MIT Libraries’ Grand Challenges will help set a research agenda for the development of open scholarship.
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:
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 email@example.com.
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 about40 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.
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.
You don’t have to be a librarian or an attorney to make the right choices for your work.
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.
With a great introduction and a long interview on where we stand and where we’re going.
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.
All the reasons we became social scientists seem more important than ever before in our careers.
From the SocArXiv Steering Committee:
As many social scientists prepare for the March for Science on April 22, here is a reflection on the moment we’re in.
This is a time in which many social scientists feel a greater urgency in our work, and a heightened motivation to solve the problems we knew we faced already. All the reasons we became social scientists seem more important than ever before in our careers. That’s why we’re glad to have SocArXiv, which is here for social scientists to realize our goals:
We want our work to be better, to benefit from the knowledge and collaboration of our peers as well as experts and concerned people outside of academia, and around the world.
We want our work to be more efficient, to get more done with less money, to produce better results while moving more quickly from insight through publication.
We want our work to me more relevant, to bring our expertise to bear on the issues of today — and tomorrow — without being blocked by national, disciplinary, or financial barriers.
We want our work to be less hierarchical, to be more democratic in its development, more open in its dissemination, and more responsive to the people we study and serve.
Open scholarship is how we approach these goals. Open source, open access research infrastructure allows us to make the best use of our resources, improve the process and products of our work, bring it to more people faster, and dissolve the obstacles to interaction that plague our industry. In short, we want a social science without walls.
SocArXiv is a key part of our plan to build that future social science. If you’re feeling the imperative to raise your voice, to tell your communities that social science is real, to express that we are part of the solution, and to draw more people into the world of research and the search for knowledge, we hope you will agree.
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?
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.