Pondering one of the tricks of academia: juggling tasks, work

As my school takes several days for Fall Break (and I nope students, faculty, and staff get a little respite), I am reminded of one of the secrets of academia: the academic work is never-ending and there are numerous tasks that are all vying to be done now.

I hear this from students in several different forms. They will discuss the various assignments and requirements across the four or so classes they are taking at the same time. This is a lot to handle; which tasks should they prioritize? Or, students will describe feeling like there is always work to do, whether they are in the classroom or back in their dorm or apartment. At least during the course of semesters, it seems like there is more to do.

Faculty face similar pressures. With teaching, publishing, and service responsibilities, let alone life off campus, faculty have plenty to do. Even when the semester ends and the grading is all done, breaks can only last so long because there are ideas to pursue and work to catch up on before another round of on-campus activities begin. In order to do good research, faculty need time to mull over ideas and make revisions and carry out the research process – but all this takes place while doing other things.

And for both students and faculty, there can often be a nagging feeling that others are doing more (it is not hard to find peers who have amazing productivity) or that we should be doing more (and giving up time in other areas). The anxiety lingers: what should I be doing now?

All of this is not easy to manage. Even if the work is invigorating or the tasks sometimes not that difficult, just the number of them and changing nature of the work can be daunting. Staying organized, having a strong support system as well as activities that bring relief, and finding accomplishments can go a long way.

This means that the flexibility of the student and faculty roles comes at a price: more tasks await even during breaks. From the outside, the summer breaks look nice – and they can be – but there is also work to do during these times. Finding a way through these challenges is something students and faculty must navigate.

Speculating on why sociology is less relevant to the media and public than economics

In calling for more sociological insight into economics, a journalist who attended the recent ASA meetings in Philadelphia provides two reasons why sociology lags behind economics in public attention:

Economists, you see, put draft versions of their papers online seemingly as soon as they’ve finished typing. Attend their big annual meeting, as I have several times, and virtually every paper discussed is available beforehand for download and perusal. In fact, they’re available even if you don’t go to the meeting. I wrote a column two years ago arguing that this openness had given economists a big leg up over the other social sciences in media attention and political influence, and noting that a few sociologists agreed and were trying to nudge their discipline — which disseminates its research mainly through paywalled academic journals and university-press books — in that direction with a new open repository for papers called SocArxiv. Now that I’ve experienced the ASA annual meeting for the first time, I can report that (1) things haven’t progressed much since 2016, and (2) I have a bit more sympathy for sociologists’ reticence to act like economists, although I continue to think it’s holding them back.

SocArxiv’s collection of open-access papers is growing steadily if not spectacularly, and Sociological Science, an open-access journal founded in 2014, is carving out a respected role as, among other things, a place to quickly publish articles of public interest. “Unions and Nonunion Pay in the United States, 1977-2015” by Patrick Denice of the University of Western Ontario and Jake Rosenfeld of Washington University in St. Louis, for example, was submitted June 12, accepted July 10 and published on Wednesday, the day after it was presented at the ASA meeting. These dissemination tools are used by only a small minority of sociologists, though, and the most sparsely attended session I attended in three-plus days at their annual meeting was the one on “Open Scholarship in Sociology” organized by the University of Maryland’s Philip Cohen, the founder of SocArxiv and one of the discipline’s most prominent social-media voices. This despite the fact that it was great, featuring compelling presentations by Cohen, Sociological Review deputy editor Kim Weeden of Cornell University and higher-education expert Elizabeth Popp Berman of the State University of New York at Albany, and free SocArxiv pens for all.

As I made the rounds of other sessions, I did come to a better understanding of why sociologists might be more reticent than economists to put their drafts online. The ASA welcomes journalists to its annual meeting and says they can attend all sessions where research is presented, but few reporters show up and it’s clear that most of those presenting research don’t consider themselves to be speaking in public. The most dramatic example of this in Philadelphia came about halfway through a presentation involving a particular corporation. The speaker paused, then asked the 50-plus people in the room not to mention the name of said corporation to anybody because she was about to return to an undercover job there. That was a bit ridiculous, given that there were sociologists live-tweeting some of the sessions. But there was something charming and probably healthy about the willingness of the sociologists at the ASA meeting to discuss still-far-from-complete work with their peers. When a paper is presented at an economics conference, many of the discussant’s comments and audience questions are attempts to poke holes in the reasoning or methodology. At the ASA meeting, it was usually, “This is great. Have you thought about adding …?” Also charming and probably healthy was the high number of graduate students presenting research alongside the professors, which you don’t see so much at the economists’ equivalent gathering.

All in all — and I’m sure there are sociological terms to describe this, but I’m not familiar with them — sociology seems more focused on internal cohesion than economics is. This may be partly because it’s what Popp Berman calls a “low-consensus discipline,” with lots of different methodological approaches and greatly varying standards of quality and rigor. Economists can be mean to each other in public yet still present a semi-united face to the world because they use a widely shared set of tools to arrive at answers. Sociologists may feel that they don’t have that luxury.

Disciplinary differences can be mystifying at times.

I wonder about a third possible difference in addition to the two provided: different conceptions in sociology and economics about what constitutes good arguments and data (hinted at above with the idea of “lots of different methodological approaches and greatly varying standards of quality and rigor.”) Both disciplines do aspire to the idea of social science where empirical data is used to test hypotheses about human behavior, usually in collectives, works. But, this is tricky to do as there are numerous pitfalls along the way. For example, accurate measurement is difficult even when a researcher has clearly identified a concept. Additionally, it is my sense that sociologists as a whole may be more open to qualitative and quantitative data (even with occasional flare-ups between researchers studying the same topic yet falling in different methodological camps). With these methodological questions, sociologists may feel they need more time to connect their methods to a convincing causal and scientific argument

A fourth possible reason behind the differences (also hinted at above with the idea of economists having a “semi-united face” to present): sociology has a reputation as a more left-leaning discipline. Some researchers may prefer to have all their ducks in a row before they expose their work to full public scrutiny. The work of economists is more generally accepted by the public and some leaders while sociology regularly has to work against some backlash. (As an example, see conservative leaders complain about sociology excusing poor behavior when the job of the discipline is to explain human behavior.) Why expose your work to a less welcoming public earlier when you could take a little more time to polish the argument?

The Olympics increasingly studied by academics

Nature reports an increase in published works about the Olympics. Here are two aspects of this increase related to urban life:

Beijing 2008 inspired the most papers, followed by London 2012. Beijing had imposed special restrictions on air pollutants, providing a rare opportunity for researchers to do relatively controlled experiments, says David Rich, an environmental epidemiologist at the University of Rochester in New York. The London 2012 Olympics inspired topics ranging from urban development and sprawl to security and surveillance.

Graph: Papers per games. Beijing 2008 inspired the most papers, followed by London 2012.

The Olympics are an “urban change-maker”, says sociologist Jacqueline Kennelly at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. They have led to expensive infrastructure projects and placed huge demands on public transport. And those that have contended with world wars, protests, boycotts and terrorist attacks have generated substantial literature…

The paper that has generated the most citations focuses on the Atlanta 1996 Games, and is followed closely by one about Beijing 2008. Both articles explore how policies such as increased provision of public transportation can improve air quality. The fifth most highly cited paper analysed levels of enthusiasm about the 2000 Olympics among different resident groups in the host city, Sydney. It is the most highly cited Olympics paper in the social sciences.

The paper that has generated the most citations focuses on the Atlanta 1996 Games, and is followed closely by one about Beijing 2008. Both articles explore how policies such as increased provision of public transportation can improve air quality.

There could be a variety of reasons for an uptick in research:

  1. Seeing the Olympics as unique opportunities to observe certain phenomena in a time-limited setting. They are a sort of natural experiment where one could study effects of phenomena before, during, and after the events. Or, one of the articles mentioned looked at athlete-coach relationships and the Olympics would provide the option of examining this in a number of sports at once.
  2. The increased globalization of the Olympics, both in geographic location (new cities such as Beijing and Rio) and global media coverage. Additionally, the Olympics can be viewed as an effort to bring the world together.
  3. Perhaps sport is a more acceptable research topic (whether the purpose is to study the athletes or the spectacle).
  4. There are more academics in general who are looking for things to study. Hence, more studies of the Olympics.

When you find out that your dissertation is for sale as an ebook without you knowing about it

A recent sociology PhD describes an interesting experience: he found that his dissertation was being sold online as an ebook.

A Google search brought me to a link to BarnesandNoble.com, where with one click I soon discovered that my dissertation was being sold. It took a minute of staring at the computer screen to fully accept that my work could be purchased for (at the time) $32.34 as an eTextbook for the Nook reader. I thought the price was a steal. Literally.

I had graduated about a year earlier with a Ph.D. in sociology. Although I had hoped to turn my dissertation into a book one day, I had not yet started that process. I hadn’t even secured a contract with a publisher…

I began investigating how it could have come to be for sale. Like many graduate students, I was burned out after defending my dissertation. My immediate thoughts were not about which publisher I should contact but about whether I would be able to afford rent and food in this economy. My final weeks of graduate school had been a bit foggy, and I couldn’t recall the specific publication options I had selected when I submitted the dissertation to my university as a degree requirement.

So I dug out my copies of handouts from the Office of Graduate Studies, describing my options for publication with ProQuest (the university’s publisher of theses and dissertations). Reading through the papers, I could find nothing on all the possible ways my dissertation could be sold.

Then I logged into my account on the ProQuest site and saw that when I had submitted my dissertation electronically I had chosen an option for third-party selling. At the time, I was unsure what that meant, and in my end-of-graduate-school haze, I had neglected to find out. I assumed it meant that some other academic company could sell my work to individual researchers, typically few in number, who would have to exert great effort even to discover its whereabouts. I never thought it meant it could be sold, in its entirety, on the same site where one can purchase calendars and the complete series of The Sopranos on DVD.

Remembering some similar feelings at the end of my time in graduate school as I was looking to complete and defend my dissertation, I could see how this information could slip through the cracks. However, the lesson still remains: read all of that fine print so you know what you are agreeing to.

Academics flock to research the Occupy movement

A New York Times article suggests a number of academics have seized the opportunity presented by the Occupy movement to not only teach about but also research the protests:

“This thing just erupted so quickly,” said Alex S. Vitale, a sociologist at Brooklyn College who studies the policing of demonstrations. “It’s almost overwhelming to deal with all the information that’s out there.”

Mr. Vitale is finishing a 10-city study of interactions between protesters and the police since last fall, which he said showed a lack of overall “militarization” in police response in major cities. (New York is an exception, said Mr. Vitale, who organized a demonstration against police tactics in Zuccotti Park last fall but said he did not consider himself part of the Occupy movement.) Other researchers are doing ethnographic studies, crunching survey data, recording oral histories and analyzing material by and about the movement, all at lightning speed compared with the usual pace of scholarship.

“Academics are used to taking forever, but we don’t have to,” said Theda Skocpol, a sociologist at Harvard and author, with Vanessa Williamson, of “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” a study of Occupy’s right-wing counterpart published in January…

Some researchers also say that the sympathy many academics feel for the movement risks undermining objective research.

It will be very interesting to see the research and then the resulting discussions.

This highlights a larger issue in academia: the common lag time between events and publishable research. This can often take a few years as researchers quickly draw up plans, collect data, analyze it, and then work through the review process. I imagine there will be some pressure to get some of this Occupy research going more quickly, perhaps with an interest in more quickly addressing and understanding this phenomenon and with the idea of capitalizing on political momentum. Could this change how research is presented and considered in the future? Work could be published in web or open source journals. What about books that are rushed into print or even more timely, e-books?

Sociologist discusses the problems of the publishing industry

A sociologist discusses the major issues facing the publishing industry:

One year ago I interviewed John B. Thompson in the Rail about the state of the publishing industry. Thompson is a Cambridge University sociology professor, and his 2010 book Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the 21st Century was the result of more than five years of talking to editors, publishers, writers, and agents in the U.S. and the U.K. about the rapid changes in the traditional structures of book publishing. Given that these transformations have only continued, I thought it worth checking in with Thompson a year on. An updated second edition of Merchants of Culture will be published in March by Penguin (U.S.) and Polity (U.K.)…

[Thompson:] There are two major developments that are having a profound effect on the publishing industry today and that are creating a situation of deep uncertainty about the future. The first is the continuing economic crisis that has metamorphosed since then into a deeper and more pervasive recession and that has created a tough economic climate for publishers and booksellers. Retailers are often operating on tight margins and reduce their liabilities by ordering less and stocking more cautiously. Booksellers will return more books to publishers in order to reduce the amount of capital tied up in unsold stock. But even these measures may be insufficient as many retailers have been and will be forced out of business. And when retailers close, publishers lose shop windows to display their books and are faced with substantial write-offs for bad debts. This further depresses profit margins that were already under pressure from static or declining sales. It’s an economic snowball effect…

Well, it’s the intensification of a surge in e-book sales, especially in the U.S. While physical book sales are static or declining for most publishers, e-book sales are surging ahead—it is one of the only areas today where trade publishers are seeing serious growth. And the growth is startling: For most U.S. trade publishers e-books accounted for 1 percent or less of overall revenue in 2008. In 2011 the figure is likely to be between 18 and 22 percent (possibly even higher for some houses). And, interestingly, the biggest shift from print to digital has been in commercial fiction, especially genre fiction like romance, science fiction, mystery, and thriller. For fiction as a whole, e-books accounted for around 40 percent of overall sales for some large trade houses by mid-2011. But in some categories of genre fiction and for some authors the percentages were even higher—60 percent for some categories like romance, and even up to 80 percent for some authors. Narrative non-fiction has also seen a significant but smaller shift to digital. Anything more complicated—such as books that use color, like art books or children’s books—has so far lagged far behind. This change is already forcing the key players in publishing to reconsider their positions. Practices that have become settled conventions in the field are suddenly opened up to scrutiny, and players who have interacted amicably for years suddenly find themselves locking horns in new conflicts where the rules are no longer clear (as happened, for example, when Random House and Andrew Wylie clashed over Wylie’s decision to launch Odyssey Editions). To what extent the game of trade publishing will actually be transformed by this development remains, at this stage, unclear. Much will depend on how quickly and effectively the key players are able to adapt to the new information environment that is emerging around them. We are living through a revolution of sorts, and one of the few things you can say for certain about a revolution is that when you’re in the middle of one, you have no idea where and when it will end.

New technology means that a lot of people need to adapt, producers and readers included. Two additional areas I wish Thompson had commented on here:

1. It would be interesting to hear more about publishers and other actors are trying out some new ideas in order to make money off e-publishing. Amazon now has a publishing wing. Are the major publishers really shifting major resources and people to this or are they trying to hold the line? Do the recent commercials on TV and radio for books (examples from James Patterson here and here) represent these publishers continuing to hold to the old model? How much overlap is there between the e-book and traditional publishing world?

2. Thompson talks a bit about the future role of books. I’d be interested in hearing more about whether how the “long tail” phenomenon and growing e-book sales in certain genres will change larger cultural meanings and understandings. Not so much whether books will matter (I think they still will) but how they matter. Will popular e-books really only matter if a movie gets made or the author makes it to a popular daytime talk show? What books will become “classics”? Fifty years from now, which books will form a “canon” for this era?

Princeton: our scholars must own their copyrights

The 1709 Blog writes about Princeton University’s new Open Access policy:

[L]ibrarians and academics have long known that journal publishers monopolise the market; even as much as ten years ago the larger publishers were busy buying out the smaller ones who weren’t strong enough to compete with them. But outside of academia people are largely unaware of the struggles every electronic resources librarian faces each year as budgets shrink and journal bundle prices steadily increase. Tough decisions often have to be made, and naturally the impact is felt by researchers, academics and students.

Which is why today’s announcement that Princeton University is enforcing an Open Access policy forbidding academics from transferring the copyright in their articles to journal publishers is so significant. Academics are required to licence their work instead, so that they retain the copyright and are therefore able to reproduce it elsewhere without having to seek the permission of the publisher. This could spark a welcome trend which would allow academics and universities to maximise their outputs and revolutionise knowledge sharing. [emphasis added]

In many disciplines–particularly the sciences–scholars already pay journals to publish them.  In other words, the scholars’ universities foot some or all of the bill for peer review and editing (in addition, of course, to “subsidizing” scholars by way of salaries).  Especially in these circumstances, it seems that the scholar/university have a lot of leverage to do what Princeton is doing here since academic publishers’ leverage to push back is directly tied to their value-add.  Since, under these particular circumstances, the publishers are adding almost no value, their leverage is near zero.

A more interesting question arises where the academic publishers add more value–i.e., where the publisher directly incurs the editing and peer reviewing costs.  There, the scholar/university may well get more push back.

If other colleges and universities follow Princeton’s lead, traditional academic publishers could find themselves effectively cut out of the market very quickly.