Sue Scott, ESA President 2017-2019
I find it hard to believe that it is almost two years since I was elected President of the ESA and that this role will come to an end very soon. It has been such a busy period and the time has flown by. Unlike the UK Government the ESA has done a good deal in recent months, with the upcoming conference being the major achievement.
I am very pleased to report that we have reached the 3000-registration mark for the 14th conference, which is actually better than the conference committee’s best estimate. There were some Cassandras who thought that people would be put off by Brexit and/or that Manchester was not an exciting enough city and certainly not a holiday destination for those wishing to combine the conference with some leisure. However, ESA members, and others with an interest in sociology have proved them wrong. We are therefore set to have one of the largest of the ESA’s conferences. The Research Networks have done a fantastic job of selecting presentations from the abstract submissions and the work of building all of these into sessions and creating the final programme is complete. As I write the outline programme is almost ready to go to the printers – yes, quite a lot of you still want to have a hard copy so we will have it in paper and electronic versions.
The Bridgewater Hall is a splendid space for the Opening Ceremony and reception and also for the closing Party – we have had over a 1000 requests for tickets, so bring your dancing shoes as it promises to be a very good night. The Local Organising Committee is doing an excellent job: we have more sponsors then ever before and a Publishers’ reception and book launch is being organised in the late afternoon before the Opening Ceremony so do arrive early to enjoy that. There will also be walks and visits and a special showing of the film of the Amnesty award winning play 'Trojan Horse'. The city of Manchester has been extremely welcoming and will provide us with lots of information to help you to enjoy your time there. The staff in the ESA office are doing a really great job of juggling all the many tasks, requests and enquiries. This is the first time that the ESA Office has organised a conference without the assistance of a professional organising committee and in my view it is going extremely well with Dagmar Danko in charge.
In my last message, in TES 42, I reported that the ESA Executive had agreed to go out to tender for a publisher for our journals: European Societies and the European Journal of Cultural and Political Sociology. As I said then we had not made a decision to move away from Taylor and Francis at the end of our contract in December 2020, but that we thought that after 20 years with one publisher it was time to take stock. We felt a strong responsibility to develop a clear understanding about what is likely to be in the best interests of the ESA and European Sociology over the coming years, especially in the context of the consequences of PlanS and Open Access generally for Learned Societies. To help us in this process we set up an Working Group consisting of myself, Lena Näre (Chair of Publications Committee and Vice President), Dagmar Danko, two freelance publishing consultants (one of whom has special expertise in the matter of contracts), and an academic expert – Professor John Holmwood – who has been a member of a working group on Open Access for the UK’s national funding body. We drew up a tender document and sent it to a range of EU and UK publishers, including Taylor and Francis. In the end we had submissions from three publishers and held interviews in March. We sought a good financial arrangement and a publisher who shared the ESA’s ethos, was committed to sociology publishing and with whom we could have a genuine partnership. We were seeking a relationship in which our Editors and Editorial Boards would be well supported by a publisher with an in-depth understanding of the complexities of the Open Access world and clear ideas about the way forward in partnership with an Academic Association. We feel that we have found a new publisher where all these requirements are met and I look forward to being able to make an announce which publisher this is in Manchester.
This is one of the most important issues currently affecting the European academic world. I have spent a good deal of time thinking, speaking and writing about PlanS since it was launched in September 2018. I am not hostile to open access per se, but I have become increasingly concerned about the implications for the Humanities and Social Sciences and of the way in which it is being rolled out. I was responsible for the ESA’s response to the consultation on PlanS and was also involved in the responses of the UK Academy of Social Science (for which I am the OA advisor) and for The European Alliance for Social Sciences and Humanities (EASSH). I have given presentations on PlanS and OA to the ESA National Associations, to the BSA and most recently at a Westminster Forum on Higher Education in London, the latter in my role as ESA President. My major concerns are:
- The effect on Learned Societies of a potentially rapid loss of income from journals which they own
- The likely increase in APCs (article processing charges) as Publishers change their business models in response to PlanS and the effect of this on those who have no research grant or other means of paying – especially early career colleagues
- The problems which arise for the HSS disciplines of the generic use of the CC-BY license which allows for text to be re-purposed, potentially out of context
- The use of publically funded academic research, by for profit private bodies including private Universities
- The effect on our discipline of colleagues only being able to publish in fully OA journals
- The effect on the international communication of research as a result of there being different OA rules in Europe from most of the rest of the world
The whole process has been designed with the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in mind, although this does not mean that all colleagues in STEM are happy with the situation. After the consultation during the winter there has been some reprieve in that the requirement for full OA on Journal articles will not now come into force until January 2021, a year later than initially proposed. It has been acknowledged that, while Monographs and Chapters are to be subject to the same principles, this will take longer and require a separate process. There has also been a slight softening of the requirements in relation to publishing in hybrid journals and the updated guidelines state that: “Funders do not support the ‘hybrid’ model of publishing. However, as a transitional pathway towards full Open Access within a clearly defined timeframe, and only as part of transformative arrangements, Funders may contribute to financially supporting such arrangements”. This means that it will be up to each funding body to decide for how long, after January 2021, they will tolerate researchers whom they fund publishing in hybrid journals.
While these modifications are to be welcomed and are clearly the result of pressure form the academic community, there is still a very clear intention to move to universal OA across Europe. It is therefore very important that the ESA is well positioned both to take advantage of these developments and to ensure that our members are supported in their desire to publish their research. With this in mind an ESA working group on publications and OA has been established, which is expected to continue to work with the new Executive to ensure continuity in relation to this important issue. We also look forward to working with our new publisher to provide the best possible OA options for our members.
One positive, in my view, aspect of PlanS is the requirement that members of the coalition sign up to the DORA Agreement. The Agreement has a number of aspects, but two important requirements are:
1. The need to eliminate the use of journal-based metrics, such as Journal Impact Factors, in funding, appointment, and promotion considerations
2. The need to assess research on its own merits rather than on the basis of the journal in which the research is published
UK Research Assessment Exercises have so far been successful in avoiding the use of metrics and journal rankings in most SSH disciplines (the exceptions being Economics and Business and Management). However this has not been the case across most of Europe, and in the UK pressure is increasing, from senior management in Universities, to publish in high impact factor journals, regardless of REF requirements, because these count in the scoring process for the University World Rankings. I look forward to a move away from this pressure and to the assessment of publications on their merits. Surely we would all agree that it is the quality of one’s works which matters and not the impact factor of the journal it is published in, just as the quality of our publications should be more important than their quantity.
No time to read?
In relation to this last point I recently read an article by Andrew Abbott (2016)  in which he delineated what he calls the ‘crisis in reading’. Abbott argues that as we progress through the stages of an academic career we tend to read less and less (ostensibly because of the pressures of other work). In addition the end of academic expansion (he is writing about the USA especially, but it applies elsewhere) and a flattening of the demographic distribution have meant an overall decline in reading. He also points out that over recent years the pressure to publish has increased on academics at all stages. He suggests that this increase in publishing has had serious consequences for reading – there is less time and also more to be read. The pressures of the job market have meant that academics are publishing more earlier in their careers than in the past and this takes away reading time from early career academics. Everyone is now doing more publishing and less reading. Abbott posits that, compared with the 1970s in the US, there is 49% as much reading time going into almost four times as many publications. This makes a somewhat depressing story and there is no reason to assume that the overall situation in Europe is very different, even though the details might vary. The result is that we all feel that we don’t know enough and that we are disconnected from our discipline in all but the extremely specific areas of our own research, and that even keeping up with that literature can be a challenge. In the early 1980s I could read everything published in the sociology of gender and sexuality and now…!
What can we do about this? Well we certainly need to have conversations with our colleagues and in our Universities, nationally and across Europe, about the negative effects of publishing too much. More time spent on producing fewer publications should increase quality and if the DORA principles are widely accepted then it will be quality that matters. Perhaps we should focus more on what Abbott calls ‘aesthetic excellence’ by which he means rigorous argument and careful analysis as well as an appropriate focus on cumulative research rather than the endless search for novelty in the hope that an apparently novel topic, even if the other aspects of the approach are well worn, will be more likely to be funded/published. Perhaps though we should also practice the art of serendipity, and allow ourselves to wander out of our topical comfort zones and into other fields of research looking for stimulus and connections. It can be very refreshing to go to a conference session outside of our own areas of expertise, and where we don’t feel guilty for not having read all the literature being referred to – just to see where the ideas take us. I have done this for many years, and thought it was just dislike of being in one box, but I definitely recommend it as at least an occasional practice. In the past it has led me to new research questions and to making connections between separate fields. Now it sometimes even results in me reading something I would never otherwise have encountered.
I have very much enjoyed my time as President of the ESA, busy and sometimes challenging though it has been. People are beginning to ask me what I will do with all the free time after the end of August – more reading perhaps?
Meanwhile I very much look forward to seeing you, at what I am sure will be an excellent conference in Manchester, where we will have opportunities to talk and listen to fellow sociologists and to enjoy being part of something positive away from the pressures of our everyday academic lives.
 Abbott, A. (2016) ’The Demography of Scholarly Reading’ in The American Sociologist 47: 302-318.