Tag Archives: sociology

Let’s improve the ASA/Sage journal author agreement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review essay: Public engagement and the influence imperative

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I have written a review essay at the invitation of Contemporary Sociology. Here’s a preprint version on SocArXiv: https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/v27xk/.

This is the abstract. Feedback welcome!

Public engagement and the influence imperative

Abstract: A review essay discussing three advice books for social scientists. Sociologists, in responding to the imperative to make their work more influential, must go beyond doing “public sociology” to embrace doing sociology “in public” (Healy 2017). Rather than using public engagement primarily for publicity – to make our research matter – we should use engagement to help us do research that matters in the first place. Next, I caution that the drive to be professionally rewarded for public intellectualism is fraught with conflicts that may be irreconcilable. To be a public intellectual today requires being both public in one’s intellectual life and intellectual in one’s public life, and for academics in the era of the “market university” (Berman 2011), trying to get paid for that leads to a neoliberal trap. Finally, I argue for a move beyond personal strategies toward the development of the open scholarship as an institutional response that ultimately may be responsible for sociology’s survival.

Here is the SocArXiv citation:

Cohen, Philip N., 2018. “Public Engagement and the Influence Imperative”. SocArXiv. April 7. doi:10.17605/OSF.IO/V27XK.

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Mark Regnerus to be promoted to full professor at UT Austin

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Grainy hidden-camera photo by pnc.

Mark Regnerus, who has been an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin since 2007, will be promoted to full professor, according to multiple sources with direct knowledge of the situation. That decision was made at the level of the central administration, overriding negative recommendations from both the Department of Sociology faculty and the College of Liberal Arts.

In terms of research productivity, Regnerus’s record is adequate for promotion at a leading research university. His early work was well-cited. His most recent book, Cheap Sex (the only one I’ve read) is atrocious (as I have written). But the real problem is ethics, and there the protocol is less clear. I previously wrote:

To get background on the story of the Regnerus Affair, you can read the chapter in my book [Enduring Bonds], or read the entire Regnerus thread on this blog, or read this 2015 recap, which is the latest long piece, with links to everything else. For purposes of this discussion, these conclusions are salient: he used crudely biased survey methods to gin up harms attributable to same-sex parenting, to help stop same-sex marriage in the courts, as part of a conspiracy with other right-wing academics (principally Brad Wilcox) and institutions (Heritage Foundation, Bradley Foundation, Witherspoon Institute), which included manipulating the peer review process to plant supporters on the panel and submitting the article for publication before the data collection was even complete, and then repeatedly lying about all that to cover up the conspiracy (including in the published work itself, where he falsely denied the involvement of the funders, and in an ethics proceeding by his university).

So what do we do with all this now? All that didn’t get him fired, and he still does research in the academic system. That is galling, because there is at least one really good, honest researcher who doesn’t have a tenure-track job today because Regnerus does. But that’s the system. Meanwhile life is long, people can change. In our weak system, however, which relies almost entirely on good will and honesty by researchers, reputation matters. With his reputation, you simply can’t take his word in the way that we (naively) do with regular researchers. I think there are two options, then, if we are to take the research seriously. The first is he could come clean, admit to what he did, and make an honest attempt to re-enter respectable academia. The other (non-exclusive) option is for him to make his research open and transparent, to subject it to scrutiny and verification, and let people see that he is behaving honestly and ethically now.

He has not yet done either of those things.

I would vote against his promotion based on this record. Maybe the internal documents will come out and allow us to debate this more fully, but to me it’s not a hard decision.

So I think it’s bad for the UT administration to override the faculty recommendation and impose the promotion for Regnerus. With the stroke of that pen, they commit the university — barring unplanned events — to several million dollars worth of salary and benefits for him for the next several decades. And thousands of students subjected to his teaching. That’s money that could be spent on much more valuable things, including honest, ethical sociologists.


 

Comments will be moderated for length, repetitiveness, and obnoxiousness.

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Campus sexual harassment coverage, UMD circa 2003

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a powerful story about the Harvard professor Jorge Domínguez, who has kept his tenured job — and moved up within it — for decades despite repeated, substantiated claims of sexual harassment. That goes back to the early 1980s, surely a different world. Of course, after #MeToo, 2016 seems like a different world. But it’s not really.

Anyway, here’s a story to consider. This is from Page 1 of the Diamondback, the University of Maryland’s independent student newspaper, from November 19, 2003. (And thanks to the McKeldin Library staff for reminding me how to use the microfilm machine.)

This concerns Maryland sociology professor David Segal and a female graduate student in our program at the time; the story includes comments from Mady Segal, David’s wife, who was also a professor here. Both are now retired with honorary emeritus status at the university. (The student, who is not named, although she was identifiable to people familiar with the program at the time, consented to my posting this story.)

It’s important to think about the context, both institutionally and historically, that would produce a story like this, and what that means for women reporting harassment then, and now. (The Diamondback reporter did not respond to a request for comment.)

Because the photocopy from microfilm is hard to read, I extracted the text and include it below, but here is a PDF of the copy, too. A few questions follow the text.


Permanent open-door policy: Sociology professor says flawed sexual harassment policy ruined his reputation

Photo caption: Sociology professor David Segal now fears being accused of sexual harassment if he closes the door to his office when talking with a female student.

By Megan Watzin, Senior staff writer

When students visit David Segal’s office now, he either leaves the door open or explicitly asks the student if it is OK if he closes the door.

The sociology professor accused of sexual and ethnic harassment by a female graduate student two years ago said he never got to defend himself because of flaws in the university’s process for handling sexual harassment claims.

Segal was eventually found innocent of all five charges against him – bias, conflict of interest, discrimination, sexual harassment and ethnic harassment. However, he maintains the charges – which he insists are false – have permanently damaged his reputation and career. He is pushing for the University Senate to make significant revisions to the university’s sexual harassment process and policy this year.

Segal said he was accused in 2001 of telling a Mafia joke and a sexual joke involving Italian food that offended the graduate student, who is Italian. The other three charges were quickly dismissed by the university attorneys as impossible to prove.

The graduate student’s identity is protected by the university, and she could not be reached for comment for this story.

He insists the graduate student made up the charges, which is a violation of the student code of conduct. However, Segal was unable to file a complaint accusing her of violating the student code of conduct because of a single piece of paper, a detailed signed statement of the accusations against him, that may never have been completed when the harassment charges were initially filed.

“The accusations were lies and I could prove they were lies, but I couldn’t get the statement from the accuser,” he said. “It was like the Spanish Inquisition and the Stalinist purges during the Cold War. There was no justice.”

John Zacker, director of the Office of Judicial Programs, which handles about 600 cases of alleged misconduct each year, said the burden of evidence that false claims were made is the responsibility of the claiming party.

Segal said he suspected the university attorneys were hiding the statement from him, so he asked the associate provost, the provost, the faculty ombudsman, university President Dan Mote’s chief of staff and Mote himself for their help in getting it. None were successful – the statement may have never existed.

Segal said the statement would have provided the necessary evidence to file a complaint against his accuser, but it remains unclear whether it should have been completed in the first place because the procedures for filing a harassment claim are vague.

There are two avenues for filing a sexual harassment claim – formal and informal. The graduate student officially filed an informal claim. Senate Chair Joel Cohen said the problem with the current policy is there is no clear difference between the two processes, and therefore it is unclear what steps should be followed.

Two years later

The graduate student remains in good standing at the university and was also granted several requests after she made the accusations, Segal said. He said she asked for continued funding for her assistantship under him, and extension for taking her two doctoral exams and for Segal and his wife, who also works in the sociology department, not to be allowed to sit on the panel that creates and grades her doctoral exams.

Two years later, she has not taken her doctoral exams, Segal said. She had originally been preparing to take an exam in military sociology – Segal’s specialty area – but said she could no longer take that test because of him, so she was granted extra time to prepare for a different exam.

Segal noticed he was still listed as her adviser a few months ago, he said, and immediately asked sociology department Chair William Falk to assign her to a different adviser.

Segal and his wife, Mady, who also mentored the student, said she had been performing poorly shortly before the accusations were made. Segal sent her emails telling her she was not doing her job and was at risk of failing.

“This is a graduate student who is not fulfilling her work requirements and was not making adequate progress toward a degree, and was looking for a way to blame someone else and postpone her doctoral exams,” Mady Segal said. “She was trying to excuse her failings.”

Time for a change

Segal was summoned to meet with university attorneys Sept. 24, 2001, and was informed he had been accused of sexual harassment. That same day a tornado touched down on the campus and significantly damaged the Segals’ nearby house. At that point, there was already an ongoing investigation, which Segal said he only found out about from Falk.

Mady Segal sat on the Committee on Professional Issues in 1987 when it authored the current sexual harassment policy. She said the way the policy was carried out in her husband’s case was not the way it was intended to work.

“The original intent was there would be an informal resolution process when there is a complaint,” she said. “I think because of the perception of legal requirements on campus, they have eliminated an informal procedure, because any time there is an allegation, it goes straight to the president’s attorneys.”

The Segals advocate a clear informal process be laid out for filing a complaint – one in which the accuser is made aware they can contact the department head or human relations department to mediate the situation. Under the current policy, as soon as a complaint alleging harassment is received by a university employee, that employee is required to contact university attorneys, according to Senate documents.

“The process that’s being used now is bypassing an informal mediation by getting the attorneys involved,” Mady Segal said.

Mote’s chief of staff, Ann Wylie, made recommendations to the three-member Senate panel now examining the policy. The panel is expected to make a report outlining recommended changes by the end of the semester.

“I looked to see … how they handled cases, and the fact of the matter is the whole system that we have in place now is set up to protect the person making the complaint,” Wylie said. “It is appropriate with all policies to just sit down and go back over it and make sure it protects the innocent.”

After being accused and not being able to make charges against the accuser, Segal wrote to the Senate a list of recommended changes that stressed the student code of conduct be more strictly enforced in the cases of false allegations. He also suggested a written form stating the accusations be filled out in both formal and informal sexual harassment cases, and that the accused have access to it.

“People can file false claims and get away with it,” Segal said. “And people who file justifiable claims become victims again.”

The Senate Human Relations Committee found that similar questions needed to be addressed before assigning the panel the task of examining the policy.

Roger Candelaria, the campus compliance officer, said the number of sexual harassment claims that turn out to be false or the result of a student attempting to abuse the system represents only a very tiny portion of the roughly once-a-week complaints.

‘Damaged goods’

Segal said he doesn’t feel he can have close relationships with female students anymore. He stopped enjoying teaching – his one true passion – for two years. He said this semester is the first time since the allegations he has started to enjoy being in the classroom again.

“As this all unfolded, the campus became a frightening place for me. I go into the field with soldiers. I’ve been to dangerous places. The university was a sanctuary,” Segal said. “I had trouble preparing for classes and sleep disturbances.”

Segal has worked at the university since 1976 and has constantly received job offers from other institutions. He said he always turned them down out of a loyalty to this university. After the sexual harassment allegations, he considered for the first time leaving. But at that time, all the job offers stopped.

“I’m damaged goods,” he said.

Mady, who has been married to him for 37 years, said she doesn’t think her husband will ever be the same.

“It was a terrible blow to his reputation,” she said. “Nothing very serious was alleged, but it was a big deal to him. David has always been a very happy person … He was always cheerful. He has lost a lot of that cheerfulness.”


Questions an editor today might ask the reporter before running this story:

  • What does it mean that he “never got to defend himself”? Actually, what was the accusation, specifically, and how was it adjudicated to produce an “innocent” result?
  • Was the sexual harassment accusation really about a single joke involving Italian food, and if so, how is keeping his office door open relevant?
  • Is there some emergency that requires printing this story before the student can be reached to offer her version of events?
  • Did you verify with anyone the student’s academic status, which is offered as her motive to lie?
  • Followup question: How does this compare with more recent debates about due process for accused sexual harassers, such as those described by Laura Kipnis in Unwanted Advances?
  • Lots of questions.

Some related posts:

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Philip Cohen’s ASA Publications Committee platform

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

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

Note on conflict of interest

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

Basic perspective

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

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

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

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

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

Platform

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

1. Adopt TOP guidelines for ASA journals

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

2. Adopt preprints and data sharing

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

3. Open conference papers

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

4. No new paywall journals

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

5. Flip ASA journals

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

6. Reduce revenue

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

7. Disseminate information

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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When the campus sexual harassment policy doesn’t work

Which is, let’s face it, a lot.

We would all prefer a system for handling sexual harassment claims that used a fair and rigorous process of investigation and delivered proportionate consequences in a timely way. We don’t have that, for several reasons.

As I think about harassment in academic contexts, I’m struck by the problem of conferences, job changers, and cross-institution collaborations. Even if the internal process on a particular campus worked well, that would only address a subset of possible harassment cases. Academics change jobs (sometimes frequently) and they harass people who don’t work at their own institutions — but people who are nonetheless subordinates in the reputation system, or co-authors, or reviewees, or people who hope to work for the harasser or their friends and colleagues in the future. How can the campus-based system address these cases? As far as I know, it can’t. (For example, consider this good advice to graduate students about how to deal with sexual harassment, and ask how it would work if the harasser didn’t work on your campus.)

And of course even when cases fall within the jurisdiction of campus systems, these systems are often seriously flawed, inordinately focused on protecting their institutions instead of the victims (past or future) and the perpetrators are protected by tenure.

For job changers, biologist Jason Lieb, a multimillion-dollar grant recipient who quickly moved from the University of North Carolina to Princeton to Chicago, apparently trying to stay ahead of the sexual harassment and abuse cases that were trailing him, even as he continued to carry out new offenses. I don’t know what he’s doing now, but it seems that only public exposure finally dislodged him.

picture of Jason Lieb

This picture of Jason Lieb was still up on the page announcing his new job at the University of Chicago two days ago when I mentioned it on Twitter. Now the page has been taken down.

For tenure protections, consider Berkeley astronomer Geoff Macy, who got a slap on the wrist after repeated findings of responsibility for violating campus sexual harassment policies. Only after Buzzfeed blew the whistle did he lose his job. Buzzfeed also has a great story by by Tyler Kingkade about how hard it is to fire tenured professors for sexual harassment. English professor Andrew Escobedo remains on paid leave 18 months after the university concluded he sexually harassed multiple people. The story also details cases in which professors quit before they could be fired, as local investigations dragged on, which could protect them as they look for other jobs. That’s what Jasob Lieb did: “Dr. Lieb stepped down last month before any action was taken.”

Is sociology better or worse than other disciplines? We don’t know. But it looks like public exposure is necessary to apply pressure to improve this system. To that end, last week, Liana Sayer and I offered to help people bring cases in sociology to light. Read the post for more information on that.


See also: Adia Harvey Wingfield, “Are Universities Enabling Sexual Harassment and Assault?” from June, way before all this recent news. The Chronicle also had a rundown of cases the other day.

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Sexual harassment: Et tu, Sociology?

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Unrelated picture of Women’s March, January 21, 2017 / photo pnc

I once asked a journalist to cover a case of sexual harassment I knew about in a sociology department. In the discussion that followed, they told me that journalists aren’t the only ones who can do this, and that academia should police its own kind. Further, those of us who have tenure should step up and take some of the risk associated with cleaning house.

So my colleague Liana Sayer and I have an offer. If you have first-hand knowledge of sexual harassment in sociology, tell us about it. We’ll collect information and report on it.

We won’t sully reputations based on unsubstantiated rumors. But if there are serious problems going unreported, we should do something about it. We shouldn’t have to wait for someone more powerful to give us permission to speak up. Liana and I can take a little risk. And if the reputations of bad actors get damaged, that is OK — professional reputations should not be a ratchet, even if the tenure system makes it seem like they are. This has nothing to do with “witch hunts,” and everything to do with making our profession safe and productive and equitable.

As sociologists, we know that many, probably most, professional women have experienced sexual harassment in their training or careers — and we know that both the prevalence and impact of such experiences is shaped by the cultural and institutional context within which they work. In economics, a feminist initiative has taken on the “pervasive misogyny” in the field, prompted by furor over the discipline’s anonymous rumor board. In sociology we have not yet had such a catalyst.

Here’s our proposed procedure: Send an email to my gmail address (philipncohen@), tell us as much as you’re comfortable with, or simply ask us to call you. You can do this individually or in groups. We won’t discuss it with anyone at all until we’ve contacted you and agreed on how to proceed. We’ll ask you for more information if we need to. Before anything goes public, we will take steps to verify anything we can, and corroborate with witness, and so on — like the reporters do — with your permission. Then, with your permission,  we will report on the findings, and name names. This will include giving the alleged bad actor a chance to respond, but only after we are satisfied that there’s something to report regardless of their response.

If we don’t hit a threshold for what we consider responsible reporting, we won’t report anything. Of course, you can tell anyone else, including journalists or the police, any time. We’re not trying to get an exclusive, we’re trying to shine a light.

We are not defining sexual harassment in advance here; there are legal and normative definitions you can follow or not. We don’t need to meet a legal standard to speak up, but we need to be responsible and ethical.

If no one contacts us and nothing comes of it, great. If instead people decide to use some other method and ignore this, that’s great. If people talk about this issue just to say how much they hate me or I’m trying to get attention or I’m acting badly, that’s probably a good thing, too. If you think we’re just virtue signaling, we’re OK with that. If you conclude, “Oh they just want everyone to know they’re against sexual harassment,” that’s great — despite its bad rap, “virtue signaling” is also how norms happen. (On the other hand, if we get swamped with messages we’ll have to decide how to triage the cases. With your permission, we might recruit help.)

We hope this will be part of elevating the discussion to the point at which we start to take steps to improve the situation more systematically. We want to see better policies and practices, which could at at the level of the American Sociological Association, our colleges and universities, or our departments. In light of the obvious retreat in federal policy toward Title IX and sex discrimination enforcement, we need to find creative, proactive responses. We hope evidence will help.

Disclaimers: We’re not lawyers, and we don’t give legal advice. We’re not doing this as a part of our job duties at the University of Maryland. If a court forces us to turn over what we have, we will. My lay understanding of the open documents rules in Maryland is that our private email is not subject to records requests to the state, but I could be wrong. If you choose to contact us, you’re trusting us to do our best, and we will do our best. We can’t promise any result (or any response at all if we don’t know what to do). If we fail and it becomes a disaster and people try to fire or sue us, I hope we’ll figure out how to win it.

 

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