Turning the Lens

The Center for Social Science Research sheds light on the scientific publishing process

by Kristin Leonato

Turning the Lens
600 boxes of records are being converted into this data structure

The American Sociological Association (ASA) had a problem. It had over 600 boxes of manuscripts submitted for consideration, including comments, edits, revisions, and final copies, and nowhere to put them. These boxes represented twenty years (1990 to 2010) of progress in the discipline and the unique opportunity for sociologists to turn their scientific lens on themselves. Now the ASA and Mason’s Center for Social Science Research (CSSR) are working together to do just that.

Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, administered by NSF sociology program director,  Patricia White, the ASA and Mason’s team of faculty, students and staff at the Center for Social Science Research are in their second year of a three-year project to assess the patterns of who actually gets published in a premier academic journal, the American Sociological Review, and what the enigmatic process really looks like from start to finish.

Twenty years of submissions to the American Sociological Review

In many ways this is the perfect project for the Center for Social Science Research, headed by James Witte and based at the Fairfax campus.  The center’s unique multidisciplinary approach and technological capabilities allow it to employ a range of quantitative and qualitative research methods to the task at hand, including survey research, focus groups, interviews, and analysis based on leading social indicators.  The CSSR will employ all of its expertise to take on this fascinating, multiphase project. 

The process began with the ASA scanning all 600 plus boxes of documents, one manuscript at a time. They also presented CSSR with a large database of metadata from their publication management system used between 1990 and 2010, Journal Builder. With such a large span of time covered and multiple iterations of the technology utilized, the research team spent many days creating, cleaning and organizing the database, which includes everything from the original submission and final publication dates, to the age, gender, race and home institution of the submitters, and all the editorial details in between. Some interesting themes and anecdotes have already come through, like one article that took seven years from the first submission date until it finally appeared in the American Sociological Review.

Each box adds to the dataset

Next, the CSSR will dive more deeply into the actual editorial and review process, including reviewers’ comments and communication between authors and editors. This fall they will be contacting authors and reviewers for permission to include their manuscripts and review comments in the next phase of the study. This will allow for a weighted sample group to be analyzed in depth and then laid alongside the findings from the metadata already being combed through. The ultimate goal of the project is to create a virtual archive available for other researchers under strict confidentiality guidelines.

Witte shared how “the archive project, which was facilitated through the efforts of Roberta Spalter-Roth, former ASA research director and now CSSR Senior Research Fellow, provides great visibility for Mason’s sociology program. The project proposal was supported by the ASA’s Council and leading sociologists from around the country serve on its Advisory Board.”  Most importantly, Witte continues, “the relevance of the archive project goes well beyond sociology, as analyses based on the archive will shed light on the production and recognition of scientific knowledge more broadly.” 

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