your website, but this can be done different ways. As with publications themselves, there are public and private options, open and paywalled. Open is better, but some opportunities are too good to pass up – and it’s OK to support publications that charge subscription or access fees, if they deserve it.

There are also good organizations now that help people get their work out. In my area, for example, the Council on Contemporary Families is great (I’m a former board member), producing research briefs related to new publications, and helping to bring them to the attention of journalists and editors. Others work with the Scholars Strategy Network, which helps people place Op-Eds, or the university-affiliated site The Society Pages, or others. In addition, there are blogs run by sections of the academic associations, and various group blogs. And there is Contexts (which I used to co-edit), the general interest magazine of ASA, where they would love to hear proposals for how you can bring your research out into the open (for the magazine or their blog).


For more on the system we use to get our work evaluated, published, transmitted, and archived, I’ve written this report: Scholarly Communication in Sociology: An introduction to scholarly communication for sociology, intended to help sociologists in their careers, while advancing an inclusive, open, equitable, and sustainable scholarly knowledge ecosystem.

Policy implications are discussed (often to poor effect, in sociology journals)

Commentary, data, suggestions.

Watch where you’re going. (PNC photo: https://flic.kr/p/2gRHfd5.)

The ritualistic invocation of “policy implications” in sociology writing is puzzling. I don’t know its origin, but it appears to have come (like so much else that we cherish because we despise ourselves) from economists. The Quarterly Journal of Economics was the first (in the JSTOR database) to use the term in an abstract, including it 11 times over the 1950s and 1960s before the first sociology journal (Journal of Health and Social Behavior) finally followed suit in 1971.

That 1971 article projected a tone that persists to this day. In a paragraph tacked onto the end of the paper, Kohn and Mercer speculated that inflated claims about the dangers of marijuana “may actually contribute to dangerous forms of drug abuse among less well-educated youth” (although the paper was a survey of college students). “If this is the case,” they continued, “then the best corrective may be to revise law, social policy, and official information in line with the best current scientific knowledge about drugs and their effect.” The analysis in the paper had nothing to do with anti-drug policy, instead pursuing an interesting empirical examination of the relationship of ideology (rebellious versus authoritarian) and drug use. The “implications” are vague and unconnected to any actually-existing policy debate (and none is cited). Being in this case both banal and hopelessly idealistic — intellectual bedfellows that find themselves miserably at home in the sociological space many in the public deride as “academic” — it’s hard to imagine the paper having any policy effect. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Fifty years later, “policy implications” has become an institution in academic sociology — by no means universal, but a fixed feature of the landscape, demanded by some editors, reviewers, advisors, and funders. The prevalence of this trope coincides with the imperative for “engagement” (which I’ve written about previously) driven both by our internal sense of mission and our capitulation to external pressure to justify the existence of our work. These are admirable impulses, but they’re poorly served by many of our current practices. I hope this discussion of “policy implications,” and the suggestions that follow, help push us toward more productive responses.

How it’s done

Most sociologists don’t do a lot of policy work. It’s not our language or social or professional milieu, and often not part of our formal training. So what do we mean, in theory and practice, when we offer “policy implications” for our research? There is a very wide range of applications, from evaluations of specific local policies to critiques of state power itself. I collected a lot of examples which I’ll describe, but first a very prominent one, from “Social Conditions as Fundamental Causes of Health Inequalities: Theory, Evidence, and Policy Implications, by Phelan, Link, and Tehranifar (2010). Their promise of policy implications is right in the title. From the policy implications section, here is a list of policies intended to reduce inequality in social conditions:

“Policies relevant to fundamental causes of disease form a major part of the national agenda, whether this involves the minimum wage, housing for homeless and low-income people, capital-gains and estate taxes, parenting leave, social security, head-start programs and college-admission policies, regulation of lending practices, or other initiatives of this type.”

Then, in the conclusion, they explain that in addition to leveling inequalities in social condition, we need policies that “minimiz[e] the extent to which socioeconomic resources buy a health advantage” — in the U.S. context, this is interpretable as universal healthcare.

These are almost broad enough — considered together — to constitute a worldview (or perhaps a party platform) rather than a specific policy prescription. If this were actual policy analysis, we would have to be concerned with, for example, the extent which policies to raise the minimum wage, raise taxes, house the homeless, and expand educational opportunity actually produce reductions in inequality, and which of these is most effective, or important, or feasible, and so on. But this is not policy analysis, and none is cited. These are one step down from documenting wage disparities and offering socialism as “policy implications.” This is a review paper, mostly theory and summarizing existing evidence — which makes it more suitable than the implications attached to many narrow empirical papers (see below). It has been very influential, influencing thousands of students and researchers, and maybe people in policy settings as well (one could try to assess that), by helping to establish the connection between health inequality and inequality on other dimensions. Important work. But the way I read the term, this is too broad to be reduced to “policy implications” — it’s more like social implications, or theoretical implications.

127 more examples

To generalize about the practice of “policy implications,” I collected some data. I used a “topic” search in Web of Science, which searches title, abstract, and keywords, for the phrase “policy implications,” in articles from 2010 to 2020. This tree map from WoS shows the disciplinary breakdown of the journals with the search term, which remains dominated by economics.

I chose the sociology category, then weeded out journals that were very interdisciplinary (like Journal of Marriage and Family), and some articles that turned out to be false positives, and ended up with 127 articles in these 52 journals.*

First I read all the abstracts and came up with a three-category code for abstracts that (1) had specific policy implications, (2) made general policy pronouncements, or (3) just promised policy implications. Here are some details.

Of the 127 abstracts, only two had what I read as specific policy implications. Martin (2018) wrote, “for dietary recommendations to transform eating practices it is necessary to take into account how, while cooking, actors draw on these various forms of valuation.” And Andersen and van de Werfhorst (2010) wrote, “strengthening the skill transparency of the education system by increasing secondary and tertiary-level differentiation may strengthen the relationship between education and occupation.” These aren’t as specific as particular pieces of legislation or policies, but close enough.

I put 29 papers in the general pronouncements category. For example, I put Phalen, Link, and Tehranifar (2010) in this category. In another, Wiborg and Hansen (2018) wrote that their findings implied that “increasing equal educational opportunities do not necessarily lead to greater opportunities in the labor market and accumulation of wealth” (reading inside the paper confirmed this is the extent of the discussion). This by Stoilova, Ilieva-Trichkova, and Bieri (2020) is archetypal: “The policy implications are to more closely consider education in the transformation of gender-sensitive norms during earlier stages of child socialization and to design more holistic policy measures which address the multitude of barriers individuals from poor families and ethnic/migrant background face” (reading inside the paper, there are several other statements at the same level). I read three other papers in this category and found similar general implications, e.g., “if the policy goal is to enhance the bargaining position of labour and increase its share of income, spending policy should prioritise the expenditures on the public sector employment” (Pensiero 2017).

“Policy implications are discussed”

The largest category, 97 papers (76%) offered no policy implications in the abstract, but rather offered some version of “policy implications are discussed.” It is an odd custom, to mention the existence of a section in the paper without divulging its contents. Anyway, to get a better sense of what “policy implications are discussed” means, I randomly sampled 10 of the papers in this category to read the relevant section. (I have no beef with these papers or their authors, they were selected randomly, and I’m only commented on what may be the least important aspect of their contributions.)

The first category among these, with 5 of the 10 papers, are those without substantive policy contributions. Some have banal statements at the end, which the author and most readers probably already believed, such as, “If these results are replicated, programs should be implemented that will solicit the help of grandparents in addition to parents” (Liu 2016). I also include here Visser et al. (2013), who conclude that their “findings show general support for basic ecological perspectives of fear of crime and feelings of unsafety,” e.g., that reducing crime in the absence of better social protection will not improve levels of fear and feelings of unsafety. I code this one as without substantive policy contribution because that’s a big claim about the entire state policy structure, which would require much more evidence to adjudicate, much less implement, and the paper offers only a small empirical nudge in one direction (which, again, is fine!).

Several in this category offered essentially no policy implications. This includes Wang (2010) who states at the outset that, “the question of motives for private transfers is one with important policy implications” for public transfer programs like food stamps and social security, but never comes back to discuss policies relevant to the results. And Barrett and Pollack (2011), who recommend that health practitioners develop better understanding of the issues raised and that “contemporary sexual civil rights efforts” pay more attention to sexual discrimination. Finally, Lepianka (2015), reports on media depictions of poverty and related policy, but doesn’t offer any implications of the study itself for policy. So, half of these had abstracts that were overpromising in terms of policy.

The other 5 papers do include substantive policy implications, explored to varying degrees. One is hard-hitting but brief: Shwed et al. (2018), whose analysis has direct implications which they do not thoroughly discuss. Their “unequivocal” result is that “multicultural schools, with their celebration of difference, entail a cost in terms of social integration compared to assimilationist schools—they enhance ethnic segregation in friendship networks. … While empowering minorities, it enhances social closure between groups.” The empirical analysis they did could no doubt be used as part of a policy analysis on the question of cultural orientation of schools in Israel.

Three offer sustained policy discussions, including the very specific: an endorsement of prison-based dog training programs (Antonio et al. 2017); a critique of sow-housing policy in the European Union (de Krom 2015); and recommendations for environmental lending practices at the World Bank (Sommer at al. 2017). The last one qualifies, albeit at a very macro level: Gauchat et al.’s (2011) analysis of economic dependence on military spending in metropolitan areas, the implications of which surpass everyday policy debates but are of course relevant.

To summarize my reading, with percentages based on extrapolating my subsample (so, wide confidence intervals): 23% of papers promising policy implications had none, and 38% had either vague statements or general statements that did not rely on empirical findings in the paper. The remaining 40% had substantive policy discussion and/or specific recommendations.

This is a quick coding and not validated. Others might treat differently papers that report an effect and then recommend changing the prevalence of the independent variable — e.g., poverty causes poor health; policies should reduce poverty — which I coded as not substantive. For example, I coded this from Thoits (2010) as not substantive or specific: “policies and programs should target children who are at long-term health risk due to early exposure to poverty, inadequate schools, and stressful family circumstances.” You could say, “policies should attempt to make life better,” but it’s not clear you need research for that. Anyway, my own implications (below) don’t depend on a precise accounting.

Implications

I am really, really not saying these are bad papers, or wrong to do what they did. I am not criticizing them, but rather the institutional convention that classifies the attempt to make our research relevant as “policy implications,” even when we have nothing specific to say about real policies, and then rewards sociologists for shoehorning their conclusions into such a frame.

Let me give an example of an interesting and valuable paper that is burdened by its policy implications. “The impact of parental migration on depression of children: new evidence from rural China,” by Yue et al. (2020) used a survey of families in China to assess the relationship between parental migration, remittances, household labor burdens, parent-child communication, and children’s symptoms of depression. After regression models with direct and indirect effects on children’s depression, including both children who were “left behind” by migrating parents and those who weren’t, they conclude: “non-material resources (parent-child communication, parental responsiveness, and self-esteem) play a much more important role in child’s depression than material resources (remittances).” Interesting result. Seems well done, with good data. The policy suggestions that follow are to encourage parent-child communication (e.g., through local government programs) and teach children in school that they are not abandoned by parents who migrate.

What is wrong with this? First, Yue et al. (2020) is an example of a common model that amounts to, “based on our regressions, more of this variable would be good.” It seems logical, but a serious approach to the question would have to be based on evidence that such programs actually have their intended effect, and that they would be better than directing the money or other resources toward something else. That would be an unreasonable burden for the authors, and slow the production of useful empirical results. So we’re left with something superficial that distracts more than it adds. Further (and here I hope to win some converts to my view), these policy implication sections are a major source of of peer review friction — reviewers demanding them, reviewers hating them, authors contorting themselves, and so on. Much better, in my view, would be to just add the knowledge produced by papers like this to the great hopper of knowledge, and let it contribute to a real policy analysis down the road.

Empirical peer-reviewed sociology articles should be shorter, removing non-essential parts of the paper that are major sources of peer review bog-down. Having different kinds of work reviewed and approved together in a single paper — a lengthy literature review, a theoretical claim, an empirical analysis, and a set of policy implications — creates inefficiencies in the peer review process. Why should a whole 60-page paper be rejected because one part of it (the policy implications, say) is rejected by one out of three reviewers? This is very wasteful. It puts reviewers in a position to review aspects of the work they aren’t qualified to judge. And it skews incentives by rewarding the less important parts of our work. Of course it’s reasonable to spend a few paragraphs stating the relevance of the question in the paper, but not a whole treatise (in the front and back) of every paper.

Advice for sociologists

1. Don’t try to pin big conclusions on a single piece of peer reviewed empirical research. That’s a sad legacy of a time when publishing was hard, sociologists had few opportunities to do so, and peer reviewed journals were the source of validation we were expected to rely on. So you devoted years of your life to a small number of “publications,” and those were the sum total of your intellectual production. We have a lot of other ways to express our social and political views now, and we should use them. The fact that you have a PhD, a job, and have published peer reviewed research, are all sources of legitimacy you can draw on to get people to pay attention to your writing.

2. Write for the right audience. If you are serious about influencing policy, write for staffers doing research for advocacy organizations, activists, or campaigns. If you want to influence the public, write in lay terms in venues that draw regular people as readers. If you want to set the agenda for funding agencies, write review pieces that synthesize research and make the case for moving in the right direction. These are all different kinds of writing, published in different venues. Crucially, none of them rely only on the empirical results of a single analysis, nor should they. The last three paragraphs of your narrow empirical research paper — excellent, important, and cutting-edge as it is — will not reach these different audiences.

3. Stop asking researchers to tack superficial policy implications sections onto the end of their papers. If you are a reviewer or an editor, stop demanding longer literature reviews and conclusions. Start rewarding the most important part of the work, the part you are qualified to evaluate.

4. If you are in an academic department, on a hiring committee, or on a promotion and tenure committee, look at the whole body of work, including the writing outside peer-reviewed journals. No one expects to get tenure from writing an op-ed, but people who work to reach different audiences may be building a successful career in which peer-reviewed research is a foundational building block. Look for the connections, and reward the people who make them.


*The full sample (metadata and abstracts) is available on Zotero. Some are open access, some I got through my library, but all are available from from Sci-Hub (which steals them so you don’t have to).

References mentioned in the text:

Andersen, Robert, and Herman G. van de Werfhorst. 2010. “Education and Occupational Status in 14 Countries: The Role of Educational Institutions and Labour Market Coordination.” British Journal of Sociology 61(2):336–55. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-4446.2010.01315.x.

Antonio, Michael E., Rosalyn G. Davis, and Susan R. Shutt. 2017. “Dog Training Programs in Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections Perceived Effectiveness for Inmates and Staff.” Society & Animals 25(5):475–89. doi: 10.1163/15685306-12341457.

de Krom, Michiel P. M. M. 2015. “Governing Animal-Human Relations in Farming Practices: A Study of Group Housing of Sows in the EU.” Sociologia Ruralis 55(4):417–37. doi: 10.1111/soru.12070.

Gauchat, Gordon, Michael Wallace, Casey Borch, and Travis Scott Lowe. 2011. “The Military Metropolis: Defense Dependence in U.S. Metropolitan Areas.” City & Community 10(1):25–48. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-6040.2010.01359.x.

Kohn, Paul M., and G. W. Mercer. 1971. “Drug Use, Drug-Use Attitudes, and the Authoritarianism-Rebellion Dimension.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 12(2):125–31. doi: 10.2307/2948519.

Lepianka, Dorota. 2015. “Images of Poverty in a Selection of the Polish Daily Press.” Current Sociology 63(7):999–1016. doi: 10.1177/0011392115587021.

Liu, Ruth X. 2018. “Physical Discipline and Verbal Punishment: An Assessment of Domain and Gender-Specific Effects on Delinquency Among Chinese Adolescents.” Youth & Society 50(7):871–90. doi: 10.1177/0044118X15618836.

Martin, Rebeca Ibanez. 2018. “Thinking with La Cocina: Fats in Spanish Kitchens and Dietary Recommendations.” Food Culture & Society 21(3):314–30. doi: 10.1080/15528014.2018.1451039.

Pensiero, Nicola. 2017. “In-House or Outsourced Public Services? A Social and Economic Analysis of the Impact of Spending Policy on the Private Wage Share in OECD Countries.” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 58(4):333–51. doi: 10.1177/0020715217726837.

Phelan, Jo C., Bruce G. Link, and Parisa Tehranifar. 2010. “Social Conditions as Fundamental Causes of Health Inequalities: Theory, Evidence, and Policy Implications.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 51:S28–40. doi: 10.1177/0022146510383498.

Shwed, Uri, Yuval Kalish, and Yossi Shavit. 2018. “Multicultural or Assimilationist Education: Contact Theory and Social Identity Theory in Israeli Arab-Jewish Integrated Schools.” European Sociological Review 34(6):645–58. doi: 10.1093/esr/jcy034.

Sommer, Jamie M., John M. Shandra, and Michael Restivo. 2017. “The World Bank, Contradictory Lending, and Forests: A Cross-National Analysis of Organized Hypocrisy.” International Sociology 32(6):707–30. doi: 10.1177/0268580917722893.

Stoilova, Rumiana, Petya Ilieva-Trichkova, and Franziska Bieri. 2020. “Work-Life Balance in Europe: Institutional Contexts and Individual Factors.” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 40(3–4):366–81. doi: 10.1108/IJSSP-08-2019-0152.

Thoits, Peggy A. 2010. “Stress and Health: Major Findings and Policy Implications.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 51:S41–53. doi: 10.1177/0022146510383499.

Visser, Mark, Marijn Scholte, and Peer Scheepers. 2013. “Fear of Crime and Feelings of Unsafety in European Countries: Macro and Micro Explanations in Cross-National Perspective.” Sociological Quarterly 54(2):278–301. doi: 10.1111/tsq.12020.

Wang, Jingshu. 2010. “Motives for Intergenerational Transfers: New Test for Exchange.” American Journal of Economics and Sociology 69(2):802–22. doi: 10.1111/j.1536-7150.2010.00725.x.

Wiborg, Oyvind N., and Marianne N. Hansen. 2018. “The Scandinavian Model during Increasing Inequality: Recent Trends in Educational Attainment, Earnings and Wealth among Norwegian Siblings.” Research in Social Stratification and Mobility 56:53–63. doi: 10.1016/j.rssm.2018.06.006.

Yue, Zhongshan, Zai Liang, Qian Wang, and Xinyin Chen. 2020. “The Impact of Parental Migration on Depression of Children: New Evidence from Rural China.” Chinese Sociological Review 52(4):364–88. doi: 10.1080/21620555.2020.1776601.

Data analysis shows Journal Impact Factors in sociology are pretty worthless

The impact of Impact Factors

Some of this first section is lifted from my blockbuster report, Scholarly Communication in Sociology, where you can also find the references.

When a piece of scholarship is first published it’s not possible to gauge its importance immediately unless you are already familiar with its specific research field. One of the functions of journals is to alert potential readers to good new research, and the placement of articles in prestigious journals is a key indicator.

Since at least 1927, librarians have been using the number of citations to the articles in a journal as a way to decide whether to subscribe to that journal. More recently, bibliographers introduced a standard method for comparing journals, known as the journal impact factor (JIF). This requires data for three years, and is calculated as the number of citations in the third year to articles published over the two prior years, divided by the total number of articles published in those two years.

For example, in American Sociological Review there were 86 articles published in the years 2017-18, and those articles were cited 548 times in 2019 by journals indexed in Web of Science, so the JIF of ASR is 548/86 = 6.37. This allows for a comparison of impact across journals. Thus, the comparable calculation for Social Science Research is 531/271 = 1.96, and it’s clear that ASR is a more widely-cited journal. However, comparisons of journals in different fields using JIFs is less helpful. For example, the JIF for the top medical journal, New England Journal of Medicine, is currently 75, because there are many more medical journals publishing and citing more articles at higher rates, and more quickly than do sociology journals. (Or maybe NEJM is just that much more important.)

In addition to complications in making comparisons, there are problems with JIFs (besides the obvious limitation that citations are only one possible evaluation metric). They depend on what journals and articles are in the database being used. And they mostly measure short-term impact. Most important for my purposes here, however, is that they are often misused to judge the importance of articles rather than journals. That is, if you are a librarian deciding what journal to subscribe to, JIF is a useful way of knowing which journals your users might want to access. But if you are evaluating a scholar’s research, knowing that they published in a high-JIF journal does not mean that their article will turn out to be important. It is especially wrong to look at an article that’s old enough to have citations you could count (or not) and judge its quality by the journal it’s published in — but people do that all the time.

To illustrate this, I gathered citation data from the almost 2,500 articles published in 2016-2019 in 15 sociology journals from the Web of Science category list.* In JIF these rank from #2 (American Sociological Review, 6.37) to #46 (Social Forces, 1.95). I chose these to represent a range of impact factors, and because they are either generalist journals (e.g., ASR, Sociological Science, Social Forces) or sociology-focused enough that almost any article they publish could have been published in a generalist journal as well. Here is a figure showing the distribution of citations to those articles as of December 2020, by journal, ordered from higher to lower JIF.

After ASR, Sociology of Education, and American Journal of Sociology, it’s hard to see much of a slope here. Outliers might be playing a big role (for example that very popular article in Sociology of Religion, “Make America Christian Again: Christian Nationalism and Voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election,” by Whitehead, Perry, and Baker in 2018). But there’s a more subtle problem, which is the timing of the measures. My collection of articles is 2016-2019. The JIFs I’m using are from 2019, based on citations to 2017-2018 articles. These journals bounce around; for example, Sociology of Religion jumped from 1.6 to 2.6 in 2019. (I address that issue in the supplemental analysis below.) So what is a lazy promotion and tenure committee, which is probably working off a mental reputation map at least a dozen years old, to do?

You can already tell where I’m going with this: In these sociology journals, there is so much noise in citation rates within the journals, compared to any stable difference between them, that outside the very top the journal ranking won’t much help you predict how much a given paper will be cited. If you assume a paper published in AJS will be more important than one published in Social Forces, you might be right, but if the odds that you’re wrong are too high, you just shouldn’t assume anything. Let’s look closer.

Sociology failure rates

I recently read this cool paper (also paywalled in the Journal of Informetrics) that estimates the odds of this “failure probability,” the odds that your guess about which paper will be more impactful based on the journal title turns out to be wrong. When JIFs are similar, the odds of an error are very high, like a coin flip. “In two journals whose JIFs are ten-fold different, the failure probability is low,” Brito and Rodríguez-Navarro conclude. “However, in most cases when two papers are compared, the JIFs of the journals are not so different. Then, the failure probability can be close to 0.5, which is equivalent to evaluating by coin flipping.”

Their formulas look pretty complicated to me, so for my sociology approach I just did it by brute force (or if you need tenure you could call it a Monte Carlo approach). I randomly sampled 100,000 times from each possible pair of journals, then calculated the percentage of times the article with more citations was from a journal with a higher impact factor. For example, in 100,000 comparisons of random pairs sampled from ASR and Social Forces (the two journals with the biggest JIF spread), 73% of the time the ASR article had more citations.

Is 73% a lot? It’s better than a coin toss, but I’d hate to have a promotion or hiring decision be influenced by an instrument that blunt. Here are results of the 10.5 million comparisons I made (I love computers). Click to enlarge:

Outside of the ASR column, these are very bad; in the ASR column they’re pretty bad. For example, a random article from AJS only has more citations than one from the 12 lower-JIF journals 59% of the time. So if you’re reading CVs, and you see one candidate with a two-year old AJS article and one with a two-year-old Work & Occupations article, what are you supposed to do? You could compare the actual citations the two articles have gotten, or you could assess their quality of impact some other way. You absolutely should not just skim the CV and assume the AJS article is or will be more influential based on the journal title alone; the failure probability of that assumption is too high.

On my table you can also see some anomalies, of the kind which plague this system. See all that brown in the BJS and Sociology of Religion columns? That’s because both of those journals had sudden increases in their JIF, so their more recent articles have more citations, and most of the comparisons in this table (like in your memory, probably) are based on data from a few years before that. People who published in these journals three years ago are today getting an undeserved JIF bounce from having these titles on their CVs. (See the supplemental analysis below for more on this.)

Conclusion

Using JIF to decide which papers in different sociology journals are likely to be more impactful is a bad idea. Of course, lots of people know JIF is imperfect, but they can’t help themselves when evaluating CVs for hiring or promotion. And when you show them evidence like this, they might say “but what is the alternative?” But as Brito & Rodríguez-Navarro write: “if something were wrong, misleading, and inequitable the lack of an alternative is not a cause for continuing using it.” These error rates are unacceptably high.

In sociology most people won’t own up to relying on impact factors, but most people (in my experience) do judge research by where it’s published all the time. If there is a very big difference in status — enough to be associated with an appreciably different acceptance rate, for example — that’s not always wrong. But it’s a bad default.

In 2015 the biologist Michael Eisen suggested that tenured faculty should remove the journal titles from their CVs and websites, and just give readers the title of the paper and a link to it. He’s done it for his lab’s website, and I urge you to look at it just to experience the weightlessness of an academic space where for a moment overt prestige and status markers aren’t telling you what to think. I don’t know how many people have taken him up on it. I did it for my website, with the explanation, “I’ve left the titles off the journals here, to prevent biasing your evaluation of the work before you read it.” Whatever status I’ve lost I’ve made up for in virtue-signaling self-satisfaction — try it! (You can still get the titles from my CV, because I feel like that’s part of the record somehow.)

Finally, I hope sociologists will become more sociological in their evaluation of research — and of the systems that disseminate, categorize, rank, and profit from it.

Supplemental analysis

The analysis thus far is, in my view, a damning indictment of real-world reliance on the Journal Impact Factor for judging articles, and thus the researchers who produce them. However, it conflates two problems with the JIF. First is the statistical problem of imputing status from an aggregate to an individual, when the aggregate measure fails to capture variation that is very wide relative to the difference between groups. Second, more specific to JIF, is the reliance on a very time-specific comparison: citations in year three to publications in years one and two. Someone could do (maybe already has) an analysis to determine the best lag structure for JIF to maximize its predictive power, but the conclusions from the first problem imply that’s a fool’s errand.

Anyway, in my sample the second problem is clearly relevant. My analysis relies strictly on the rank-ordering provided by the JIF to determine whether article comparisons succeed or fail. However, the sample I drew covers four years, 2016-2019, and counts citations to all of them through 2020. This difference in time window produces a rank ordering that differs substantially (the rank order correlation is .73), as you can see:

In particular, three journals (BJS, SOR, and SFO) moved more than five spots in the ranking. A glance at the results table above shows that these journals are dragging down the matching success rate. To pull these two problems apart, I repeated the analysis using the ranking produced within the sample itself.

The results are now much more straightforward. First, here is the same box plot but with the new ordering. Now you can see the ranking more clearly, though you still have to squint a little.

And in the match rate analysis, the result is now driven by differences in means and variances rather than by the mismatch between JIF and sample-mean rankings (click to enlarge):

This makes a more logical pattern. The most differentiated journal, ASR, has the highest success rate, and the journals closest together in the ranking fail the most. However, please don’t take from this that such a ranking becomes a legitimate way to judge articles. The overall average on this table is still only 58%, up only 4 points from the original table. Even with a ranking that more closely conforms to the sample, this confirms Brito and Rodríguez-Navarro’s conclusion: “[when rankings] of the journals are not so different … the failure probability can be close to 0.5, which is equivalent to evaluating by coin flipping.”

These match numbers are too low to responsibly use in such a way. These major sociology journals have citation rates that are too variable, and too similar at the mean, to be useful as a way to judge articles. ASR stands apart, but only because of the rest of the field. Even judging an ASR paper against its lower-ranked competitors produces a successful one-to-one ranking of papers just 72% of the time — and that only rises to 82% with the least-cited journal on the list.

The supplemental analysis is helpful for differentiating the multiple problems with JIF, but it does nothing to solve the problem of using journal citation rates to evaluate individual articles.


*The data and Stata code I used is up here: osf.io/zutws. This includes the lists of all articles in the 15 journals from 2016 to 2020 and their citation counts as of the other day (I excluded 2020 papers from the analysis, but they’re in the lists). I forgot to save the version of the 100k-case random file that I used to do this, so I guess that can never be perfectly replicated; but you can probably do it better anyway.

Rural COVID-19 paper peer reviewed. OK?

Twelve days ago I posted my paper on the COVID-19 epidemic in rural US counties. I put it on the blog, and on the SocArXiv paper server. At this writing the blog post has been shared on Facebook 69 times, the paper has been downloaded 149 times, and tweeted about by a handful of people. No one has told me it’s wrong yet, but not one has formally endorsed it yet, either.

Until now, that is. The paper, which I then submitted to the European Journal of Environment and Public Health, has now been peer reviewed and accepted. I’ve updated the SocArXiv version to the journal page proofs. Satisfied?

It’s a good question. We’ll come back to it.

Preprints

The other day (I think, not good at counting days anymore) a group of scholars published — or should I say posted — a paper titled, “Preprinting a pandemic: the role of preprints in the COVID-19 pandemic,” which reported that there have already been 16,000 scientific articles published about COVID-19, of which 6,000 were posted on preprint servers. That is, they weren’t peer-reviewed before being shared with the research community and the public. Some of these preprints are great and important, some are wrong and terrible, some are pretty rough, and some just aren’t important. This figure from the paper shows the preprint explosion:

F1.large

All this rapid scientific response to a worldwide crisis is extremely heartening. You can see the little sliver that SocArXiv (which I direct) represents in all that — about 100 papers so far (this link takes you to a search for the covid-19 tag), on subjects ranging from political attitudes to mortality rates to traffic patterns, from many countries around the world. I’m thrilled to be contributing to that, and really enjoy my shifts on the moderation desk these days.

On the other hand some bad papers have gotten out there. Most notoriously, an erroneous paper comparing COVID-19 to HIV stoked conspiracy theories that the virus was deliberately created by evil scientists. It was quickly “withdrawn,” meaning no longer endorsed by the authors, but it remains available to read. More subtly, a study (by more famous researchers) done in Santa Clara County, California, claimed to find a very high rate of infection in the general population, implying COVID-19 has a very low death rate (good news!), but it was riddled with design and execution errors (oh well), and accusations of bias and corruption. And some others.

Less remarked upon has been the widespread reporting by major news organizations on preprints that aren’t as controversial but have become part of the knowledge base of the crisis. For example, the New York Times ran a report on this preprint on page 1, under the headline, “Lockdown Delays Cost at Least 36,000 Lives, Data Show” (which looks reasonable in my opinion, although the interpretation is debatable), and the Washington Post led with, “U.S. Deaths Soared in Early Weeks of Pandemic, Far Exceeding Number Attributed to Covid-19,” based on this preprint. These media organizations offer a kind of endorsement, too. How could you not find this credible?

postpreprint

Peer review

To help sort out the veracity or truthiness of rapid publications, the administrators of the bioRxiv and medRxiv preprint servers (who are working together) have added this disclaimer in red to the top of their pages:

Caution: Preprints are preliminary reports of work that have not been certified by peer review. They should not be relied on to guide clinical practice or health-related behavior and should not be reported in news media as established information.

That’s reasonable. You don’t want people jumping the gun on clinical decisions, or news reports. Unless they should, of course. And, on the other hand, lots of peer reviewed research is wrong, too. I’m not compiling examples of this, but you can always consult the Retraction Watch database, which, for example, lists 130 papers published in Elsevier journals in 2019 that have been retracted for reasons ranging from plagiarism to “fake peer review” to forged authorship to simple errors. The database lists a few peer-reviewed COVID-19 papers that have already been retracted as well.

This comparison suggests that the standard of truthiness cannot be down to the simple dichotomy of peer reviewed or not. We need signals, but they don’t have to be that crude. In real life, we use a variety of signals for credibility that help determine how much to trust a piece of research. These include:

  • The reputation of the authors (their degrees, awards, twitter following, media presence)
  • The institutions that employ them (everyone loves to refer to these when they are fancy universities reporting results they favor, e.g., “the Columbia study showed…”)
  • Who published it (a journal, an association, a book publisher), which implies a whole secondary layer of endorsements (e.g., the editor of the journal, the assumed expertise of the reviewers, the prestige or impact factor of the journal as a whole, etc.)
  • Perceived conflicts of interest among the authors or publishers
  • The transparency of the research (e.g., are the data and materials available for inspection and replication)
  • Informal endorsements, from, e.g., people we respect on social media, or people using the Plaudit button (which is great and you should definitely use if you’re a researcher)
  • And finally, of course, our own assessment of the quality of the work, if it’s something we believe ourselves qualified to assess

As with the debate over the SAT/GRE for admissions, the quiet indicators sometimes do a lot of the work. Call something a “Harvard study” or a “New York Times report,” and people don’t often pry into the details of the peer review process.

Analogy: People who want to eat only kosher food need something to go on in daily life, and so they have erected a set of institutional devices that deliver such a seal (in fact, there are competing seal brands, but they all offer the same service: a yes/no endorsement by an organization one decides to trust). The seals cost money, which is added to the cost of the food; if people like it, they’re willing to pay. But, as God would presumably tell you, the seal should not always substitute for your own good judgment because even rabbis or honest food producers can make mistakes. And in the absence of a good kosher inspection to rely on altogether, you still have to eat — you just have to reason things through to the best of your ability. (In a pinch, maybe follow the guy with the big hat and see what he eats.) Finally, crucially for the analogy, anyone who tells you to ignore the evidence before you and always trust the authority that’s selling the dichotomous indicator is probably serving their own interests as least as much as they’re serving yours.

In the case of peer review, giant corporations, major institutions, and millions of careers depend on people believing that peer review is what you need to decide what to trust. And they also happen to be selling peer review services.

My COVID-19 paper

So should you trust my paper? Looking back at our list, you can see that I have degrees and some minor awards, some previous publications, some twitter followers, and some journalists who trust me. I work at a public research university that has its own reputation to protect. I have no apparent way of profiting from you believing one thing or another about COVID-19 in rural areas (I declared no conflicts of interest on the SocArXiv submission form). I made my data and code available (even if no one checks it, the fact that it’s there should increase your confidence). And of course you can read it.

And then I submitted it to the European Journal of Environment and Public Health, which, after peer review, endorsed its quality and agreed to publish it. The journal is published by Veritas Publications in the UK with the support of Tsinghua University in China. It’s an open access journal that has been publishing for only three years. It’s not indexed by Web of Science or listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals. It is, in short, a low-status journal. On the plus side, it has an editorial board of real researchers, albeit mostly at lower status institutions. It publishes real papers, and (at least for now) it doesn’t charge authors any  publication fee, it does a little peer review, and it is fast. My paper was accepted in four days with essentially no revisions, after one reviewer read it (based on the summary, I believe they did read it). It’s open access, and I kept my copyright. I chose it partly because one of the papers I found on Google Scholar during my literature search was published there and it seemed OK.

So, now it’s peer reviewed.

Here’s a lesson: when you set a dichotomous standard like peer-reviewed yes/no and tell the public to trust it, you create the incentive for people to do the least they can to just barely get over that bar. This is why we have a giant industry of tens of thousands of academic journals producing products all branded as peer reviewed. Half a century ago, some academics declared themselves the gatekeepers of quality, and called their system peer review. To protect the authority of their expertise (and probably because they believed they knew best), they insisted it was the standard that mattered. But they couldn’t prevent other people from doing it, too. And so we have a constant struggle over what gets to be counted, and an effort to disqualify some journals with labels like “predatory,” even though it’s the billion-dollar corporations at the top of this system that are preying on us the most (along with lots of smaller scam purveyors).

In the case of my paper, I wouldn’t tell you to trust it much more because it’s in EJEPH, although I don’t think the journal is a scam. It’s just one indicator. But I can say it’s peer reviewed now and you can’t stop me.

Aside on service and reciprocity: Immediately after I submitted my paper, the EJEPH editors sent me a paper to review, which I respect. I declined because it wasn’t qualified, and then they sent me another. This assignment I accepted. The paper was definitely outside my areas of expertise, but it was a small study quite transparently done, in Nigeria. I was able to verify important details — like the relevance of the question asked (from cited literature), the nature of the study site (from Google maps and directories), the standards of measurement used (from other studies), the type of the instruments used (widely available), and the statistical analysis. I suggested some improvements to the contextualization of the write-up and recommended publication. I see no reason why this paper shouldn’t be published with the peer review seal of approval. If it turns out to be important, great. If not, fine. Like my paper, honestly. I have to say, it was a refreshing peer review experience on both ends.

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.