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.

Social science without walls

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.

Upload a paper or browse the archive now at Follow us on Twitter or Facebook for updates, email to get involved, check out our YouTube videos, or make a contribution through the University of Maryland.