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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.