On sharing work in progress and anonymity

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Photo Flickr / CC https://flic.kr/p/HtERrC

This essay is reposted with permission from the scatterplot sociology blog (where you can read some comments in response).


by Pam Oliver

I got involved in a debate over at orgtheory about the pluses and minuses of putting working papers on line at SocArXiv (or elsewhere). That debate was tangled up with a variety of issues around the proposal to require public posting of papers that win (or are submitted to) section paper award competitions.

In this post I want to avoid that tangle of other issues and open discussion/debate on the narrower question of whether the discipline of sociology as a field should do all it can to move toward the model of other fields, where working papers are routinely placed on public archives before they go through peer review for ultimate publication.

The sociology model as it is generally practiced involves writing a paper, presenting it at conferences and circulating drafts of it around for a year or more, submitting it to a journal, going through several iterations of rejections and R&Rs, and finally getting it published maybe 4 or 5 years after it the work was originally done. In the meantime, some people (those you were at conferences with or to whom you sent the paper) know about the work, while others working in the same area may not know about it and thus will not cite it or be influenced by it, junior scholars worry that their work will be scooped by a more senior person who gets the idea from a circulating PDF or as an anonymous reviewer, and knowledge as a whole bogs down.

The alternative model practiced in many fields is: (1) Do the work and present it at conferences as the work evolves.  Be known as the person/team working on problem X because you have talked about it at multiple conferences. (2) Post a working paper on ArXiv or SSRN etc. as soon as you think  you have something to report. (3) Other people cite and debate your work based on the ArXiv or SSRN etc version. If it is wrong it gets called out and fixed. If it is novel and correct, you get invited to more conferences to discuss it and you learn about the work others are doing in the same field. (4) Your paper slogs its way through peer review and ultimately gets published; then you link to the published version from the working paper site. 

I advocate moving from our current model to the open model. I think the academic field as a whole wins when the work is made public and accessible as soon as possible: the author wins from getting their work noticed, and knowledge wins from everybody knowing about it. This is also the best model for influencing public debate outside the academy. I think it is also best for young scholars. The best way to have some protection against others plagiarizing your work (or some recourse if they do) is to be able to prove when you did the work, and the best way to do that is with a time-stamped public archive. Additionally, it allows young scholars to get known while their work is still making its way to peer review and publication.

Changing models does involve some real issues. Here are the important issues and my thoughts about them:

(1) Issue: Posting work too early will make me look stupid, as the work will improve over time. Alternate version: other people posting work too early gives me too much bad work to read. Response: Don’t post work you think is stupid. But as the work improves you can: a) replace the paper with an updated/corrected version; b) make the paper unavailable if you realize it is wrong (i.e. basically retract it). My own evolving strategy has been to use the abstract on a working paper to state that this is a paper in process subject to revision. In one case, when I found an error in the paper, I annotated the corrected upload to note that it corrected an error in the earlier version. As far as other people’s work, you and I know that there is already a lot of published work that isn’t worth reading. Do what you do now: look at abstracts, skim possibly useful pieces, read closely only the ones that seem worth your time.

(2) Issue: Posting the work publicly will let other people know my name! I won’t be anonymous. Response: Yes, that is exactly the point. How else do you expect to build a career? Response to response: But what if Important People get mad at me or try to hurt me because I criticized them or said something that is politically unpopular? Or think my paper is stupid or wrong and look down on me? Response to response to response: These are real issues. If you write something with your name on it, your are held accountable for it. That is the price you pay if you want to be a scholar. Science accumulates from known individuals who stake their personal reputations on the veracity of what they write. You can be fired from a tenured professorship for falsifying your research reports. Fiction writers can be anonymous, but academics cannot. Anonymous blogs and social media accounts are another way to express opinions without being accountable (although it is getting harder and harder to stay anonymous).

(3) Issue: A standard practice of posting working papers before publication means that peer review will not be blind to the name of the author. Response: This is the biggest institutional change and needs some serious discussion. Does our current practice of removing the author’s name from publications undergoing peer review add enough value to outweigh the advantages of public posting of working papers? Does double-blind reviewing eliminate or at least mitigate the known biases against women, minorities, junior scholars?  This is a complicated issue. First, blinding the author’s name is already often a charade, a ritual practice in which reviewers pretend that they do not know who the author is, when they actually do. Competent reviewers will automatically recognize the work of the key people in their field and many reviewers Google a paper they are asked to review. (For the record, my own practice is to wait to Google until after I have written the review.) Additionally, the editors of journals, who are the ones who actually make the decisions, are never blind to the author. Most of us believe that the integrity of the review process depends upon the anonymity of the peer reviewer, as any journal editor or frequent reviewer will tell you that people are quite willing to criticize their friends under the cloak of anonymity. Most people who review value their integrity as scholars too much to lie about what they think about a paper. At the same time, the matter of conscious or unconscious discrimination by reviewers should not be rejected out of hand. I do think there is symbolic value in leaving the author’s name off the paper because it signals that their status, gender etc. ought not to be a factor. The forms that reviewers fill out could also include questions: Have you read this paper prior to being asked to review it? Do you know who the author is? Do you suspect who the author is? Is the author a friend? An enemy?

(4) Issue: Publishing working papers destroys the value of the peer-reviewed journals. And what about books? Publishers cannot afford to print materials that people can get for free on the Internet. Response: This is where we dig into the core of the open science debate. The current model is that universities pay twice for science, first by paying the professors and other staff to do the research, and again by paying publishers so they can put the work in a library.  Private publishers, who did not found journals nor do the entrepreneurial and academic work to build their reputations and prestige, have purchased the rights to journals and are extracting rents from them. Professional associations have taken a cut of these rents and so work to protect the publishers. This is the core of the fight. I will note that math and physics both rely on the ArXiv model (working paper before publication) and both fields still have private publishers extracting rents from them, so it is not clear that posting working papers actually hurts publishers, as long as the peer-reviewed article remains the gold standard for tenure.

The economics of the book publishing business is different and I am less certain how to address the book issues. It has become the case that many PhDs now embargo their dissertations and do not send them to Dissertation Abstracts as part of protecting the publishability of the book. This seems bad to me, as the record of dissertations (who did them, when, where, under which advisor) is itself of scholarly value. I will leave it to more knowledgeable people to debate the book business.

UPDATE: An additional issue: A journal will not accept my article if it has previously been posted on line. Response: This is one of the ongoing issues in open science. Journals vary in their policies, and disciplines vary in the mix of journal policies. I’ve heard that biology  and medical science are more closed, for example. Most sociology journals do not consider this to be prior publication [this is ASA policy –ed.], but there certainly is a risk that the defense of journal rents could go down this path. This is a link to a site that tells you the policies of specific journals. I think I saw a blog somewhere that pulled the sociology journals from this list, but I don’t have the link right now. It gets complicated because federal law increasingly requires that scientists who have received funding put their results in an open access place, so we are all facing pressures that go in different directions. In general, most sociology journals treat the paper you sent to them before review as yours to do what you want to with, and only restrict your use of the copy of the published version; some even let you post that.

Sociologists: Amend your agreements with ASA/Sage

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By Philip N. Cohen

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

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

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

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

The problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The individual solution

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

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

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

sage amendment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fix the policy

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

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

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

Grand challenges for open scholarship

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In his keynote address, Joi Ito showed a picture of a briefcase holding the contents of Sci-Hub (tens of millions of papers), en route to India, where they may end up being legally distributed to teachers and students.

MIT Libraries just hosted a Grand Challenges summit on Information Science and Scholarly Communication. It comprised three 1.5-day workshops on (1) scholarly discovery, (2) digital curation and preservation, and (3) open scholarship (described here). The director of MIT Libraries, Chris Bourg, is on SocArXiv’s steering committee, and I was invited to participate in the open scholarship workshop, so we were well represented (participant list).

The workshops focused on defining core challenges and proposing a research agenda to address them in a 7- to 10-year time frame. This builds on MIT’s Task Force of the Future of Libraries report, among other efforts. The organizers and participants will produce a report on this agenda in the next few months; we’ll report back.

In the meantime, I wanted to highlight one of the recommended readings, a paper by Micah Altman (the libraries’ director of research) and Marguerite Avery, “Information wants someone else to pay for it: Laws of information economics and scholarly publishing.” It’s an excellent introduction to the problem of markets in scholarly publishing, very approachable for social scientists interested in the political economy of what the jargon calls the “scholarly communication ecosystem.”

In general, the trends in scholarly communication are more, more and more. In 2011, the value of the market in 2011 was estimated to be $23.5 billion. But there is one area in which the trend is “less” and that is in market competition. Although the number of publications and journals is expanding at approximately three percent a year, and the market is expanding at four percent, the number of mergers and acquisitions over the past three decades have dramatically decreased the diversity of and competition among publishers. Today, following the recent merger of MacMillan and Springer, the market is dominated by a handful of companies: Pearson, Reed Elsevier, Springer, Taylor & Francis, Thomson/Reuters and Wolters Kluwer. These companies happen to be the top four publishing companies globally as well. And this is the culmination of a long-term trend: over the last three decades, there has been dramatic consolidation in the scholarly publishing industry. Profit margins are commensurately high, with some credible estimates of Elsevier’s profit margin as high as thirty-seven percent. Thus far, there are no signs that the general expansion of the content, contributors, and audience for scholarly outputs has countered this decline in competition.

The paper offers explanations for this failure of market competition, concluding:

Even in the long run, economic theory itself predicts that left to the market, too little knowledge will be created, too little used, and access to too much of what is available will be controlled by a small group of distributors.

They further caution that openness itself — especially defined only as free-to-read, does not a guarantee a system of “robust, sustainable scholarly communication.”

We may reach the point when the small number of for-profit companies that control academic publishing are able to describe their publishing output as “open access,” while simultaneously cementing their control over knowledge.

Finally, Altman and Avery offer a list of the “affordances” offered by current academic publications — the uses that different groups or institutions expect from them — and propose using new technology to unbundle these tasks, rather than presume they will remain bundled in the current, relatively ancient system of publication. This is a useful exercise for imagining future scholarly communication systems. Here is their table of affordances:

Table 1 from Altman & Avery 2015: DOI 10.3233/ISU-150775

One of my goals for the next year is assembling a curriculum on academic publishing, suitable for beginning social scientists and others interested in learning how this system works, the better to change it. This paper, and the work coming out of the MIT Grand Challenges summit, will be on the list. Please feel free to add your suggestions in the comments, or send them to me at pnc@umd.edu.

Authority, openness, and the soft sciences

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Openness is beautiful but also vulnerable (photo PNC)

At our O3S conference, Tina Fetner said something that struck me, and with her permission I’m elaborating on it here.

Why is open scholarship more advanced, as a movement and as a set of norms, in the non-social sciences? The most important preprint archive is Arxiv, which started in math and physics. The biggest new preprint archive is bioRxiv, for the biological sciences, which is currently adding about 40 papers per day. There are important developments in the social sciences, including of course SocArXiv, but also PsyArxiv for psychology (although they are a pretty sciency social science); but these are still incipient relative to the big archives. And in open access academic publishing, the leader is PLOS (the Public Library of Science) which covers “all areas of science and medicine,” but doesn’t handle much social science (out of 190,000 papers, I count 14% tagged as social science, and 4% are tagged sociology, many of which are about health topics).

Of course not all scientists, or scientific disciplines, are leading the open movement. In chemistry and medicine, for example – and other fields where there is major commercial gain to be made from secrecy – openness is not all the rage.

But in the case of biology, where openness is taking off, could it be that the scientists are more oriented toward scientific processes than social scientists are, and so the issues of reproducibility and transparency are closer to the philosophy of their training? Or that they are more used to collaborating in teams that evolve over the course of their careers, so they are used to sharing? I don’t know, but I’d like to hear suggestions.

We hear you

Tina offered this suggestion: Maybe social scientists – and especially those in the softer social sciences – are reluctant to open up their work because they risk more by engaging with people outside their fields. This might be because our authority is more precarious.

Think about language. When physicists or engineers use language that only they understand, it’s not “jargon,” it’s “technical.” But social scientists are usually talking about things that are meaningful and interpretable to people outside of their disciplines. When sociologists use fancy words they seem obnoxious to lay readers. If a female social scientists refers to how “gender is socially constructed,” or uses the term “neoliberalism,” a dozen men with maybe one undergraduate course in sociology between them will gladly step in to explain why she’s an idiot (and worse). This doesn’t happen to mathematicians. (It also happens to White men much less than it does to women and minority scholars, which works in the average mathematician’s favor.)

When social scientists take their work public – which many of us are extremely keen to do – the risks we face are different from those in the sciency sciences. Our authority is more tenuous the more our work approaches intelligibility to non-experts. And the incentive to attack us increases as our work becomes more critical, and more critical of those with more to lose from our work.

One response to this weaker authority is to lean more heavily on formal legitimacy. Sociologists may be more insistent on formal titles than mathematicians for this reason (again, plus gender and race/ethnicity). And they might be more trepidatious about sharing work widely that has not been peer reviewed, or published by a high status journal or academic publishing house. These are reasonable responses.

It is our mission through SocArXiv to open up the research process and its products. But we know that this goal entails risks, and that those risks are not equitably distributed. We persist despite this recognition not because we discount the risks and concerns, but because we think social science is too important to give up in the face of them.

We want to help

Our approach to openness needs to be flexible and inclusive. It’s good to be tenacious, but not dogmatic. We believe that openness makes our work better, faster, more efficient, and more inclusive. The challenge is to move in that direction without incurring costs that are greater than those benefits. And we think we can do that.

Opening up our work allows us to better build collaborative networks for intellectual, social, and political support. By sharing with each other, we can make the enterprise of social science stronger partly because the work will be better, and partly because we will have a greater pool of shared resources on which to draw in response to the opposition we may face from skeptical or hostile publics. Of course, this is easier said than done, but that’s the basis for our optimism on openness.

That’s why we created SocArXiv, but SocArXiv is not a social movement or a political party; there is no ideological test for entry. It’s a tool and a platform that we can use to make our work better. We want to help you use it to make your work better, too, and we’d love to hear from you how we can do that together.

The next stage of SocArXiv’s development: bringing greater transparency and efficiency to the peer review process

SocArXiv’s Philip Cohen has published an essay about the future of peer review on the LSE Impact blog. Here is the intro:

Almost 1,500 papers have been uploaded to SocArXiv since its launch last year. Up to now the platform has operated alongside the peer-review journal system rather than seriously disrupting it. Looking ahead to the next stage of its development, Philip Cohen considers how SocArXiv might challenge the peer review system to be more efficient and transparent, firstly by confronting the bias that leads many who benefit from the status quo to characterise mooted alternatives as extreme. The value and implications of openness at the various decision points in the system must be debated, as should potentially more disruptive innovations such as non-exclusive review and publication or crowdsourcing reviews.

Read the whole essay here.

How should I license my work on SocArXiv?

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Open is better. (PNC photo: https://flic.kr/p/fwirMJ)

By Judy Ruttenberg and Krista Cox

When you upload a paper to SocArXiv, you’re given the option to attach a public domain waiver or an open license: CC-0 1.0 Universal or CC-BY Attribution 4.0 International to your work. A license (or waiver), while not required, is recommended because it communicates to readers how they can use your work. Both of these CC options are excellent choices that allow reuse, adaptation, copying, and distribution, including commercially. The difference is in the permissions-seeking—a CC-0 option is a donation of the work to the public domain (no permission required) whereas CC-BY allows the author to retain copyright, and requires the reader to give credit to the source and to provide a link to the license terms. Both licenses promote openness, efficiency and progress by providing certainty to the user as to what reuses or adaptations can be made.

Copyright and copyright licensing are complicated, and to the uninitiated researcher, at least two things immediately seem strange about this practice. The first is allowing work to be used commercially. Aren’t we trying to make scholarship more open, accessible, and free? The second is the word “attribution” in the license. Don’t the norms of scholarship require attribution of work, regardless of a license? Is something extra required with CC-BY, or worse, does the use of CC-0 somehow exempt readers of my work from giving me proper credit? Yes, yes, and no.

When work is in the public domain or openly licensed, it can be commercialized by a third party through (for example) inclusion in an anthology or database. That third party (any third party) is free to make money from your public domain work, but it will still be available for free through SocArXiv. As long as your work is still available free, the mission of getting it out to more people is not harmed by someone selling it as well. That also means there is not much money to be made selling academic papers from an open-access preprint server. The more compelling (and frankly more likely) reason to choose the most open license is to facilitate the kind of aggregation that encourages distant reading, or computation across a body of work too large for a human reader. Some scholars may be hesitant to engage in activities like text and data mining (a fair use in the United States) without seeking permissions first, but the use of a CC-0 license removes any doubt around the pursuit of this kind of meta-scholarship in the U.S., and enables text and data mining in countries that require a license to do so. (For more on this, see: ARL Issue Brief: Text and Data Mining and Fair Use in the United States.)

And there is no license that exempts other students and scholars from the norms of academic citation and attribution of work used in subsequent scholarship. Appropriating work without attribution is considered fraud or plagiarism, and scholarly communities and institutions enforce those rules of conduct wholly independently of copyright law. Publishing your work in SocArXiv arguably protects you against fraud or plagiarism by time-stamping your work, under your name, in a permanently available platform for verification. Publishing it with an open license means that people don’t have to waste a lot of time and resources trying to get permissions. It makes the reuse and creation of new works faster and more efficient. And it means that people also don’t have to engage in individualized negotiations.

Scholarly communications librarians have long advocated for authors to retain copyright to their work or waive that copyright to the public domain, rather than sign author agreements that often cede that exclusive right (to copy and distribute) to publishers. Ownership (or lack thereof) of scholarly intellectual property is at the center of the mess we’re in with respect to academic publishing and inaccessibility. Open licenses are an important part of taking back the publishing process. To get up to speed and involved in that story, which is far from resolved, follow @ARLpolicy , @SPARC_NA, @IOIntheOpen, @FarbThink, @CopyrightLibn, to name a few. This kind of expertise informs and guides the Creative Commons, so you don’t have to be a librarian, an attorney, or a policy expert in order to openly license your work for maximum dissemination and reuse.

Q&A with Richard Poynder on SocArXiv and #OA

I did an interview with Richard Poynder for his OA Interviews series. He added an excellent introductory essay on the state of open access and the potential role of services like SocArXiv. Well worth a read. This is his conclusion:

The good news is that if the preprint movement flourishes, and manages to maintain an existence independent of traditional publishers, it has the potential to complete the revolution the OA movement began. And if all else fails, it could seek to cut publishers out of the loop altogether and take back ownership of scholarly communication.

Alternatively, of course, it may – like the OA movement more generally – end up captured and exploited by legacy publishers, who will seek to use it in a way that props up the outdated and inefficient model of scholarly communication that currently allows them to make excessive profits from the public purse. Not only would this be a waste of taxpayers’ money, but it would hobble and hold back the global research endeavour.

In the long interview that followed, I provide an update on the status of SocArXiv and our plans, working with the Center for Open Science, and our upcoming conference, as well as offering my own opinions about the place of our efforts in the (potential) future of scholarly communication. I hope you will read the whole thing here.