Coming Out from Behind the Scenes: ASA Publications Committee
by Michael Hout, Chair of the ASA Committee on Publications (2007-08)
ASA’s publications form the intellectual foundation for our organization. Through our nine journals and one magazine (Contexts), we communicate to one another and to non-members what sociology is, what we have discovered about the social world, and what we make of it.
ASA publications are indispensable to our organization’s financial well-being too. Members get publications at cost, earning ASA no money. But ASA does earn money selling institutional subscriptions, mainly to libraries, and from royalties from reprinted articles. Income from publications will net ASA about $1.4 million this year.
Pubs Comm initiates the process that selects journal and magazine editors and attends to the details of our publishing efforts. The ASA Council decides on the editorships, but Pubs Comm does the initial review and rank orders the candidates.
Occasionally there is room for innovation, too, and I am very proud to have been part of two big initiatives during my time on the committee: electronic publishing and what we are calling "sunshine initiatives."
In a major change, ASA is about to take on a publishing partner in order to upgrade the electronic format of all our publications. Owning a collection of print journals is an aesthetic or sentimental choice now; it is a professional necessity no longer. In addition, the electronic versions of journals allow searches and embedded links that the paper journals cannot provide. Moving to electronic articles is more than just clearing shelf space; it is an upgrade.
To do electronic publishing right, we need a publishing partner. An electronic publication is dynamic. Initially somebody has to embed the links, and later someone else has to update them. Distribution, bundling, advertising, and other insider issues affect electronic journals in ways that do not arise with a paper-based publishing enterprise. Last spring, ASA issued a call for proposals that spelled out our needs to prospective partners. A special committee chaired by ASA Secretary Donald Tomaskovic-Devey is now reviewing the responses. In winter 2009 ASA Council will decide who will become ASA’s publishing partner. ASA and the new partner will go live in January 2010. (There might be a transition period for Contexts, Sociological Methodology, Sociological Theory, and City & Community because of publishing contracts with University of California Press and Blackwell.) Subscribers will still have the option of receiving the hard copy, but the electronic version will provide features a paper journal cannot match.
The publications will have exciting new features. In addition to an improved look, each journal will have a new website that will showcase content and include functions for submitting papers, uploading reviews, and communicating with editors and authors. Content will be completely searchable. The major search engines will find our articles by keyword and phrase (our current online articles cannot be searched effectively because they are posted online basically just as pictures of the pages). Readers will be able to click on references and jump to the cited article or book. Eventually, it will be possible to jump forward to articles that cite the paper.
Why now? Because it has become clear that electronic journals have surpassed plain print. Why not earlier? ASA is a technological follower. Our organization lacks the resources necessary to be on the technology cutting edge. ASA cannot afford the mistakes, glitches, or false starts that are part and parcel of the cutting edge. Nor does the average sociologist have the expertise to volunteer labor to get ASA to the cutting edge for free. So it is ASA’s policy to let other organizations sort good from bad innovations before jumping in.
This is ASA’s biggest change since creating the ASR in the 1930s.
Pubs Comm keeps a low profile. Part of me wants to attribute the low profile to maturity and get back to work. But Social Psychology Quarterly Editor Gary Fine convinced us that in the long term, it is not healthy for such an important function to go on with so little communication between the decision makers and the stakeholders in those decisions. The Committee is undertaking an array of "sunshine initiatives" to make Pubs Comm more visible and accessible.
At the most basic level, this July we posted our agenda on the Pubs Comm’s webpage (see www.asanet.org/cs/root/leftnav/committees/committee_on_publications) and in the July ASA e-newsletter, Member News and Notes (MNN), distributed to every member. We will soon publish the major action items on the website and in the issue of a future MNN that follows the meeting. Pubs Comm will publish the agenda and results before and after the December meeting too. Members can also use the Publications segment on the ASA Forum (see members.asanet.org/forums) to contact us or communicate directly with me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or any of the current elected members (see the Pubs Comm website).
We encourage all members to think about being an editor of a journal or Contexts. Information on how to apply for an editorship is on the ASA website. In addition to deadlines, checklists, and the like, we posted three exemplary editor applications. Currently, five journals are searching for editors (see the May and September MNN). That is a record number of vacancies for a single year.
In the 1990s, Pubs Comm gave ASA sections the opportunity to launch their own journals, with Committee oversight. City & Community, sponsored by the Section on Urban Sociology, is now in its seventh volume. By every measure, it is a big success. The Section on Political Economy of the World-System (PEWS) publishes the online-only Journal of World Systems Research (see September/October 2008 Footnotes). A couple other proposals are in process.
Any section can apply to Pubs Comm for permission to launch a section journal or sponsor an existing journal. Contact the Pubs Comm chair and the ASA Director of Publications and Membership. Include a description of the need you hope to fill with this publication and a detailed business plan. The section journal must be self-sustaining; Pubs Comm should be convinced that your section’s journal will not cost other ASA members. Among other things, Pubs Comm also requires that the section journal be part of the section dues package, essentially insisting that all section members subscribe. Before proposing a journal, check your section’s bylaws to see how to change the dues. We also require that ASA own the journal completely. If your section plans to sponsor an existing journal, the current publisher must agree to turn ownership over to ASA.
The bar is high for establishing a section journal. If the need exists and section members support the idea, it can be a way of advancing scholarship and your section’s identity.
In conclusion, I greatly appreciated the opportunity to serve on Pubs Comm and, especially, the chance to be chair this year. And let me say that Karen Edwards is remarkable as ASA’s Director of Publications and Membership. Thanks, Karen.