a note from Alan Sica about archive preservation

Alan Sica sent out the following request to a few ASA listservs. With his permission, I’m reposting it here. As you’ll see below, I think the note raises a number of interesting questions/issues that I’d never before considered.

Historians of sociology, social theorists, and other scholars,

Please take five minutes to read what follows, as it affects our discipline’s future historiography.

Two weeks from now the ruling body of the ASA, the Council, will meet at the Association’s headquarters in Washington, DC and, in addition to other things, will decide the fate of 588 boxes of archived journal-related material: whether to preserve them or destroy them.  I am writing to ask that you contact Council members (their email addresses follow this note) with your opinion one way or the other.  Obviously, I hope you “vote” to preserve the materials, but if you believe they are not worth preserving, you could register that opinion as well.

The background to this event is long and complicated, but here is the relatively short version:  Ever since 1997 the ASA has been sending its official papers to the Special Collections unit in Paterno Library at Penn State University, an arrangement I helped create during the ‘90s.  Two years ago Penn State’s lawyers and librarians realized, based on the agreement signed with ASA when the Archive was founded, that some of the materials could never be used for historical research, thus giving them no archival value.  After protracted discussions among concerned parties, Penn State returned the materials to ASA, which has been storing them in Bethesda, MD for the last year or so in a facility which is not suited for research or examination. 

Beginning in 1997, ASA journal editors were asked to send all their files to Penn State following their tours of duty, so the holdings are extensive and should be complete. Over the years these materials were catalogued by Penn State’s special collections staff, and the “finding guide” is 434 pages long.  Most of the materials are files from ASR between 1991 and 2010, but there are also many boxes which pertain to the other ASA journals as well (including Sociological Theory, of which I was editor in the early ‘90s).  The files contain submitted manuscripts, reviewers’ comments, editors’ letters to authors, and in some cases authors’ responses.

Thus far no historian of sociology has examined the boxes, but they have been looked through by Michael Murphy, the in-house ASA archivist.  The ASA lawyer believes that the materials should never be seen by anybody other than ASA staff members due to ASA’s confidentiality and ethics statements.  But historians like myself (including Andy Abbott, Craig Calhoun, Chas Camic, Randy Collins, Stephen Turner and others to whom I’ve written) have gone on record as opposing destruction.  We believe that if the materials are digitized or otherwise preserved, they could be extremely useful to historians 75 years hence after all interested parties are long gone, especially given that such a complete record of ASA journal work will not again be available.  It is also worth noting that the period in question (1991-2010) is precisely when computerization of scholarship supplanted the traditional, paper-based methods that had been in place for centuries.

Andy Abbott also pointed out to me that AJS has “kept everything” back to 1967, with some materials long before that as well.  Thus, unless these ASA materials are saved, the “history of sociology” for future historians could in large part become the history of the AJS.

Sally Hillsman, Executive Officer of ASA, met with me privately a year ago and we discussed how to proceed with this difficult matter.  She asked me an empirical question: “Do the authors and reviewers represented in the journal records wish for their remarks to become available to historians eventually, or do they not?”  To answer that I asked some Penn State researchers to mount a sample survey of authors and reviewers named in the files (data given us by ASA), which they carried out between July and December of 2013 (as some of you likely know, having received their emailed inquiries).  The results show that 88% of reviewers and 87% of authors agree that the materials should be preserved, and that an “embargo” (of some years hence, with 50 to 75 often suggested) be placed on the materials so that no living scholar would be affected should the contents of their remarks become public.

Historians know how precious archival materials are to their work.  While I understand the legalistic point of view expressed by the Penn State and ASA attorneys, and also the strong ethical principles on which ASA is founded, I regard it as criminally negligent, even abusive, of our future history to destroy these materials without a thought to their eventual scholarly use.  Given the well-known fact that ASR, for instance, rejects 94% of submitted manuscripts (with the other ASA journals not far behind in their equivalent rates), if historians look only to published articles, they will have missed the great bulk of what was being done as sociology during this period.  This may seem unimportant now, but will be viewed quite differently a century or so hence.

A final note:  lately my R.A. and I have been going through the Luther Bernard Papers in the Penn State library.  The large collection of sociologists’ autobiographies he collected between 1929 and 1932 has become a unique source for historians of early U.S. sociology. I thank Bernard (and his wife, Jessie) for saving and donating them to the library each time I read a new one, learning more about our collective past.  We should follow their example in preserving our intellectual past.

ASA Council members:

ASA Council members email addresses:

[email addresses removed to avoid spamming]

Thanks for taking the time to read this and to email the Council.

Like I said this note raised a lot of questions. To what extent should anonymous reviews ever be made public? Do reviewers know that in the future their reviews will be dissected by historians of the field? What role should the ASA have in preserving intellectual discussions? Is it criminally negligent to not preserve those discussions? What happens to author-reviewer debates in the Manuscript Central era? Is there a cloud somewhere that is storing all of these for perpetuity? What is the best way to preserve intellectual debates like this going forward?

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Written by brayden king

February 17, 2014 at 3:26 pm

Posted in academia, brayden, sociology

35 Responses

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  1. Now I have a natural experiment as to whether posting of one’s email address on a blog generates more spam than usual, as we all used to think it would years ago. Thanks!

    About the saving of these records, I have a question for the crowd: what is the cost of properly digitizing, logging, and doing whatever archivists do to preserve these materials? I suspect this is more the issue than any sort of torch-wielding mob entranced with the idea of destroying the records.


    February 17, 2014 at 5:56 pm

  2. @tina: I don’t mean this to come off snarky, but you are the one on Council. Maybe you should determine what is really at issue, assess the costs and benefits, and make an informed decision on the fate of the 588 boxes?


    February 17, 2014 at 7:49 pm

  3. The cost would be non-trvial but not prohibitive. Modern PDF makers are FAST. It would be 1-2 semesters of someone standing by a high quality PDF maker.


    February 17, 2014 at 8:59 pm

  4. Destroying archives is nonsense. Digitalize them.

    Fred Welfare

    February 17, 2014 at 9:16 pm

  5. @lk: Yes, that is an excellent point. I will be sure to prepare thoroughly for the Council’s deliberation. Thank you for the reminder.


    February 17, 2014 at 9:56 pm

  6. Sorry for the unintentional spamming. Email addresses are now removed.

    I’m surprised that nobody seems bothered by the fact that their reviews will someday be open to anyone who wants to do research on the history of sociology. Personally, I don’t feel like it’s a problem, but this does seem to be the main reason that the attorneys object to the archives (if I understand it correctly). We’re assuming that when people agree to do reviews, they understand that their anonymity is only protected for a period of time. Perhaps this is reasonable, but it does seem to be the sticking point.

    brayden king

    February 17, 2014 at 10:40 pm

  7. This issue has been going on for a long time. I want to support Alan because I applaud his perseverance on this and greatly admire his willingness to stand up to ASA. But, it was hard for me to see the intellectual usefulness that would justify the cost, at least if the cost figures that were being recited by ASA folks were correct. Then again, I don’t sincerely believe there will be a vital community historians of sociology a hundred years hence; not sure that dubiousness should be the official position of ASA.

    Anyway, it’s up to you, Tina.


    February 17, 2014 at 10:44 pm

  8. I think Alan’s core reasoning is that if you destroy the archives, they are certainly unavailable. If you keep the archives, thinking could change. I suspect he’s correct about this. We’re being asked how we feel about historians of the future reading our reviews. Eventually, the question will be about contemporary historians and reviews written by people very long ago.


    February 17, 2014 at 10:53 pm

  9. @jeremy: “…I don’t sincerely believe there will be a vital community historians of sociology a hundred years hence…” [Sigh] I think that concisely summarizes (almost) everything that is wrong with sociology today.


    February 17, 2014 at 11:06 pm

  10. Jeremy: Whether any historian would actually find sociology interesting enough to study is one question, but if they had that interest, I feel confident that a corpus of peer reviews would provide fantastic grist for a history sociology of knowledge project. Just what were the bases of evaluations?

    I find it hard to imagine that a peer review of an article released 50-75 years after it was written and the reviewer is dead could really be any kind of violation of confidentiality. The only way in which it could harm the reviewer’s reputation would be if the reviews were racist, sexist, homophobic, or personal vendettas. But isn’t that the stuff that historians love? And even so, once you are dead and gone, what do you really care about your reputation anyway?

    Costs are a different question, especially if the question is who should pay them.


    February 17, 2014 at 11:29 pm

  11. There must be rules or past practices. No one should scavenge or ride roughshod over others papers , even if dead.

    Fredrick Welfare

    February 17, 2014 at 11:34 pm

  12. OW: I’m just talking about my opinion. I don’t remember much about discussion that I was in on, except that it did seem a fair bit of money and a remarkable standoff of wills between Alan and the ASA Executive Officer. I could see Alan’s point about listening to a lawyer today tell you to destroy records when tomorrow’s lawyers could tell you that today’s lawyer was overreacting.


    February 18, 2014 at 12:00 am

  13. Frederick: aren’t you even a little bit interested in the history of the development of sociology? And the way in which the review process shaped the discipline? Does your concern for riding roughshod over others papers extend to their published papers as well? The confidentiality of the review process is meant to protect the integrity of blind review. It is not supposed to be a personal document. People don’t write their intimate secrets in a blind review. It is a professional document, not a personal document. This is not like finding a trove of somebody’s love letters or private journals. OK I realize that by definition I wouldn’t be around to find out the results of this hypothetical research, but it sure as heck seems interesting in principle to me. The inner revelations of the inner workings of the ASA do not seem as manifestly interesting to me, but would also surely be relevant to a study of the development of disciplinary boundaries and definitions of the field.


    February 18, 2014 at 12:33 am

  14. Is Sally Hillsman the executive officer?

    Fred Welfare

    February 18, 2014 at 2:34 am

  15. Olderwoman, You seemed to imply that destroying historical documents is acceptable. I don’t. But, you second remark seems to think that the documents have value. Which is it?

    Fred Welfare

    February 18, 2014 at 2:37 am

  16. Hmmm. I thought I was clearly advocating for keeping the records. Or at least that I thought they had value. Do you have me mixed up with somebody else? If not, I must have been unclear. I did acknowledge that costs and who pays them may be an issue.


    February 18, 2014 at 4:00 am

  17. I said, “There must be rules or past practices. No one should scavenge or ride roughshod over others papers , even if dead.” You said, “Frederick: aren’t you even a little bit interested in the history of the development of sociology? And the way in which the review process shaped the discipline? Does your concern for riding roughshod over others papers extend to their published papers as well?”

    The best I can do is presume you misread and give you the benefit of the doubt that you misinterpreted what I stated!!

    If you believe you interpreted my statement correctly, please explain, I would be most interested in understanding how my statement refers to ‘riding roughshod’ and not its negation?

    Fred Welfare

    February 18, 2014 at 4:52 am

  18. I agree with olderwoman. Imagine that we currently had access to the equivalent records, in terms of type of record and time lag, that these ones represent for historians and sociologists of the future. That would mean someone could analyze how the review process shaped the development of the Chicago School, for example. How did some of what we now see as canonical articles in sociology change through the review process? How did the reactions of reviewers to particular developments in sociological theory shift over time? Did reviewers always ask for the same kinds of changes that we anecdotally see now, or were the older ones strikingly different in important ways?

    I’ll admit, though, that I’m speaking with ignorance about the costs. If Tina has access to this info through Council, it might be worth seeing if an analysis of the cost could be publicly posted so that sociologists who work with archival materials can comment on the estimates.

    This decision strikes me as one on which sociologists should get to comment broadly before a final decision is made. I’m startled that the Council may be deciding this in two weeks and this is the only place I’ve heard of it (as a member of the ASA and several of its sections, and a large sociology department).


    February 18, 2014 at 4:59 am

  19. I’ll second Eliza here. This could be an important area of study, and thus it seems odd that we only hear about the issue through Orgtheory. Where’s the Footnotes article?


    February 18, 2014 at 6:49 am

  20. Based on what I’ve read I go for preservation…I don’t have a problem with people seeing my reviews. They are meant to be “blind” for the purpose of making decisions about publication–not for the purpose of obscuring the historical record related to how and why particular decisions were made…


    February 18, 2014 at 9:45 am

  21. I agree, these documents are important for future generations of researchers. So many important insights into the review process and how it impacts authors’ work. We need to preserve the documents.

    Is there any possibility to donate for preservation? I would be willing in order to reduce cost for ASA!


    February 18, 2014 at 9:58 am

  22. Sorry, Fred, it appears I misunderstood your point.


    February 18, 2014 at 2:16 pm

  23. […] I have had this blog for some time and have struggled to find an appropriate first post. The other day I came across just such a topic: the connections between our work as scholars in the present and our obligation to the future of academia. The catalyst for this thinking was a missive from one of the faculty members with whom I worked while in grad school. A link to this document can be found at: […]

  24. We discussed the reviewer-privacy issue in the ST editorial board meeting last summer – consensus was that after a reasonable lag time there’s no expectation of privacy and the reviews are of substantial intellectual interest. I have no idea what digitization costs, but it seems to me that it would be worth a fair amount of money to scan and archive these documents for future use.


    February 18, 2014 at 7:48 pm

  25. If the main issue is cost then the ASA should solicit donations during membership renewal. They already do this with various kinds of fellowships. I would gladly donate despite being a grad student.


    February 18, 2014 at 11:56 pm

  26. I would imagine that if offers were solicited from university libraries, several (probably private) university libraries will be willing to store the archives and perhaps digitize them. With text processing tools advancing at a fast pace, studying the knowledge creation process through these archives might become a valuable project for sociologists/historians of science/social-science in the future.


    February 19, 2014 at 12:13 am

  27. I know of at least one sociologist who is currently working on a project on how papers change through the review process. I know of several who are trying to understand how men and women, for example, “present” differently in academia, use different speech patterns, respond differently to criticism, and so forth. Point is, these archives, if digitized and stripped of identifiers, would be of enormous use to contemporary sociologists now, not just to some unspecified historian of the discipline in some unspecified future.


    February 19, 2014 at 3:17 am

  28. ^– how interesting ! has the ASA reached out to university libraries?


    February 19, 2014 at 3:24 am

  29. Agree with anon that the data would be academically interesting now. With identifiers, for that matter, once you are far enough out to avoid issues of revenge killings and such. By “and such” I mean tit-for-tat reciprocity and vengeance that are supposedly/hopefully minimized in the blind review process. The de-identified texts themselves would generally be identifiable, however, for frequent reviewers, as reviewers would have recognizable styles and themes.


    February 19, 2014 at 3:32 am

  30. Y’all have lost the plot. Three things.

    1. If somebody thinks these documents have great utility now, have them contact AJS, which supposedly has the same thing. The editor wrote a book of history of sociology, so hard to imagine better circumstances. See what happens.

    2. For the idea that there are abstract sociological questions that coukd be answered with these data, journal review processes are now online, so what’s the value of boxes of paper versus comparable data that is already digital? The value of these boxes, if any, is historical.

    3. Calling up another archive seems unlikely: “Hey, we have 589 boxes of paper that Penn State won’t archive because it’s lawyers and our lawyers agree they will never be able to be used for research. Want ‘em?”


    February 19, 2014 at 7:04 am

  31. Jeremy’s comment #2 confuses me. Original manuscripts and reviews are now on line? Where? Whether digital records are a good substitute for boxes of paper is a bit debatable (because paper probably will last longer than digital records, as the latter require specific technology to read and preserve, while the former could outlast our civilization), but that isn’t the debate, if I’m following this correctly. Those FOR the archive want it digitized BEFORE destruction.

    Per Silva. “Two years ago Penn State’s lawyers and librarians realized, based on the agreement signed with ASA when the Archive was founded, that some of the materials could never be used for historical research, thus giving them no archival value.” So the problem is the ASA agreement which bans their being used for research. This can be changed. The substantive debate is whether to make drafts of articles and reviewer and author comments available for research and, if so, under what conditions.

    My own view is that not only should these be made available, but an embargo of 50-75 years is too long for this kind of material, although some embargo is obviously necessary. I think the only debate should be how long the embargo should be.


    February 19, 2014 at 2:28 pm

  32. OW: Yes, people submit articles online now, as well as reviews. As opposed to mailing in paper. So the information is digital from the start, with metadata attached. If such data were available for research, it’s inconceivable to me that a researcher would not prefer this vastly to a paper archive where a lot of work would be required to get the data to the place where contemporary data already is. The preservation of these data and availability of these data to researchers is obviously at issue, but it is for the paper.

    If attention is paid to preservation, the idea that paper archiving could possibly be better than digital archiving is hard to argue. Digital data can be mirrored. The storage costs are vastly lower. It’s not like these will be on floppy disks.

    As for the idea that ASA could just change the agreement it makes with another archive, this is the problem where all this is an effort to get ASA to go against the counsel of its lawyers. Which maybe it should. But lawyers are the people involved with agreements like this.


    February 19, 2014 at 8:22 pm

  33. Jeremy: Now I understand what you were saying about digital. I agree about mirroring digital archives, I was just pointing out the long view, where 2000-year-old manuscripts can still be read (even though the majority have not survived) while digital media produced in the 1980s and 1990s are no longer legible.

    About lawyers, their advice is always never to do any social science research. Right now we have the ASA office thinking like an IRB. This is never good. You combine lawyers with people who can envision scenarios in which a respondent who consented to a survey in 1980 could turn out to be harmed in 2010 by something they did not realize in 1980 might embarrass them and you get a deadly combination. Were blind reviewers promised that their reviews would NEVER be revealed to anyone outside the editorial board? No they were not. Did they think they had license to reveal deep personal embarrassing secrets about themselves? No they didn’t. They were exercising their professional judgment in what should have been a constrained and responsible manner. So the documents are interesting as revealing what people thought the standards of quality ought to be.

    Again, the documents do open the door to personal antagonisms, which is presumably why people want some kind of embargo on them.


    February 19, 2014 at 8:46 pm

  34. About the agreement: As I’m following the discussion, ASA let the archive have the documents on the condition they would never be used, and the archive is now giving them back. It was ASA’s choice to decide what its conditions were, and if ASA is once again in control of the archive, it is ASA’s choice about what to do with it. I don’t see that breaking a contract has anything at all to do with the situation.


    February 19, 2014 at 8:48 pm

  35. good point. If ASA were a commercial corporation the choice would be simple–dump the archives–but a professional organization might be expected to be a little more forward-thinking. As someone who does research with historical data, I cannot fathom why data on historical exchanges between knowledge producers for an extended period of time is not worth preserving, even in perhaps redacted form.


    February 20, 2014 at 8:24 pm

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