December 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 9

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PubsComm: Let the Sunshine In

Robert Zussman, University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Chair of the ASA Pulications Committee

Several years ago, Gary Alan Fine, then editor of Social Psychology Quarterly, introduced a “sunshine initiative,” meant to shed a little light on what the ASA Committee on Publications (PubsComm) does and how it does it. This article, following similar reports from the two previous chairs (Mike Hout and Christine Williams), is intended as one more sunbeam.

PubsComm consists of six elected members, each serving a three-year term, plus the ASA Secretary and President. We meet twice a year, once for a full day at the Annual Meeting and once over a usually chilly December weekend in Washington, DC. Editors from each of the ASA’s eight journals, one magazine and one book series attend the meetings. Sally Hillsman, the ASA Executive Director, also attends our meetings as do the altogether wonderfully helpful team of Karen Edwards (Director of ASA Publications and Membership) and Janine Chappa (the ASA Journals and Publications Manager).

Probably the most important task for the Committee is recruiting new editors for the Association’s journals. We begin by generating a set of names of potential editors, whom we then invite to apply. We also post a announcements of editor openings, although, in practice, very few sociologists apply without an invitation. (They should as our process of generating names is far from systematic and there are probably many excellent editor candidates we overlook. This article will have done its work if it encourages so much as a single unsolicited application.)  Sometimes we have several applications, as many as seven as best as I can remember, sometimes only a couple and rarely only one. In fact, the odds of submitting a successful application to edit a journal are considerably higher than the odds of successfully submitting an article at the very same journal:  It’s worth a shot.

A subcommittee, usually consisting of one of the outgoing editors of the journal in question plus two of the elected members then makes a recommendation to the entire PubsComm. The elected members of PubsComm, meeting in Executive Session (not quite as impressive as it sounds), discuss, vote, and make a recommendation to ASA Council, which makes the final choice. How often does the entire committee overrule the subcommittee?  Fairly often, in my experience. How often does ASA Council overrule PubsComm?  It’s very hard to know because, one highly controversial case aside, the entire process is treated as “confidential.”  There are some places where the sun doesn’t shine—at least not yet.

Beyond choosing editors, PubsComm also sets publication policies. Sometimes we approve—and, more rarely, disapprove—of occasional requests for additional pages. We also recently revised ASA policies on personal web pages, making it easier for authors to keep accepted papers available on their own sites until actual publication. Beyond approving page allocations and setting very broad policies, we try very hard not to interfere with the editorial processes at individual journals. That is and should be the realm in which the editors of individual journals exercise their own discretion.

Journal Finances

Within the past year, PubsComm has also begun thinking about budgetary issues. Journals account for over 2.5 million dollars of revenues, most from institutional subscriptions, more than 40 precent of ASA’s total revenues. Against that income, the ASA projects expenses under a new contract with SAGE of slightly less than $700,000 dollars. That leaves a projected net income of over 1.8 million dollars. That’s real money. The ASA (like other disciplinary organizations) uses the income from journals to pay for much of its program and much of its staff. But the income also provides an opportunity and an obligation to think about what we are doing with the journals.

Acceptance rates vary from under 10 percent at The American Sociological Review to over 20 percent at several of the other journals. There are also big differences in page allocations, from nearly 1,000 annually for ASR to between 350 and 500 for the others. Do the acceptance rates and page allocations make sense?  Should we be emphasizing the gatekeeping function of the journals by keeping their acceptance rates low? Or should we be increasing pages to let the most selective journals publish more (or longer) articles?

There are also significant differences in the extent of financial support the journals receive from the ASA as well as from the institutions that house them. Editors are not paid, at least not beyond a small honorarium that can amount to as little as a few hundred dollars a year per editor in the case of editorial teams. The editors richly deserve our gratitude for the often exhausting work they do without financial compensation. But the ASA does pay for clerical support, which often varies widely from journal to journal and among universities. We have, so far as I know, rules of thumb but few policies that govern the allocation of support. Should we have policies in place and what should they be?  Although more financial information is available now than has been available in the past about journal finances—and the Executive Office has expressed its intent to make budgetary information available annually—how much information do we want to make public?  We have not, for example, yet made available detailed information about individual journals or information that would make individual salaries identifiable. Should we be doing that?

For those of us from the baby boom generation, it was the Age of Aquarius that “let the sunshine in:” “Harmony and understanding/ Sympathy and trust abounding/ No more falsehoods or derisions/ Golden living dreams of visions/ Mystic crystal revelation/ And the mind’s true liberation.”  But who remembers the earlier version of Let the Sunshine In, sung in 1954 by the Cowboy Church Sunday School, rising as high as Number 8 on the Billboard Charts? “Mommy told me something/ A little kid should know/ It’s all about the devil/ And I’ve learned to hate him so/ She said he causes trouble/ When you let him in the room/ He will never ever leave you/ If your heart is filled with gloom/ So let the sunshine in/ And face it with a grin… Open up your heart and let the sun shine in.”

I am not at all confident that the Committee on Publications will usher in an age of harmony and understanding. I am more optimistic that we’ll be able to keep the devil at the door.

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