SocArXiv media spotlight: Excess mortality in Puerto Rico

People walking in flood waters in Condado, San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sept. 22, 2017.
Condado, San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sept. 22, 2017. Puerto Rico National Guard photo by Jose Ahiram Diaz-Ramos.

A paper by Alexis Santos and Jeffrey T. Howard, posted on SocArXiv, has received wide media attention, highlighting some of the advantages of using SocArXiv. The paper, “Estimates of excess deaths in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria,” was posted as a preprint before peer review.

The abstract reports a “descriptive finding” on excess deaths following Hurricane María for September and October. Using historical data from the Puerto Rico Vital Statistics system, the authors estimated expected deaths for each month. Then, using statements from the Puerto Rico Department of Public Safety, they compared the number of deaths for September and October 2017 to those from previous years, taking variability into account. The difference between their estimates of actual deaths in 2017 and the high-end estimates for those months was 518 deaths for September and 567 deaths for October. They conclude that mortality on the island “may exceed the current official death toll by a factor of 10.”

The preprint has been cited and linked from articles in the New York Times, Vox, and Huffington Post, and other media sources. As of December 10 it has been downloaded from SocArXiv 1,333 times (and viewed in the browser window many more times than that).

Santos, who goes by @AppDemography on Twitter, is an active public scholar who previously posted a paper on SocArXiv about possible climate change effects on life expectancy in Europe.

This is a good best-practices story for several reasons.

  • There is an urgent need to understand the impact of the hurricane on Puerto Rico. The paper is not peer-reviewed, but it is ready to be distributed widely. The methods are clear and transparent. The media reporting now permits other scholars the opportunity to read and react to the paper publicly. It now appears the Santos and Howard estimates are in line with other calculations, and the paper contributes to an emerging consensus about the storm’s impact.
  • By posting the paper on SocArXiv and sharing it with the media from there, Santos was able to provide a persistent link to an open paper, time-stamped and linked with his profile page (which includes links to his ORCID ID, Google Scholar, and other accounts).
  • In addition to the persistent link on SocArXiv, the paper has a DOI associated with it. The Google Scholar link takes readers directly to the SocArXiv version, and is now recording citations to the paper. SocArXiv also preserves and makes availale the version record for the paper.
  • As a project on the Open Science Framework (which each SocArXiv paper automatically becomes), the paper may be easily associated with supporting documentation and research materials.
  • Finally, if the paper in some later version is published in a journal, the authors will have the opportunity of providing a forward-linking DOI on the SocArXiv page, so that readers will be directed to the journal site.

We’re delighted to see SocArXiv working as intended!

Authority, openness, and the soft sciences

Photo of water drop splashing
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.