Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Group of Sociologists Launch a New Online Journal

Their goal: to speed the flow of research results and open access to ideas and knowledge.

When she was in graduate school in the early 1990s, Sarah Soule joked with fellow students that it took longer to publish a research paper than to gestate a human baby. From the time a research paper was submitted to a peer-reviewed journal until it was published, a year or more passed. The process that seemed so long back then has grown even longer now. Sociologists routinely report that their papers are stuck in the review process for two or three years, says Soule, now a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Soule is among seven prominent sociologists at major universities who hope to disrupt the way academic publishing is done in their field by launching a new online journal, Sociological Science, on Tuesday, Feb. 18. The academic editors, headed by chief editor Jesper Sørensen, also a Stanford GSB professor, promise to give authors an up or down decision within 30 days and to publish an accepted research paper within a few months. The journal will be free for everyone to read online.

The long publishing window for existing journals is a problem for two reasons, Sørensen says. It slows down both science production and the use of results.

Study findings can’t help policymakers, business leaders, and others make decisions if the findings aren’t in the public domain. A study in the first issue, for example, might be useful to education policymakers because it locates where the greatest barriers are to more women preparing for science and engineering careers. Another paper discusses how workweek leisure time affects the unemployed, and two others indicate that online social networking may have less impact than some have thought on promoting real-world changes such as social activism and interracial dating.

Besides getting research into the public domain faster, the founding group hopes to speed up science and make it easier for more young scholars to have an impact. That’s important because publish-or-perish is still the byword for doctoral students and junior faculty, but those who hope to earn tenure can easily face critical review milestones with no publications to show because of the lengthening journal publishing process, Sørensen and Soule say.

On the new journal’s website, the editors write that for most other sociology journals, “reviewers — who have little if any accountability to the journal or the author — can wield enormous influence over both the fate and content of papers. This practice has led to a bias toward errors of omission, to multiple rounds of revisions, and to ever-increasing review times.”

Adds Soule: “My feeling is the more access we have to ideas and knowledge, the better our own work is going to be, and the better able we will be to critique it and think about it.”

The sociologists who launched this journal are among scholars in a variety of disciplines who are rethinking how to critique and disseminate research. In fact, there are a number of open-access journals online, some of which began because scientists in a particular field felt the journal publishing process was too slow or too expensive, while others were motivated by wanting to broaden the access to research.

Reading journal articles has ordinarily required an expensive journal subscription or access to a research library that has one. In recent years, some U.S. federal agencies that fund research have begun to require that papers be made available without payment within a year of journal publication. The American Sociological Association, which publishes a number of journals, has been among those organizations lobbying against such a requirement. In a 2012 letter to the White House, the organization’s executive officer, Sally Hillsman, argued that the organization needs the subscription revenue to carry out the review and publication process.

At least from the tone of discussions about the new journal on popular social science blogs such as Orgtheory, Scatterplot, Whatisthewhat, Crookedtimber, some researchers, although not all, will be happy to forgo the advice from multiple review rounds. “We’re living with 19th-century journals. I hope this shakes things up,” one wrote, while others complained that some of today’s reviewers write more pages or critiques than the articles they are reviewing.

Soule agrees: “I had one a while ago that took three years to review. While I was happy to see it published, I think about all the wasted time and articles that weren’t published because of the time spent on it. That’s not the way to advance science.”

Jesper B. Sørensen is the Robert A. and Elizabeth R. Jeffe Professor of Organizational Behavior and Professor of Sociology (by courtesy) at the School of Humanities and Sciences. Sarah A. Soule is the Morgridge Professor of Organizational Behavior and Professor of Sociology (by courtesy) at the School of Humanities and Sciences. The other deputy editors of the new journal are Delia Baldassarri of New York University, Stephen L. Morgan of Cornell University, Olav Sorenson of Yale University, Kim Weeden of Cornell University, and Ezra Zuckerman of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.