Sociologists: Amend your agreements with ASA/Sage


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

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

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

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.