What to do about, and/or with, the American Sociological Association?

The scholarly communication system is broken, and the American Sociological Association lives off the money that brokenness creates. So, what should we do about it?

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The scholarly communication system is broken, and the American Sociological Association lives off the money that brokenness creates. So, what should we do about it?

According to the 2016 budget report, 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 publishing. Increasingly, these subscriptions are part of big Sage 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. That doesn’t mean the association nets $1.5 million (68%) profit, because some of the other expenses go to running the publication contracts, including a publications manager and other staff time. But journal publishing produces money for other things the association does. As you read this ASA is looking for opportunities to create more paywalled journals, to generate more money for the association (in addition to whatever good additional journals are supposed to accomplish).

At the same time, ASA — like other paywall publishers — is in an increasingly defensive position, as open access alternatives spread (including preprint servers like SocArXiv), 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, in other words, peer review itself cannot survive.

More generally, the 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.”

It would be easy to say ASA should get ahead of these shifts, stop publishing paywalled journals and embrace new publication models. We know that free journals could be published for a fraction of what ASA and Sage now spend and reap. But that would mean giving up a substantial share of the association’s current income.

Of course, it’s not a simple task, even as good people are working hard on solutions. A recent report considers 15 different scenarios for “flipping” journals from subscriptions to open access, with evidence on a variety of outcomes and experiences. A white paper by Rebecca Kennison (who serves on the SocArXiv steering committee) and Lisa Norberg proposes a model in which scholarly societies and academic libraries form a new partnership to remake scholarly publication in the humanities and social sciences. I described that proposed future like this:

The basic design of the system to come is we cut out the for-profit publishers, and ask the universities and federal agencies that currently pay for research twice — once for the researchers, and once again for their published output — to agree to pay less in exchange for all of it to be open access. Instead, they pay into a central organization that administers publication funds to scholarly associations, which produce open-access research output.

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.


ASA in particular is unlikely to leap forward with a new solution. The simplest explanation for that is the money at stake, which pays for things that the key decision makers want, including salaries, but also everything from receptions and hotel suites to minority fellowships and policy briefs. Taking concrete steps requires an assessment of how the association works, especially the imbalance between the members and their elected representatives on the one hand and the professional staff on the other (see the aforementioned Edwards post for a sense of their stance).

My cynical view may be slightly exaggerated but it is more true than not. I see elected sociologists come and go from various positions in the association. Some, like journal editors, are specialized experts uniquely qualified for their jobs. But many are punching professional service tickets on their way up the chain, people who may be great sociologists but without expertise in or commitments to specific aspects of the organization. Awards committee, subcommittee member, ad hoc committee member, committee on committees member, and so on. Even the members of the Publications Committee and the Council mostly have little expertise or knowledge about academic publishing (I include myself in that, although I have learned a lot since I first attended the Pub Com meetings as a non-voting editor a few years ago), and rely on the professional staff to explain this world to them.

Our work in these roles is important, but mostly it doesn’t much matter who does it, because the range of motion for individuals is extremely limited. We are interchangeable. In contrast, the staff are trained professionals who stick around for a long time. Most of the member interaction with them involves listening to the facts the staff present, asking questions, considering and then approving their recommendations. At least that’s how it usually works on the important matters, the things that affect the association’s income stream. These staff people are very devoted to the organization and work hard at it, and I have nothing against them personally, but their structural role is as institutional brake on change.

However, the members could – with concerted effort – set the direction of the association. Here are some smaller and larger suggestions for specific actions ASA members could take. These are things candidates for office in the association could propose in their election campaigns, things committee members could implement in their committees, things the membership could ask for from their leaders.

  1. Set high-level, long-term goals, and hold staff accountable for developing plans to implement them. For example, within 7 years we will find new ways to fund them, and flip our journals to open access. Start developing and fundraising now. This is the most ambitious suggestion, as it will require acting over the strenuous efforts of the professional staff. But with mobilization, signatures, a referendum, or whatever, it is conceivable. The political will is not there for this yet, but someday this may have a greater chance of success than convincing the staff to move in that direction one step at a time, without a high-level mandate. That is, timidly asking for a report or suggestions will not work. Sage, too, is expert at diverting such weak impulses, as evidenced by their implementation of an open access journal for ASA (Socius), which served as a pressure release valve for open access sentiment among the members. It will take stronger stuff to move ASA for real, so that’s probably for down the road.
  2. Become a signatory to the Center for Open Science’s Transparency and Openness Promotion (TOP) Guidelines, and conduct a review of the standards for potential adoption within one year. The guidelines are incremental, but they set an important tone and direction. This could be done with a vote of the Council. Or, individual journal editorial boards could implement them. ASA staff and Council may say journals aren’t allowed to do this, but this hasn’t been tested. The actual rules limiting the power of editors are much vaguer than you think.
  3. Take steps to promote open scholarship norms in the profession:
    • Require paper awards to limit nominees to publicly-available papers, like we did with the dissertation award. Having a paper considered for an award is a privilege, not a right, and having it considered in secret is not a reasonable accommodation. Let’s just say, if you want your paper considered, let’s all have a look. If that makes you uncomfortable, that’s fine – there are plenty of great sociologists who deserve awards.
    • Require journals to make clear they will consider submissions of papers that have been shared in public repositories such as SocArXiv, without prejudice. This could be a simple statement from the editors, or it could from a statement by the Publications Committee or Council. It’s not really a change in policy, which already permits consideration of papers that have circulated, as long as they have not previously been peer reviewed.
    • Promote working paper culture by using SocArXiv or another proper open-access repository to archive and distribute papers, including conference papers and ASA research reports. Make the conference a public sharing project, modeling open scholarship norms and best practices regarding preservation and metadata.
    • Change the association’s policy stance. Lend organizational support to open scholarship initiatives and lobbying efforts. Drop opposition to federal open access policies, explicitly withdrawing earlier statements such as Sally Hillsman’s 2012 statement against the Office of Science and Technology’s public access policy.

I would be happy to hear other ideas about how and where to attempt to move ASA.

I could be wrong about the prospects for rapid structural change at ASA. But whether it’s fast or slow, progress in the right direction is likely to be driven as much by outside pressure as by internal mobilization. That’s why, in addition to pushing on the association, working on SocArXiv and other actually-existing alternatives now is a good use of effort.

New site up: Here are our most downloaded papers


Thanks to the heroic efforts of our partners at the Center for Open Science, we’re delighted that the beta version of SocArXiv is up, running, and ready to use. Over the last four months, more than 600 papers were deposited, mostly through our temporary drop service, and downloaded over 10,000 times.

Now SocArXiv is directly integrated into the Open Science Framework Preprints service, along with other new open access depositories, like bioRxiv, engrXiv, and PsyArXiv. Visit the site SocArXiv.org, where you can search, browse, and upload your own papers.

In the weeks and months to come, we’ll be expanding our scope and debuting new features. But to give you a taste of what we’ve got and what’s to come, we’re highlighting some selected research, starting with the five most downloaded papers.

  1. Gender Mistakes and Inequality, by Chris Bourg. This sociology dissertation uses an experimental design to show how people who misidentify the gender of another person, then after interacting, realize their mistake, are subsequently less likely to use sex as a basis for interaction.
  2. Law’s Public/Private Structure, by Christian Turner. This preprint (subsequently published in the Florida State University Law Review) creates a taxonomy of the legal distinction between public and private entities based on which type control 1) the creation and definition of law, and 2) prosecution.
  3. Medical Decision Making for Youth in Foster Care, by Zach Straussberger. Forthcoming in the John Marshall Law Review, this paper reports survey and interview results on the gap between who is legally allowed to made decisions on behalf of youth in foster care, and who is typically doing so.
  4. Two Years after Alice vs. CLS Bank, by Jasper L. Tran. Recently published in the Journal of the Patent and Trademark Office Society, the paper shows that subsequent to the Alice decision, which raised the patentability standard for computer-implemented inventions, substantial majorities of challenged patents have been invalidated by the courts.
  5. Happy to Help? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Performing Acts of Kindness on the Well-Being of the Actor, by Oliver Scott Curry et al. This meta-analysis of research on whether performing acts of kindness result in a sense of well-being finds a small-to-medium positive effect across some 21 studies.

These top five papers reflect the early adoption of the site by some legal scholars. We accept papers from all social sciences as well as law. And the site allows faceted browsing and searching by subject area as well as keywords.

You can always see what’s new on the site by visiting the search page and selecting Sort by: Upload date. We’re working on new features, such as sorting by popularity. In the meantime, we’ll be highlighting more research from SocArXiv on the blog. Check it out, and add your own!

SocArXiv launches, brings sociology and social science into the open, with new grant support

SocArXiv, the open access, open source archive of social science, is officially launching in beta version today.

For more information contact: Philip Cohen, Director; pnc@umd.edu

December 7, 2016


SocArXiv, the open access, open source archive of social science, is officially launching in beta version today. Created in partnership with the Center for Open Science, SocArXiv provides a free, noncommercial service for rapid sharing of academic papers; it is built on the Open Science Framework, a platform for researchers to upload data and code as well as research results.

By uploading working papers and preprints of their articles to SocArXiv, social scientists can now make their work immediately and permanently available to other researchers and the public, and discoverable via search engines. This alleviates the frustration of slow times to publication and sidesteps paywalls that limit the audience for academic research. Since SocArXiv is a not-for-profit alternative to existing commercial platforms, researchers can also be assured that they are sharing their research in an environment where access, not profit, will remain at the heart of the mission.

Since development was first announced in July, researchers have deposited more than 600 papers, downloaded over 10,000 times, in anticipation of SocArXiv’s launch. SocArXiv anticipates rapid growth in that number in the coming year as it establishes a reputation as the fully open repository for sociology and social science research.

“SocArXiv is an exciting opportunity to democratize access to the best of social science research,” said Katherine Newman, Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “This will assist the nation’s academics in making clear to the public why their work matters beyond the ivy walls.”

“We are building the future of social science scholarly communication,” added SocArXiv director Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, which serves as the archive’s institutional home. “It’s past time for social scientists – and sociologists in particular – to bring their work out into the open, to make it better, faster, more accountable, and more transparent.”

While the archive welcomes all social science research, the program is building from a strength in sociology, a discipline that lacks a strong tradition of preprint publication and open scholarship. With the Center for Open Science developing the technology, SocArXiv is focusing on planning, community mobilization, outreach, and governance of the archive. To that end, the Open Society Foundations and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation have each granted the initiative at the University of Maryland $50,000 for the coming year.


SocArXiv is a partner of the nonprofit Center for Open Science and is housed at the University of Maryland. Led by a steering committee of sociologists and research library leaders, it is dedicated to opening up social science, reaching more people more effectively, improving academic research, and building the future. Learn more at SocArXiv.org.

SocArXiv updates


Lots of exciting new developments and innovation in the works at SocArXiv. Here is a quick rundown. 

Everything described here is under development. The new services are public so people can start testing them out, offering feedback, and think about building tools to work with them. Everything in our partnership with the Center for Open Science (COS) is open source, open access, and non-profit.

  • COS has opened their general preprint server, now aptly described as “The open preprint repository network.” This is the system that hosts SocArXiv, and it will allow integration of papers from many different services, such as the giant arXiv (which is mostly math and physics), the new bioRxiv, and the new communities hosted by COS, which so far include SocArXiv, engRxiv, and PsyArXiv. At this site you can search all the preprint servers at once, or any combination of them. However, at present you can still only add papers to SocArXiv using our email deposit system (click Add your Preprints for instructions). This is temporary; soon you will be able to upload papers at the main site and identify which archive(s) you want to submit them to. All papers added to SocArXiv now will be in the database.
  • The COS preprint server is integrated with SHARE, the free, open dataset of the entire research life cycle (described here). SHARE currently includes 120+ sources, including all the preprint servers, a lot of institutional repositories, and the big public databases like PubMed and BioMed and DataCite. The beauty of this for SocArXiv users is it will allow us to generate, for example, lists or notifications for a school or department’s scholarly output, a keyword, or a conference or working paper series. SHARE is in process of upgrading to version 2 now, but people with interests in programming this sort of thing can visit the API documentation page (please be aware indexing is not yet complete).
  • COS has a new partnership with Overleaf, a company that offers a free LaTeX authoring platform, to support the automatic submission of manuscripts to the new preprint servers. LaTeX users should also check out the SocArXiv template authored by Christopher Marcum.
  • Our media highlights page includes a Bloomberg View post urging sociologists to give away working papers like our richer, more influential cousins the economists do; a column by Barbara Fister on the rapid advance of open access, and other news. You probably also want to read this thorough paper on the benefits of open scholarship for researchers’ careers.
  • SocArXiv director Philip Cohen has been accepted to represent the project at the OpenCon conference in Washington, D.C. this fall.

Remember, post papers here, follow us on Twitter and Facebook, email us to get involved or volunteer, and make a tax-deductible contribution through the University of Maryland here, watch the pronunciation video here.

SocArXiv goes to the American Sociological Association

See you at ASA! (And some updates on how you can get involved.)

We wrote previously to urge sociologists to upload their papers for the American Sociological Association conference. On the Scatterplot blog, steering committee member Dan Hirschman wrote to invite you to the annual blogger party, now including SocArXiv. It will be Sunday, August 21 from 4pm-7pm at The Pine Box Bar, 1600 Melrose Ave, in Seattle, and everyone is welcome.

At the party, or anywhere you see one, get a button! (with magnetic clips that won’t harm your clothes, and that you can stick to your fridge or filing cabinet later):


And we have flyers, suitable for printing or sharing online (click to enlarge):

SocArXiv flyer

Or in PDF format, in black-and-white or color.

Please share!

Meanwhile, a few brief updates:

  1. We have more than 300 papers in the archive already, from people using the temporary email upload service. Check them out at SocArXiv.org (and, of course, upload your own). They are from a wide variety of disciplines, including sociology, communications, law, political science, geography, and others.
  2. We expect the full site to launch this fall. It will have full search and discovery tools, an easy form for entering your own author information, subjects and tags, and tools for editing papers online.
  3. Our partners at the Center for Open Science are working with Google Scholar to get papers indexed by their service (they are currently discoverable by Google, but not Scholar), and with SHARE to allow setting up feeds and notifications for papers posted to the site.
  4. The paper server has welcomed two new partners, in psychology (PsyArXiv) and engineering (engrXiv). Don’t worry about our work being arbitrarily separated between disciplines, though, as it is easy to post papers to different sections in one easy upload (described here).
  5. We have much more work to do. We are organizing working groups in four areas to develop the site, its features, and governance model. Please email socarxiv@gmail.com if you are interested in contributing to the Outreach, Governance, Interface, or Reviewing groups.
  6. Finally, we are preparing a fundraising campaign, to include individual and institutional donors. If you (or your institution) would like to make a tax-deductible contribution to SocArXiv through the University of Maryland, visit: http://go.umd.edu/SocArXiv, or email.

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Celebrate the 26th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act by making your open scholarship accessible



Ensure that the future of open scholarship is available and inclusive for people who use assistive technology

By Judy Ruttenberg

SocArXiv is dedicated to opening up social science, to reach more people more effectively, to improve our research, and build the future. By applying a few simple principles and practices of universal design and web accessibility, you can help ensure that this future of open scholarship is available and inclusive for the community of readers and scholars who use assistive technology to render text to speech, braille, and other formats.

Whatever authoring software you’re using — most commonly Microsoft Word — you can create accessible documents by being mindful of a few basic principles: use of headers, lists and alt text to describe images; identification of document language, clearly identified column and row headers in tables, and the export to PDF as “tagged” to preserve these elements.

There are many guides available on the web providing step by step instructions. I particularly like the guides provided by the University of Washington, which has been a leader in accessibility and universal design for decades. If you are on a college or university campus, there are likely resources available to you locally if you have questions.

As we build this future of open scholarship in the social sciences, let’s make it really open by making it accessible to the global population of people with visual, physical, perceptual, developmental, cognitive, or learning disabilities that render print inaccessible.

Sociologists: Where’s your paper?


Thousands of sociologists are writing papers right now. As the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association approaches (August 20-23, Seattle) In the next month, many of them will perform an archaic ritual. They will send their paper to the discussant for their upcoming panel. The discussant will have the right to read and discuss any aspect of the paper at the conference — but not to share it with the public or other scholars.

Then, at the conference, the author will spend 15 or 20 minutes presenting some parts of the paper, and the discussant will verbally comment on it before an audience of 0 to 100 people, including at least a few people (the other panelists) with a demonstrated interest in the topic. Afterward, those who are interested may approach the author and ask for a copy of the paper.

The presentation is open to anyone — who happens to be physically in the room — and the paper is now “out there,” but in just about the least accessible form possible: a verbal presentation, with slides. This can all lead to good conversations and exchanges of information and insights. This conference presentation goes on everyone’s CV. The whole thing is “public” in the way that public was defined 100 years ago.

Of course, technology has changed this. People send the papers electronically now. Some share them with friends and colleagues. Some papers are already under review at peer-reviewed journals. And some are posted on personal websites or in institutional repositories. But the vast majority are not available outside the room of the conference.

Technology — and social organization — now allow us to improve on this process dramatically. That paper can be posted on an open-access paper server and shared much more widely (see instructions for SocArXiv here). Other panelists and colleagues who are attending the conference can read the paper before the session, maybe commenting, or deciding to attend the session and be part of the conversation. Other researchers can learn from the work and respond, too. Members of the actual public can see what’s going on and respond. In short, the research can come out of its shell.

ASA2016: Tag, share, build community

When you submit your paper at SocArXiv.org, you get a permanent URL. If you put this on your slides and handouts at the conference, interested readers get to your work immediately. Further, when you tag your paper with the ASA2016 tag (very simple instructions here), anyone can browse over and read it. Tag with your session number (tell your fellow panelists!) or a tag for your department, working group, or Twitter hashtag. Build your community, widen the circle, promote inclusivity, make your work matter more.


Here are some common concerns about posting conference papers, with responses:

What if the paper isn’t ready, or is wrong?

It is understood that these are usually not “final” versions of the paper. In fact, the conference rules require it, forbidding papers that have been “published prior to the meeting or accepted for publication before being submitted to organizers for consideration.” But you are already presenting it to the people who are most likely to see and care about its flaws: other researchers at the conference. Widening the circle may be worrying or intimidating, but that’s part of what you’re trying to do. We believe the benefits (to the researcher and public) outweigh the risks. Of course, if you have errors in the paper you want to find that out as soon as possible and get it right. Being wrong now is part of the normal workflow — being wrong later can be a major problem.

What if someone steals my ideas?

The program at the conference is good for stamping your work as your own. It’s a recognized form of notification for the academic community. But it doesn’t actually include the content of the paper. Posting the paper on a public server, time-stamped for all to see, is even better protection, especially for junior scholars. Of course, bad people can do bad things, but they probably are already. And with a public, citable version, at least you have the norms of the profession on your side if any dispute arises. As our Center for Open Science partner Jeff Spies pointed out, finding a like-minded scholar early in the process gets you a collaborator — finding them later gets you a competitor.

What if posting my paper discourages a journal from publishing it?

No respectable journal prohibits publishing papers that have been shared in working-paper form (and the ASA rule cited above doesn’t prohibit sharing in this form). The conference presentation is already public, it’s just public in a much less open and inclusive way. When you subsequently publish the paper, you can update the version on SocArXiv, and provide a link to the journal version. The link you receive with your submission is permanent and will always take people to the current version of the paper. (For specific journal policies, check out the RoMEO database.) And of course you can remove it from the archive if you choose.

Open is your friend

We have already written some more about why posting your paper to SocArXiv is a good idea, for you and your research, and the wider community. By using what (to the user) is pretty simply technology, we can make our work better, faster, and more engaging. We hope you will try it out.

At the conference, display the Where’s Your Paper? SocArXiv button to let people know you posted yours (or support those who did). And come to the 13th Annual ASA Blog Get-Together & SocArXiv Party: Sunday, Aug 21 from 4pm-7pm, at The Pine Box Bar (1600 Melrose Ave, Seattle).

The conversation gets better when someone says, “Where’s your paper?” and the answer is: “Here.”

The server is open now in a temporary, preliminary form. We want to hear from as many people as possible about what they need from an open archive. And we need people to get involved as moderators, reviewers, and volunteers to build the organization.