By Amy Buckland

Note to readers: This is the first post in our new series “Building Open” where we interview those who are building tools and services to support scholarship in the open. For our first installment, we talk to Philip Cohen of SocArXiv.

Ultimately, I do think we need to leave the old system behind, but it can work incrementally. For example, we need people to donate fewer free hours of labor (reviewing, editing, moderation, publishing) to for-profit, paywall publishers and more to open access institutions. But they can do that without completely boycotting all for-profit journals, if we build our institutions in an open and inclusive way.

Who are you?
Philip Cohen, professor of sociology at U. of Maryland, College Park. I tweet @familyunequal. Info about SocArXiv can be found on the blog and @socarxiv.

What is SocArXiv?
It is a free, open access, open source archive for social science research.
Please note that we are using the name SocArXiv under (a friendly and generous) license from Cornell, which has a trademark on the name arXiv, and which assumes no responsibility for what we do with it.

Why did you create SocArXiv?
The initiative responds to growing recognition of the need for faster, open sharing of research on a truly open access platform for the social sciences. I have personally grown increasingly frustrated with the slow, expensive, and inefficient system of journal publishing in my field, sociology. I have been looking for a way to bring more research out into the open faster.

Who is involved with SocArXiv?
The University of Maryland is the administrative host for SocArXiv, and the Center for Open Science is our technology partner. Other than that, there are individuals involved from a variety of institutions but no formal affiliations as yet.

How does the launch of SocArXiv relate to the Elsevier purchase of SSRN, if at all?
It is a coincidence, sort of. That is, I registered the SocArXiv domains and Twitter account before I knew anything about Elsevier buying SSRN, and we were just starting the planning a few weeks later when the news broke. But it’s also not a coincidence, because both SocArXiv and Elsevier are responding to the demand for better, faster, more open scholarship. It’s just that our approaches are completely different: we are committed to an open source, open access system, with links to code, data, and other research materials – and they are trying to increase their vertical control of the academic publishing industry by buying up possibly competing systems.

Why did you decide to partner with Center for Open Science?
COS already had a preprint server in development when we started our planning. And they already are working with SHARE, the “free, open, data set about research and scholarly activities across their life cycle” (from their website), which provides a key link between SocArXiv and other open scholarship resources through metadata. Judy Ruttenberg, who is the leader of SHARE at the Association of Research Libraries, already had a long working relationship with COS; she is now on the SocArXiv steering committee.

What are your short term plans for SocArXiv?
We want to make it a free, easy, accessible, working paper and preprint archive as soon as possible. COS has implemented an email deposit system so we can start accepting papers right away (it’s at, and we already have more than 250 papers. This is a great start for us, and allows us to start working on key development questions with some real cases before us. The system currently provides free registration open to all, regardless of academic affiliation; permanent identifiers for papers, access and discoverability through Google and other search engines (not yet Google Scholar, but we hope that will be working soon); the option to use any Creative Commons license; the ability to facilitate comment and discussion on papers among registered users; grouping of papers together for conferences or working groups; analytics data on how often papers have been accessed; and easy sharing on social media sites – without requiring readers to register.

Long term plans?
As the archive grows, SocArXiv will engage the community of scholars, members of the research library community, and publishers to develop a fuller publishing platform, with post-publication peer review and evaluation, and open access electronic journals. To build that we will enlist a wider advisory board and a series of working groups to develop norms and standards, and engage in an outreach campaign to reach more social scientists about the benefits of open scholarship.

Where would you place SocArXiv in the scholarly publishing system? What about the scholarly infrastructure system?
We want to be an alternative venue for dissemination and development of social science research. For many people, all they need is a way to archive and share papers – whether working papers or pre-publication versions of papers published elsewhere. But for others we hope to become a genuine alternative, providing a platform for peer review in a truly open environment.

What rights must depositors transfer to SocArXiv?
Depositors are subject to the COS Terms of Use.

What services will be integrated with SocArXiv?
The integration with SHARE means that SocArXiv materials will be discoverable and linked through a much broader data set about research and scholarly activities. This means anyone can develop tools for discovering and disseminating any of the materials we host. The possibilities for this system are virtually endless, but they include, for example, the possibility of open access overlay journals, target subscriptions through email or RSS feeds, and links to institutional repositories and faculty productivity systems. In addition, the integration with COS’s Open Science Framework means that SocArXiv papers can be linked to other research materials – such as data and code – on a powerful collaboration platform (with easy plugin access to other sharing and storage systems, such as Dropbox and Google Drive).

How do you plan to sustain SocArXiv? How will it be funded?
We are tremendously fortunate to come along at the time that COS has funding to develop and maintain a preprint server. So for the basic system of archiving and disseminating papers we do not need to raise money for SocArXiv directly. However, for additional services, such as administering peer review, or facilitating and moderating discussions, we will need to provide funding and/or staffing. We are talking to foundations and universities to raise initial support for planning and development, and hope to work with other initiatives, such as the Open Access Network, to develop long-term support.

What do you think about the state of openness in social science research? What kind of future would you like to see?
Our steering committee is sociologists and library community leaders. In sociology, from our experience, openness is very slow in coming. The American Sociological Association, for example, is deeply dependent on its group of paywalled journals (although they have now added one open-access journal). And many sociologists do not work in communities with an expectation of working paper or preprint sharing. In part, this may be because many sociologists work with qualitative data (such as ethnographies) or proprietary data (such as small surveys), where the norms and practices for sharing are less well established.
One or our first strategic challenges is reaching more sociologists – and other social scientists – on the benefits (for themselves and their communities) to a more open approach to scholarship. We are tremendously encouraged by the enthusiastic response we have received so far, which increases our confidence that we will be able to provide skeptics and newcomers with concrete examples and real-life success stories coming from open scholarship, with best practices guidance and training.

What’s your day job?
I’m a professor of sociology. I do research on family demography and inequality, I write the Family Inequality blog, I have a textbook (The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change), and a forthcoming compilation of essays entitled Enduring Bonds: Essays on Modern Families and Inequality. I hope SocArXiv will become a bigger part of my job in the coming months and years.

Is there anything you wish I had asked?
One of the things I greatly admire about COS is that they are doing something with very deep potential to change the entire research ecosystem, but they also are committed to making it practical and approachable for scholars now. This is a difficult balance to strike, and I think they do it better than anyone I’ve seen. Penny Andrews tweeted, “I’m as bored of utopian visions as the next pragmatist but SA [SocArXiv] is working.” I think we need the utopian vision because it helps motivate and mobilize people to be the change (as they say). But I see sociologists, especially junior scholars, who are understandably worried about making it through the last big hurdle – tenure – and don’t want to throw it all away on a utopian publishing model. I have to respect that completely. So the challenge is to make it feasible and accessible for them to enter a transition into open scholarship without cutting the cord of the established system. It has to have a very low barrier to entry and tangible reward or they will simply turn away, and we don’t move the system forward. Ultimately, I do think we need to leave the old system behind, but it can work incrementally. For example, we need people to donate fewer free hours of labor (reviewing, editing, moderation, publishing) to for-profit, paywall publishers and more to open access institutions. But they can do that without completely boycotting all for-profit journals, if we build our institutions in an open and inclusive way.”

Comments (2)

  1. What guarantee is there that SocArXiv won’t do what other such projects have done (like Mendelay) and sell out to Elsevier eventually?

    1. Sadly, no guarantee about that with any system, including public systems (see public sector outsourcing). But open source means anyone could replicate the OSF system and re-open it.

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