MIT Sloan’s Ezra Zuckerman helps to launch new journal Sociological Science

Online journal adopts an open-source model and aims to publish papers “as written” to foster debate and speed access to research

March 18, 2014

Ezra Zuckerman

Ezra Zuckerman

A group of seven sociologists last month launched Sociological Science, a peer-reviewed journal with the goal of publishing the highest quality research, but doing so faster and making work available to the public at no charge. The journal, whose editors include MIT Sloan professor Ezra Zuckerman, launched Feb. 18 with papers on “The Structure of Online Activism,” “Political Ideology and Racial Preferences in Online Dating,” and “Pathways to Science and Engineering Bachelor’s Degrees for Men and Women.”

A notable difference between Sociological Science and the three existing flagship journals in the field is summed up in one word: speed. Authors receive an answer about whether a paper is published within 30 days, in contrast to lengthy and sometimes mysterious publication timelines at older journals. To Zuckerman, academic journals tend to reflect the era of their founding. There hasn’t been a new entry to the field of flagship sociology journals since 1936, he said.

Sociological Science seeks to transform the process of publication with a resolve to make “errors of commission rather than errors of omission,” Zuckerman said. Readers, the editors propose, are the best judges of an article’s impact and are best suited to foster debate about articles. Unlike traditional review boards at academic journals, editors decide about publication of a paper “as written,” rather than conducting a back and forth with authors that can result in published papers that reflect the tastes of reviewers rather than authors.

“The traditional review process has difficulty with things that are really innovative,” Zuckerman said. “To the extent that an article is really challenging conventional wisdom, this can make it really tough to get through to publication. There are all kinds of stories about what are retroactively regarded as great papers, foundational papers, having a lot trouble being published in the various journals.”

“Every paper has a tradeoff,” Zuckerman said. “There’s some benefit, but there are always going to be limitations one could focus on. Early on in a new line of work the limitations are going to be clear, and especially if they’re challenging entrenched interests it’s easy to put the articles aside. The question is: ‘Are you going to focus on the limitations or the benefits?’”

Zuckerman said the commitment to keeping the journal free and accessible to all is an important founding principle among the journal’s editors, but he recognizes the term “open access” has earned no small amount of suspicion in academic circles. A number of academic journals have recently been exposed accepting and publishing papers composed of computer-generated gibberish. Quality control, Zuckerman said, will be high at Sociological Science. Most papers will be rejected.

The journal also hosts a “Reactions” forum where readers can respond to articles, and authors can respond and engage with readers. According to Zuckerman, thoughtful discussion about research through the forum began almost immediately.

Zuckerman emphasized that editorial decisions, though speedy, are being made by a team with high standards for academic rigor. Sociological Science is led by Editor-in-Chief Jesper Sorensen of Stanford University and six deputy editors, including Zuckerman and colleagues from Stanford, New York University, Cornell University, and Yale University. A panel of 43 consulting editors, composed of top sociologists from around the world, ensures a diverse and global perspective.

“We created a society to own it, called the Society for Sociological Science,” Zuckerman said. “But basically, we’re a just a bunch of colleagues who, because of modern communications technology, can communicate about how to manage the journal and make decisions on how to adjudicate a particular article. A lot of what we’re doing, like making relatively rapid decisions about articles, just wouldn’t be possible with a different kind of structure.”

Sociological Science will publish several articles a month, not in a traditional, packaged “issue” format, but on a rolling basis as publication decisions are made. Numerous reputable sociologists have already submitted strong articles, Zuckerman said, a good indication that the journal is fulfilling a need in the field.