why is the asa against public access?

Federal grant agencies have asked people who receive grants to make the results of their work “public access.” In other words, if the public pays for it, the public should get to read it. Turns out that the ASA is against this policy. In a letter dated January 9, 2012 (about two years ago), Sally Hillsman, executive officer of the ASA makes a strong argument against public access. Here is the letter and some key clips. Please read the letter yourself (open_access_hillsman):

It remains unclear why the federal government should spend scarce taxpayer dollars appropriated for scientific research to add to existing dissemination avenues. This is what scientific societies such as the ASA and our private sector publishing partners have done for over a century, and continue to do extremely well today. The national and international marketplace demonstrates that non-­‐profit and profit-­‐making scientific publishers in collaboration with scholarly societies have responded vigorously and competitively to expand access to scientific knowledge as new demands for content and sophisticated communication technologies have emerged. This success suggests that federal science agencies should invest taxpayer dollars in the research itself, especially as federal dollars that support scientific innovation fail to keep up with the pace of research.


There are no empirical studies that I know of which support the notion that free access to the scientific research literature will increase research productivity or economic growth in the United States.


ASA spends nearly $600,000 annually on journal editorial office expenses alone (which does not include administrative costs, printing and mailing expenses, editor honoraria, legal or overhead costs). ASA does not pay peer reviewers, but in return we sacrifice some revenue by a long-­‐standing policy of keeping our university library subscription prices low (averaging well under $300 in 2011) in explicit recognition of the contribution university faculty make as peer reviewers, editors, and editorial board members.

Comments: First, it seems that the main issue in Dr. Hillsman’s response is that they are concerned about the income stream. I think this is a legitimate concern. But it should lead to a few sensible questions. For example, in an age of electronic publishing, why does one need $600,000 for a journal office? At the AJS, of which I was an editor, we had (1) a full time manager (call it $50k), (2) some part time staff ($50k), (3) office space (say $5k month – $60k per year) and toss in $50k for postage, computers, etc. That totals about $210k per year. If we give Andy a nice fat bonus for running the joint ($50k), you get up to $260k. I am not sure why we need to wrack up hundreds of thousands more in administrative costs.

But there are deeper questions. What is preventing the ASR from going all electronic and printing paper versions on demand for a few readers? Or going free access, but having advertisements or the “freemium” model? In other words, this argument seems to be a rear guard defense of an older publishing model, not an attempt to creatively think about how the ASR can be read by the widest audience possible.

Second, I don’t think Dr. Hillsman’s letter gets at the main point – the Federal government, sensibly, doesn’t want the results of funded research to be hidden behind pay walls. The pay wall for ASR may not be a barrier to social scientists who have university accounts, but $300 is a barrier for many other readers. But the Federal government’s argument isn’t directed at the ASA. It’s directed at other publishers who charge thousands of dollars for a journal subscription. If you are a lay person, a poor person, or someone from another country, this is a real barrier.

We are now living in an exciting era of journal publishing. We have traditional models, the egalitarian PLoS One model, and the “up or out” Sociological Science model. I say let us experiment, not drift into rent seeking defenses of a 19th century approach to science.

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Written by fabiorojas

January 22, 2014 at 12:01 am

Posted in academia, fabio, markets, the man

29 Responses

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  1. Minor point: the $600K Ms. Hillsman mentioned refers to ALL the journals ASA publishes, not just the ASR. By that comparison, the AJS looks positively fat & happy!


    Howard Aldrich

    January 22, 2014 at 2:22 am

  2. My guesstimate is that – the budget is lower, probably. Also, I ran an ASA journal (Soc Meth) and it didn’t cost much at all! I was paid as manager a few K per year. My boss probably a bit more … so that’t maybe $20k tops…. still trying to make that $600k staff figure make sense…


    Fabio Rojas

    January 22, 2014 at 2:54 am

  3. Thanks for posting this. I think ASA members should be aware that for better or worse, this is the stance Hillsman has taken on this issue.

    As Fabio points out in the comments, good journals are costly to run. This includes open-access journals, so revenue needs to be raised one way or another. Partnering with Sage is one way to raise this money. However, I wonder how much university libraries across the world pay annually to subscribe to ASA journals, and how much surplus value Sage extracts from these arrangements. Are these costs a deadweight loss of money for universities as a whole, or do Sage et al. offer value added (perhaps through economies of scale) to justify these rents?

    FWIW, Peter Suber argued in his 2012 book on open-access that to support a full range of high-quality open-access journals, we don’t need more money; just to redirect money we are currently spending on paywalled journals. The current funding model – where university libraries bear most of the rising costs of subscribing to journals – may be entrenched in many organizations. The status quo may be defended by some out of inertia and/or self-interest. However, if people are able to devise and implement new funding models, as Fabio suggests, the benefits could include experimentation and reducing the costs of publishing and disseminating research that are borne by academic organizations.


    Kyle Siler

    January 22, 2014 at 4:08 am

  4. “Second, I don’t think Dr. Hillsman’s letter gets at the main point – the Federal government, sensibly, doesn’t want the results of funded research to be hidden behind pay walls.”

    What if the Federal government, sensibly, doesn’t want the results of publicly funded research hidden behind the walls of imperfect review processes, conceptual fashion, and slow publication cycles? Pay walls pale beside these barriers to public access to research results.



    January 22, 2014 at 4:13 am

  5. Actually, Randy, you are correct. But we need to take one step at a time!


    Fabio Rojas

    January 22, 2014 at 4:36 am

  6. One of several other crazy features of that 19th century model is the restriction of “top” articles to the number that can be printed on paper at a certain cost.


    Philip N. Cohen

    January 22, 2014 at 6:41 am

  7. Let me play devil’s advocate here for a moment. If the government’s goal is to support outstanding science (a questionable claim, but let’s run with it), it does not necessarily follow that each item funded by the government ought to be available open-access. Given how science works, what’s important is that each item be accessible to other professional scientists in order to enable scientific progress. And that goal is nearly perfectly accomplished in our current system, admittedly in a somewhat convoluted way.

    Similarly: Philip’s point about “top” articles being restricted to the economics of paper printing is apt — but without that artificial limit on publication, we are left with the rather more amorphous question of scholars’ attention-space as the limit. My own experience is that the quantity of published papers far exceeds my capacity to read them, so presumably further increasing the number reduces the overall likelihood that I will encounter the one(s) I actually need or want to read.

    (This does not, of course, apply to my own articles, each and every one of which ought to be immediately accepted to a top journal and printed speedily on acid-free paper.)



    January 22, 2014 at 1:09 pm

  8. Ugh. A bit off topic perhaps, but I seem to be the only person under 40 in sociology who finds the arguments for open access unpersuasive, a solution in search of a problem. I don’t get it, so please help a brother out here. When I talk to OA true believers, I strongly pick up one part, “we’re sticking it to the man because…you know…the man always needs sticking!,” one part, “if I can’t publish in a ‘real’ journal, we should do away with ‘real’ journals…then our tweets would count towards tenure, bra!,” and one part, “dude, the internets!” So, one part knee-jerk “radicalism,” one part resentment and status politics, and one part techno-millenarian-anarcho-libertarianism. Each can be attractive, depending on mood and the day of the week, but what am I missing? If you are going to recruit me to your movement, please tell me how my life would change in any noticeable way after we’ve burned down the journals and marched Sally Hillsman to the guillotine? Do you really believe that, after your revolution, Jesper Sorensen will not emerge as Napoleon III?



    January 22, 2014 at 1:20 pm

  9. Dave: Journals get scientists to work for free, as authors, reviewers and partially editors – and then charge universities, the very institutions those people are employed at, money for reading the stuff that they themselves have created. These publishers make substantial amuont of money (see if in doubt). That is the problem, however one wants to solve it.



    January 22, 2014 at 2:45 pm

  10. @anonymous: I don’t know about Dave, but I don’t work for free. I’m paid by a university to work as author, reviewer, etc. Also, why is it a “problem” that publishers charge for the products they produce? Please explain how universities will convince someone else to provide the same services “free of charge.” And they said Marxism died in 1989!



    January 22, 2014 at 6:05 pm

  11. You argue you don’t work for free. Well, true, but you just make my point: The university is paying you and Elsevier for the same services. Great deal!
    There are quite a few open access journals around. PLoS ONE publishes a lot of papers each year (+30.000, and Sociological Science is just getting started. How can it seem impossible and Marxist when PLoS ONE can do it?



    January 22, 2014 at 6:51 pm

  12. I think it’s a bit parochial for academics to act like only our access matters. Quoting the former Penn State political scientist Phil Scrodt:

    And finally, hey, Schrodt, cool off: why are you so upset about this open access thing? Allow me to present a little scenario, decidedly non-fictional: Someone you care deeply about is extremely ill, and you are trying to decide among courses of treatment, all thoroughly researched with public financing, and you’ve quickly ascertained that whatever their many skills as clinicians, most people in medical practice do not know the first thing about statistics, and you do. And you find almost 100% of that publicly-funded research is blocked by extortionately expensive paywalls.

    You will find a story like this behind the intensity of feelings of quite a few people advocating for open-access.

    From a post on Aaron Swartz and JSTOR.



    January 22, 2014 at 11:55 pm

  13. Anonymous – But you haven’t told me how my life would change for the better after the OA revolution. Based on what you said to “anony2,” it looks like all your revolution offers is an opportunity for me to pay page fees a la PLOS One. Sorry, but that is not something that is going to get me out to the barricades with you.



    January 23, 2014 at 12:00 am

  14. Dave, it isn’t necessarily about the lives of academics changing for the better, it’s about the public (people who don’t work for universities) having access to the research they fund. Also, your assertion that people who favor open access do so because they “can’t publish in real journals” is ridiculous. Open access is about how the journal is funded, it doesn’t say anything about how the peer review process will work or how selective the journal will be.



    January 23, 2014 at 12:42 am

  15. Dave, universities are double-paying: once to produce the scholarship, and again to buy it back from for-profit publishers. That’s a waste of university resources. These resources could go into other things, including things that benefit you, personally.



    January 23, 2014 at 12:39 pm

  16. What got my attention was this [weird\curious] statement: “There are no empirical studies that I know of which support the notion that free access to the scientific research literature will increase research productivity or economic growth in the United States.” Now, think about just the logic of that statement for just one second…does it make any sense?

    Now, in terms of the research on the subject, maybe ASA needs to look at this (p.29)…

    I mean:”There are no empirical studies *that I know of*” !? Well, maybe that is because it is all hiding behind paywalls and otherwise restricted (or because–in that old scientific tradition of supporting entrenched economic interests–the ASA just didn’t look or doesn’t want to know)…

    My sense is that providing more access to sociological research can also help in making the range of topics considered and the actual writing of the research more interesting and accessible…



    January 23, 2014 at 12:45 pm

  17. I wonder if, or to what extent, PubCom, Council, or the elected Officers were involved in drafting this statement. It doesn’t sound like anything that any of sociologists who I know (not random, obviously) and who have been in these positions would knowingly endorse. If the dues-paying membership was polled about their views on open access in 2011/2012, I missed it.


    Four Benjamins Per Year For This?

    January 23, 2014 at 9:30 pm

  18. […] Wednesday, we discussed the ASA’s opposition to opposition to the Fed’s Open Access policy. What do you […]


  19. Let’s be upfront and honest here that there are pros and cons either way. There are wonderful elements of open access, to be sure, revolving around access and the flow of ideas. BUT, there are downsides and dangerous sides as well.

    On the dangerous end, there are large swaths of illegitimate, money grubbing journal looking things that have appeared under the “open access” label that people (including assistant professors) pay to publish in, only to find out later that these are shoddy operations that no tenure review committee worth its salt will take seriously.

    On the downside (but not dangerous) end, somebody is still going to have to pay and this will generate inequality in who submits and who can publish. In most “legitimate” open access outlets, the author has to pay, sometimes hundreds of dollars. As a case in point, if I am a full professor who wants to publish in Sociological Science (a good development outlet-wise from my point of view, by the way), it will cost me $635 dollars to publish my 10,000 word article ($35 to submit + $300 + $15 for every 500 words). There is a sliding scale, which is nice, as the same article would cost $385 for an assistant professor. For many, especially at smaller institutions, who pay journal submission fees out of pocket, this is ALOT, and I fear many will be excluded by default. Moreover, it structurally encourages a journal to publish more…. the more they publish, the more money they make, and without page restrictions.

    I am not averse to the open access idea, but lets be clear that even the legitimate outlets are NOT free and will generate inequality among prospective authors. And, perhaps more fundamentally, the structure of it induces a scenario and financial incentive to publish more (even if junk) to either stay afloat or to get rich.



    January 24, 2014 at 2:23 pm

  20. (I’m one of the editors of Sociological Science, although I’m not speaking for my co-editors.)

    re JustSayin’s points:

    1) One of our goals in tying fees to word counts is to get sociologists to write shorter papers. If authors don’t feel obligated to include lengthy literature reviews, or to make “theoretical contributions” when their primary goal is empirical, many of those 10,000 word articles could become 5,000 word articles without any loss to sociological knowledge.

    2) An author of an accepted paper at Sociological Science discovered that his university, a public school with a modest endowment, will pay his OA publication fees. I suspect his university is not unique. Most universities don’t like paying millions of dollars to Elsevier, Sage, Wiley, and Springer each year.

    3) As JustSayin’ mentioned, there’s a steep sliding scale to the publication fees in Sociological Science. Students, post-docs, and non-tenure track professors would pay $235 for that same 10,000 word article. Scholars from lower- and lower-middle income countries would only pay the $35 submission fee. (This goes to Scholastica, which may have its own fee waiver system for scholars from low-income countries.)

    But yes, a tenure-line associate professor in the US who gets a paper accepted at Sociological Science is being asked to (partly) subsidize (a) the publication costs for less advantaged scholars, and (b) the cost of giving less advantaged scholars access to a paper that, had it been published in a gated journal, they might not be able to access at all. Or, they could access, but only by paying $35-50 to download the PDF from the publisher.

    Is this generating inequality, or reducing it?


    Kim Weeden

    January 24, 2014 at 11:01 pm

  21. I appreciate the sliding scale, but my reading is that the open access model (even with a sliding scale as noted above) GENERATES INEQUALITY, at least for authors, who currently either pay $0 or $20 or maybe $35 right now to submit and publish in more traditional outlets.

    It arguably reduces inequality, at least among readers or prospective readers, though I would like to see evidence of how much inequality in journal and article access there is. Typically all can see abstracts via journal websites and simply email the author directly for pdfs, which authors happily oblige by sending.

    The inequality burden is simply shifting, in my view, from prospective readers to authors. I still think this is a problem.

    I am just as much (probably more) concerned about the structural financial incentive, conscious or not, built into the process of open access. Publish more pages, make more money. How is accountability in quality and standards to be weighted and maintained when an open access journal needs to fund itself, likely pay grad student workers or advertise? Are the financial aspects of the journal completely separate in procedure, process and authority relative to editorial decisionmaking around content (as is the case in many professional society journals), or are these interwoven and inseparable? It is hard to imagine how the financial incentive to publish more pages will not simply generate some junk (alongside arguably good material). It would, in fact, be in financial interest of an open access journal to loosen intellectual standards.

    These are some of the questions we should be asking. I am not directing them at Sociological Science, but rather open access more generally.



    January 25, 2014 at 9:23 am

  22. A few comments.
    You do realize that regular journals have the same financial incentive – the more outlets, the higher the price they can probably charge? Furthermore, your inequality perspective seems fairly narrow. Imagine sitting at a university in Africa with hardly any acces to any journals. Are you going to email 300 authors a year to ask for a copy? How many answers are you going to get? Sure, if you just consider the potential inequality of people like you, yes, your argument is probably fine, but since we are in a field of sociology, I would hope a more broad approach would make sense. Related to this issue, I would like to see examples of people in the Western countries that would not be allowed to publish in Sociological Science because the head of department considers it too expensive. I am simply not sure how many of these departments exist. Of course you might not be allowed to publish in obscure open access journals. But PLoS ONE, Sociological Science etc. – I would just like to hear some examples. Finally, keep in mind that the more open access journals are out there, the less money institutions have to pay for subscriptions – these sums are substantial. The cynic might think that institutions will not channel this money to pay for submissions, and such examples are probably going to exist. But remember that the current publishing systems hinders the employment of thousands of people, just in the States. Overall the argument sounds like: It’s too expensive (to pay for submissions) to save far more money.(on access to journals).



    January 25, 2014 at 11:06 am

  23. An alternative title for this post could be “Why is ASA against losing half its revenue?” If people want open access to happen in social science, that’s great, but no mystery why folks running organizations for which journal profits provide a substantial portion of operating revenues aren’t champions.



    January 25, 2014 at 11:14 am

  24. No mystery, for sure. But, aside from whatever legal implications there might be in breaking the Sage contract, why can’t the ASA journals go to an open access model? Would the publication fees (which, presumably, would have to subsidize some of the ASA activities that aren’t covered by dues) be so exorbitant that authors would publish in less expensive outlets instead?

    My sense is that ASR would be fine, at least in the short term, because of the large status and career returns of publishing in ASR. The other ASA journals might suffer, depending on how much more expensive they’d be than journals that don’t have to subsidize an office on K Street.



    January 25, 2014 at 2:09 pm

  25. @anonymous who asks, “You do realize that regular journals have the same financial incentive – the more outlets, the higher the price they can probably charge?”

    Yes, I do realize this. But you are talking about the financial incentive for outlets (i.e., institutional subscriptions). This is different than what I was referring to: a more direct conflict of interest between financial incentives and the editorial decisionmaking process. Again, It is hard to imagine how the financial incentives to publish more pages will not generate some junk (alongside arguably good material). I will repeat the question: “Are the financial aspects of an open access journal completely separate in procedure, process and authority relative to editorial decisionmaking around content (as is the case in many professional society journals), or are these interwoven and inseparable?”

    I understand full well that traditional journals make alot of money, and the money is filtered to publishers and professional societies. And, I would rather have a public good, non profit model of sorts if one were possible. But, whatever way we go, it is necessary that the emerging open access side of this argument be explicit in how journal governance (as in editorial decisionmaking regarding what to publish and how many pages will be published) is or will be separated from profit. Currently, the arguments I am hearing are that ASA and traditional journals are bad and slow, and that scholars in poor countries want to read our work (…maybe, but I am not so fat headed to believe that). I am hearing way way less about journal governance, decisionmaking and the more direct financial incentive to publish whatever .

    I am admittedly a cynic that public institutions will simply offer to pay for authors to publish articles or that somehow the money that might be saved on library subscriptions will somehow magically make its way to department chairs at public universities and smaller liberal arts settings = ADVANTAGE, IVY LEAGUE. We will see, of course, as content is generated in these journals and by whom, but that is my bet.



    January 25, 2014 at 2:37 pm

  26. I think there are ways to make open-access more affordable. In particular, we might have to except less “professional” looking journal articles. Publishers can provide more aesthetically pleasing journals, but at a high cost. Some legit OA journals like the Journal of World Systems Research or Political Ecology publish good, albeit highly specialized, articles that don’t look quite a nice as those from a Sage journal. Still, I think that’s a small price to pay for free and easy access. Maybe if we could re-socialize ourselves regarding the aesthetics of journal articles (as opposed to the content) than OA could become more viable.
    It’s also worth noting that some natural sciences, as well as mathematics, essentially have open access through websites like arvix. Maybe something similar could be done with social sciences…or maybe not…..


    Silly Wabbit

    January 27, 2014 at 10:38 pm

  27. @Silly Wabbit – a lot of the issues with aesthetics can be solved if the journal develops a professional looking LaTeX template for authors to use. I think Sociological Science is adopting this strategy. There is also something similar to Arxiv in the social sciences: SSRN.



    January 27, 2014 at 11:13 pm

  28. JD- Thanks for the comment. I’m not sure if SSRN holds the same place that Arvix does for mathematics for the social sciences. So far as I can tell, sociologists are not likely to try to find papers on SSRN cite, while Arvix plays a central role in some disciplines. Again, I could be wrong as my information is limited.
    It’s possible that LaTex or some other software could be more institutionalized in our field and perhaps OA would be more of a possibility. Anyway, I see our disciplinary culture and disciplinary norms as the major road block to a shift to OA and the economics of it all as secondary.


    Silly Wabbit

    January 28, 2014 at 3:31 am

  29. ” I am hearing are that ASA and traditional journals are bad and slow, and that scholars in poor countries want to read our work (…maybe, but I am not so fat headed to believe that). ”

    OH, the second part is absolutely true (minus the ‘fat headed’ part).



    January 28, 2014 at 6:03 am

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