Committee on Publication Ethics offers supportive preprint recommendations

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The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) has released a discussion document on preprints. It offers a useful synopsis on the context and rationale for preprints, as well as some common challenges and ethical issues.

I hope journals and publishers will read and follow their guidance here. In particular the ethical notes that:

  • Preprints are generally not considered “publications,” so the papers can be submitted to journals.
  • However, preprints do establish “precedence,” so they should be cited by authors who are aware of them.

COPE doesn’t go so far as to recommend that journals accept preprinted papers, but they urge journals to make their policies explicit:

As the preprint landscape continues to evolve, journals may also wish to raise awareness of preprints among their editorial teams, authors, reviewers, and readers via editorials, webinars, etc. Clear policies in author and reviewer guidelines will not only clarify expectations but also provide a framework for handling submissions consistently.

As we note on our FAQ page, American Sociological Association journal policy allows consideration of papers that have been publicly posted, as long as they are not peer-reviewed:

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.

By our accounting, the top sociology journals all currently allow prepublication archiving of papers.

The COPE advice for authors is also good. In short:

  • Be aware of preprint server and journal policies.
  • Read your copyright agreements.
  • When posting preprints, follow standard ethical practices for research integrity and author attribution.

Our advice goes further, advising researchers to: post papers on SocArXiv or another preprint server, publish in journals that permit distribution of papers before and after publication (we provide DOI linking to facilitate discovery and metrics), use unrestricted licenses to maximize distribution of your work, and link your papers to publicly available research materials (here’s a basic tutorial).

Grand challenges for open scholarship

MIT Libraries’ Grand Challenges will help set a research agenda for the development of 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.

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.

Q&A with Richard Poynder on SocArXiv and #OA

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.

 

What to do about, and/or with, the American Sociological Association?

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?

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Flickr / CC: https://flic.kr/p/sjBWi

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.

For ASA

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.