September 20, 2017

SocArXiv, COS Partner on New OA Social Science Archive

SocArXiv logoAs part of the growing efforts to openly share the results of social science research, the steering committee of SocArXiv—an open source, open access archive for the social sciences—on July 9 announced plans to partner with the Center for Open Science on the development of a preprint server that enables the sharing of data and code, with the potential for post-publication review.

As more researchers—and the organizations that fund them—strive to get their work before a wider audience, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines have led the pack in developing open access (OA) solutions. Cornell University’s arXiv.org repository, launched in 1991, currently holds nearly 1.17 million electronic preprints of scientific papers, almost all self-archived by their authors. Preprints—papers that have not yet been peer-reviewed—are useful to scholars, students, and researchers, without the restrictions that keep the final versions behind publishers’ paywalls. Although such efforts in the humanities and social sciences have lagged behind STEM, largely owing to longer publication cycles and peer review processes as well as a more forgiving shelf-life for data and citations, SocArXiv proposes to help close the gap.

“[T]he open archive will improve our science, better connect us as scholars, help place control of the research process back in the hands of researchers instead of for-profit publishers and gatekeepers, and deepen our engagement with the public,” Philip Cohen, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and one of the initiative’s founders, wrote in a post on the SocArXiv blog.

SCHOLARSHIP ASPIRATIONS

Cohen, a sociologist and demographer, had been feeling increasingly frustrated with the inefficiencies of traditional academic publishing. As the coeditor of the American Sociological Association’s public-facing magazine, Contexts, he wanted to look at alternatives for sharing scholarly papers both to the public and among academics. “In sociology we like our work to be relevant and engaging, but we’re often not that good at it,” he told LJ. “With The Upshot and Wonkblog and FiveThirtyEight and the people who are doing data analysis journalism, those of us in academic social science [who] aspire to having similar kind of reach are increasingly too slow.”

The initial creation of free digital repositories such as PubMed Central was driven by the urgency to put current scientific data into the hands of those who might not have access to paywalled journals. While social science data may not grow stale as quickly, noted Judy Ruttenberg, program director of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and a member of the SocArXiv steering committee, getting the information to people who can work with it—members of nonprofit, health care, or social service organizations or public policy makers—is equally important.

Fellow steering committee member Rebecca Kennison, principal of K|N Consultants, added, “With the increased speed of the news cycle you also have an increased need of the speed of policy input, and that’s where social science comes in.”

PLATFORM SYNERGY

At the same time Cohen was brainstorming for his social science archive, the Center for Open Science (COS) had begun building a preprint server on its Open Science Framework (OSF), a scholarly commons platform for sharing research and results. OSF’s flexible, customizable system connects users to multiple services available on a single interface, and the preprint server would incorporate OSF’s numerous functions in a platform-as-a-service model.

“OSF already allows you to deposit files,” explained COS cofounder and chief technology officer Jeffrey Spies. “It already allows you to share those files. It allows you to see those files in a rendered form on the website. It allows you to tag those files and add metadata. Preprints [are] a slightly more constrained view of what already exists at OSF, with just that focus on the manuscript.” However, users who wish to go beyond the preprint functionality of OSF would also have access to the platform’s additional features.

With some funding in place, COS was looking for a demonstration project for the new preprint server and the potential for outreach to new communities of practice. SocArXiv was looking for infrastructure that could manage its goals. The overlap of projects “was just good luck and good synergy” said Cohen. “They were very receptive, and a couple of meetings later we were in business.”

SocArXiv will have its own branded and labeled space on OSF’s server; the original arXiv has given full permission for the new service to incorporate its name. “The branding thing is super helpful,” noted Cohen. “It’s apparent what [SocArXiv] is because of arXiv.” While arXiv and SocArXiv don’t currently share more than the name, both will provide content to SHARE, an OA scholarly research sharing initiative led by ARL and COS with the support of the Association of American Universities (AAU) and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU).

FORTUITOUS TIMING

In May, scientific and medical publisher Elsevier announced its acquisition of the Social Science Research Network (SSRN), an open access repository heavily used for research in law, economics, and other social sciences that hosts nearly 640,000 articles. The publisher stated in a press release that it planned to develop SSRN alongside the academic social network Mendeley, which it acquired in 2013, adding that “both existing and future SSRN content will be largely unaffected.”

The acquisition, however, drew fire from a number of open access advocates, sparked in part by reports that Elsevier had removed articles from the database because of permission questions—even when the author retained copyright and had explicit permission to post to SSRN. When the authors brought this to SSRN’s attention, the articles were restored.

Although SocArXiv was already in the planning stages when the announcement was made, the timing helped. “The whole Elsevier takeover of SSRN was fortuitous for us just because it created buzz about preprint servers,” said Cohen, “but it was just a coincidence.”

SOCIOLOGISTS, LIBRARIANS

Cohen assembled the steering committee from colleagues who shared his enthusiasm for the concept. In addition to Cohen, Ruttenberg, and Kennison, it includes Elizabeth Popp Berman, associate professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Albany; Chris Bourg, director of libraries at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); Neal Caren, associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Tressie McMillan Cottom, assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and a faculty associate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard; Tina Fetner, associate professor of sociology and Graduate Chair at McMaster University, Hamilton, ON; and Dan Hirschman, assistant professor of sociology and organizational studies at Brown University, Providence, RI.

All members of the team are either sociologists or librarians. Bourg, who is both, noted that Cohen is “someone who very clearly understands the importance of libraries to the scholarly communication system, disseminating scholarship, and providing good access.”

As the archive grows, SocArXiv hopes to develop overlay OA journals, open educational content, and discussion forums, building on top of the open content to serve scholarly societies and communities. “This is where the collaboration with Philip is very exciting,” Spies told LJ. “He’s well versed in this social science base, he has a lot of connections there, he understands that community, and he can understand their needs better than we can…. They can bootstrap our expertise and we can bootstrap theirs.”

“We’re also looking at ways to leverage community enthusiasm and expertise,” said Bourg, “including…folks in library scholarly communications, intellectual property rights experts who have offered their expertise and advice.”

She also hopes librarians will advocate for SocArXiv within their institutions. “This is shaping up to be a great place for social scientists to distribute and disseminate their work…. And I think it won’t be long before it’s also a really wonderful place for people to find good social science work,” Bourg said. “If you work with social scientists, they should know about this.”

SUCCESSFUL SOFT LAUNCH

While the infrastructure is still in development and there is no official launch date set, SocArXiv announced a “soft launch” via social media on July 13, inviting authors to add their preprints. Within its first 24 hours, the site had garnered 14 deposits. “As someone who’s run [an IR] for years, I find that to be an extraordinary self-deposit rate,” noted Kennison. By the time the soft launch was a week old, SocArXiv held 228 preprints.

Cohen wants to eventually set up a post-publication review system that would allow open peer review, with eventual accreditation. And all partners hope that the ease of using the platform will encourage authors to deposit data or materials, “to take incremental steps [toward OA] without being overwhelmed by project management software or workflow management software,” said Spies.

Funding is also a work in progress; Cohen has been communicating with several foundations in search of support for further programming and administration. He hopes to find potential funders in “university presses that are looking for ways to do OA publishing, academic professional associations that are looking for ways to start journals that are going to be much cheaper than what they do now, universities that want to build OA repositories or that want their faculty to use them [and] don’t have to build their own if they join something like this.”

Bourg noted, “I think we can prove some things about how open archives like this can actually work. People always point to ArXiv as an example, but then they say, ‘But that’s just physics.’ And I think we’re going to be able to show them, ‘No, not just physics.’ It can work in other disciplines.”

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Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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