Sociological Science: Disrupting academia with design thinking

sociological-scienceThe daunting demand to publish in journals with an arcane peer-review system is a common pain point for many academics. The traditional model's lengthy review process and expensive subscriptions also make interesting and impactful findings generally inaccessible to the public. But a Stanford-led group of professors is giving social scientists another option. “Sociological Science” is a newly-launched, online peer-reviewed journal open to submissions worldwide. The journal is published by the non-profit Society for Sociological Science and commits to reviewing submissions within just 30 days. Other, for-profit journals typically take many months.

Graduate School of Business Professor Sarah Soule (Photo by Gabriela Hasbun)

Other novel approaches include:

• The cost for submissions is much lower than the rates charged by most academic journals. Tenured professors pay more to be published in Sociological Science than associate and assistant professors, while students, post-docs and non-tenure track faculty pay nothing up to a certain word count.

• Sociological Science “emphasizes speed and brevity,” meaning the longer the submission, the higher the cost charged to authors.

• Final versions of articles are published immediately upon receipt.

• All articles are open-access, which means authors retain the underlying copyright, but anyone is free to read, re-publish and modify the original work with attribution.

• Responses to articles can be expressed in a moderated comments section under each published piece on the site.

• Authors can write in the style they feel best suits their work, rather than the more opaque prose typical of traditional academic journals.

Graduate School of Business professors Jesper Sørensen and Sarah Soule are two of the founders of Sociological Science. Soule, also an advisor to the fellows program, recently talked about the use of a design thinking approach in the journal's creation.

1. How did the idea for Sociological Science come about?

I guess it started from a series of conversations that we, the founding team, had at various professional meetings. Usually these began with swapping “war stories” about our own trials and tribulations in the academic review process. But, at some point, we hatched the idea for actually doing something about the problems.

2. Can you describe the role design thinking played in the process?

We very much used a design process in hatching this venture. It started with a lengthy period of empathy work, where we talked to various potential users, as well as people who are embedded in the publishing world. We also spent a lot of time learning, inside and out, how the academic publishing world works. And, we engaged in a lot of debate on blogs about the issues and problems with academic publishing.

Once we thought we had a good sense of the issues from various perspectives, we eventually came up with our own point of view. We decided that we could disrupt the academic publishing world in our field (sociology). First, we wanted to speed up the review process, which, over the past two decades, has increased astronomically. Second, we wanted to create a non-profit, open-access journal, to (also) reach people who cannot afford the highly priced subscriptions of most academic journals. Third, we wanted to allow a venue for discussion and debate about the articles.

Once we had figured out what the core issues are, we engaged in some heavy-duty brainstorming. We eventually settled on a number of innovations:

  • No lengthy development reviews. Papers are either rejected or accepted with minor revisions.
  • A promise of a 30-day turnaround on papers.
  • A fully open-access, free journal.
  • A nonprofit journal. Many are not aware of how much money the publishers of journals make. Their model involves using faculty as free labor (reviewers), then selling the product to individuals and institutions.
  • A place for short “reactions” to each paper (something akin to a blog post), as well as a process for longer “comments.”

It is also important to note that the journal itself uses a design process of sorts. That is, we are not overly managing the papers with a lengthy, hidden review process. Rather, we are getting research out there, so that the public can consume it, and (we hope) brainstorm publicly about it.  Then, the research can be better and quickly refined.

3. With whom did you do empathy work? 

Short answer: We talked with several potential users: authors (both pre-tenure and post-tenure), teachers in high schools and community colleges, people in the developing world, and people in the policy world. We also spent a lot of time talking to people embedded in the academic publishing world: editors, consulting editors, and bloggers.

Longer answer: There were several, different categories of users with whom we engaged. The first of these includes authors who submit their work to the traditional journals. Here, we spent a ton of time talking to sociologists at various career stages to get a clear sense of the different experiences with the review process, and how this has changed over the past 20 or so years. We were particularly interested in the experiences of pre-tenure faculty, and how the length of the review process was impacting their perceptions on the likelihood of tenure. But we also talked to many sociologists who are close to retirement, to get a sense of changes in the review process.

Another group of users includes teachers in high schools and community colleges, and we spent time with these folks, too. Because not all libraries at high schools and community colleges have subscriptions to the major journals, we wanted to get a sense of how or even if these teachers are able to access sociological research, and how (or if) they are able to bring new research into their classrooms.

A third group of users includes people in developing nations, who have limited access to libraries, and no access whatsoever to sociological research. It wasn’t as easy to talk to these folks, however I routinely get requests from people in developing countries for soft copies of my articles. So, when these requests came in, I simply made it a habit of asking the person a few questions about library and internet access in his or her country.

We also talked to editors and consulting editors at traditional journals about their perceptions of the review process.

Finally, we talked to a bunch of social science bloggers, and spent a lot of time reading these blogs (and some of us contributed to them, too). We were increasingly struck with how several blogs were doing an amazing job of discussing sociological research, some of which wasn’t even published yet.

4. What was a brainstorming session like in putting together the publication?

There were two different ways that we brainstormed. First, we had frequent meetings at various conferences, where we would block out a couple of hours and discuss and debate various ideas. We needed to draft bylaws for the nonprofit organization that supports the journal, as well as draft submission guidelines, and other documents for the journal. We also needed to come up with the actual design of the website, including the logo. Our face-to-face meetings were essential for these kinds of tasks.

But on top of these, we also make extensive use of videoconferencing.  We meet every couple of weeks to iterate and fine-tune all of these various design-related issues.

5. What is your advice for others who wish to bring design thinking into their academic work?

Go through the bootcamp! Seriously. To do what we have done, you need to suspend much of what academics do every day, and learn to emphasize the positive, not shoot down the ideas of your colleagues. Academics spend a lot of time critiquing each other and pointing out everything that is wrong with an idea. If we had done that, our journal would be stuck in a rut. Moreover, if we do that with all the papers we get, we’ll never publish anything. So, again, our model used a design process to develop it, and it uses a design process with the papers. Is that too meta?

6. Is this a prototype? And if so, what is your plan for iteration? 

The core idea is pretty set, but we are constantly changing details. For example, we are learning about what the costs are for copy-editing and getting our papers into LaTeX. So, small things, such as fees for copy-editing are probably going to be adjusted.  We are also trying out two ways for people to respond to papers: “reactions” (short, blog-like posts that are moderated for tone, and so on) and “comments” (lengthier statements, where the author(s) will have a chance to digest and respond prior to publishing them).  For example, one issue that authors have raised on blogs is whether or not there should be a cut-off time for readers to submit reactions and comments. We’ll have to see how these comments and reactions play out, and consider adjusting the policy down the road.

7. Do you have plans to disrupt teaching in higher education, given many professors who are strong researchers struggle with teaching? 

At this point, no. The journal itself is taking all of our energy and time. I suppose, of course, that the journal itself could disrupt teaching by allowing new research to get into the public domain more quickly, so that people could actually teach it!

8. With the understanding that it's still new, what kind of feedback have you received from other academics so far?

So far, the feedback has been great.  People are reading the papers and offering reactions.  We have gotten a lot of nice notes from colleagues, and some nice notes from non-academics, who are delighted not to have to pay to read the papers. There has also been an uptick in people inquiring about whether or not they should submit particular papers to the journal. We have heard through the grapevine that the American Sociological Association is considering following suit with some sort of for profit open access journal as well. Perhaps mimicry is the best compliment.

9. What are the potential changes this could introduce into academia?

This is a pretty disruptive model, so there are a lot of changes that we could spawn.  To mention a few:

  • Research can be disseminated in a timely fashion, and thus impact important policy debates.
  • People outside of universities can have access to research for free.
  • Pre-tenure faculty can publish their papers more quickly so that they can meet publishing requirements for tenure.
  • This is a nonprofit model, which is very different from the standard academic publishing model.  We are not making money from this, unlike the academic publishing world where large corporations make a profit. If this works, we hope to spawn a new era of publishing by nonprofits. Why should corporations make money off the free labor of faculty?

10. What is your advice for academics in other fields who wish to introduce a similar publication? 

There are a ton of logistics points, and we should probably write these up while they are fresh in our minds.  But here are a few, more major points:

  • Be a nonprofit journal. There is growing resentment in the sciences and social sciences about the for-profit model, and being nonprofit will be essential in the coming years. See this for example.
  • You need a committed core of people, as well as a strong leader and a good cadre of supporters. This goes without saying in any movement, really.
  • Befriend bloggers. There is an active and engaged blogosphere in Sociology, and the support of these folks was really important for us to get this launched.