open access sociology (or, publishing doesn’t need paywalls and doesn’t have to take forever)

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Yesterday, Sociological Science published my new paper, co-authored with Ellen Berrey, The Partial Deinstitutionalization of Affirmative Action in U.S. Higher Education, 1988 to 2014. The paper is largely descriptive and the most important result is above – we show that lots of selective schools voluntarily abandoned their public commitments to the consideration of race in admissions, but not the most elite schools. Beyond that, we show that most of this decline cannot be directly attributed to state-level bans on the practice (85% of schools abandoning were not covered by such bans). In 1994, 60% of selective schools considered race; by 2014, just 35% did. Here, I want to briefly describe how the paper came into existence as a way to plug some of the new, open access routes to circulating work and publishing that have the potential to address some of sociology’s woes.

About two and a half years ago, Mark Suchman asked me a question I couldn’t answer: how many schools actually consider race in admissions? We were talking about a previous paper that Ellen and I were working on about the history of affirmative action at the University of Michigan. As a good institutionalist, Mark wanted to know about the dynamics across the whole field. I didn’t know the answer, and neither did Ellen. So, we went looking for other existing studies and we went looking for data.

We found just one really relevant paper, Grodsky and Kalogrides (2008). Their analysis was very useful, but ended in 2003 (five years before the paper was published, and before some of the state bans went into effect, and before the effects of the 2003 Supreme Court decisions could be seen), and broke up the field of higher education in different ways than we were imagining. So we tracked down the same data they used (primarily the College Board’s Annual Survey of Colleges), and set out to analyze it. Getting and cleaning the data took longer than expected (said every researcher ever), and moving to new jobs was a bit more disruptive for research than expected (said every new faculty member ever). Nonetheless, by Spring of this year, with some fantastic research assistance from Prabh Kehal, we had everything in place and started to produce graphs like the one above. When the term ended, we wrote a draft of the paper, circulated it to a few colleagues for comments, and revised it.

When we finished our first revisions, we could have sent the paper to a traditional journal and waited. If we were lucky, the paper might have been reviewed “quickly” in just a couple months, received an R&R, been re-reviewed in a couple more months, eventually accepted, and published, a process that would have taken at least a year, and typically more like 2. Instead, on June 21st we submitted the paper for review at Sociological Science and simultaneously uploaded the draft to SocArXiv. Posting the paper to SocArXiv meant that whether or not the paper was accepted in a timely fashion at a journal it would be available to anyone who was interested.

Sociological Science conditionally accepted the paper on July 17, just under a month later. We revised the paper and resubmitted it on July 27. The revised version was accepted on July 29th, page proofs came on August 9th, and the published version came out August 28th. Total time from submission to print: just over two months.

And yet, even with that blazingly fast process, it made a difference that we posted the working paper to SocArXiv. In those two months, affirmative action briefly became a national concern. On August 1st, the New York Times reported that the Trump administration was moving to challenge colleges’ affirmative action policies. Other news outlets followed up with stories about both the administration’s plans and more general stories about the state of affirmative action today. As part of this news cycle, Jordan Weissman at Slate wrote an article about our paper and the decline of affirmative admissions at less elite schools. We never talked with Weissman; on his own, or perhaps via Twitter discussion of the working paper, he found and read what we had posted at SocArXiv and wrote based on that.

So, what’s the moral of the story? I don’t think every paper should or can be published as quickly as this one, and I don’t think Sociological Science and SocArXiv are the right solution for every part of our collective publishing problems. But we can collectively do better, and these institutions are a good start. By posting working papers, discussing our work in open venues, and publishing in journals without paywalls, we can (to borrow a couple phrases from Kieran Healy) make our work “literally accessible” in order to do “sociology in public”. Doing open access sociology has the potential to make our work better and more influential.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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