Electronic Journal of Sociology (1996)

ISSN: 1198 3655

To Sociological Research Online

Sociological Research Online, the first fully refereed sociology journal to be published on the Internet....Sociological Research Online is produced by a consortium of the British Sociological Association, the Universities of Surrey and Stirling and SAGE Publications, under the aegis of the Electronic Libraries Programme (eLib) of the UK Joint Information Systems Committee.....For 1996 the journal is free to readers, a unique feature of its electronic availability. (Pamphlet Distributed by SRO, December 1995)

To the Editors of Sociological Research Online (SRO)

Congratulations on getting your first issue on line. We read with interest your editorial characterizing the new world of electronic communication and were curious about your understanding of the ELECTRONIC JOURNAL OF SOCIOLOGY'S review process which you mention only to compare to your own `conventional' and, you suggest, more rigorous process.

We wonder at what we can only see as an attack on our integrity. It is our sincere belief that the two ground breaking electronic journals in sociology should NOT be at odds. Given the experimental nature of these two enterprises, and the relative newness of sociological publishing on the Internet, it is highly counterproductive for us to be at each others throats so early in the game. Surely there are enough publishable papers to go around?

Please understand we do not wish to get into some kind of scrap over territory. This is a battle that will be embarrassing to the discipline as a whole. On the other hand, we are getting a little tired of your misrepresentations. Not only did you err in your belief that you were the first peer reviewed journal of sociology to appear on the Internet (an error which was no doubt to your advantage in your initial advertising campaign), you also err in your characterization of our efforts and our peer review process and, indeed, your own position in the new electronic scheme of things.

These errors are highly irregular. As far as we know, it is a precedent for any scholarly publication to come on line with an attack on another journal in its opening editorial statement of policy. Indeed, it is a rare phenomenon for one scholarly journal to attack another at all. The normal practice seems to have been 'live and let live.' One journal may approach its subject matter with more or less quantitative precision, or with a more or less experimental attitude towards alternate methodologies and epistemological positions, but few journals have taken their position as representative of an entire discipline, or as representative of 'the' way to conduct scientific inquiry, and fewer still (dare we say none?) have justified their position with a direct attack on an already existing journal. Such a practice, we think, would be correctly perceived as belonging more to the world of Capitalist competition than to the rarified environs of scholarly inquiry. We are puzzled, therefore, by this blatant disregard of what may perhaps be considered a norm of science and ask ourselves, why does SRO act as if it is threatened by the EJS?

We think that the answer to this question comes from a sociological analysis of the 'range of factors' (such as institutional affiliations, patterns of funding) which provide the outlines of a coming struggle between a new paradigm of scholarly publication (represented by journals like the EJS) and an older paradigm (represented by journals with strong commercial or professional society ties). As has been noted by various commentators, traditional publishers (both commercial and professional society) are threatened by the capability of the new technology to put control of the publishing process back into the hands of the scholars. It is no wonder that given this potential, those with a traditional stake in the dissemination of scholarly material would be threatened by an effort like the EJS being, as it is, offered free to a growing global audience. But perhaps more than the threat of a single journal like the EJS, it is the example that we set which moves you to claw at the traditional scholarly bugbear of rigour and objectivity in an attempt to devalue and delegitimize our mode of distributing scholarly material.

The attempt to claim a privileged position vis-a-vis a scholarly competitor through the creation of a myth of scientific legitimacy is an old tactic. Those who call themselves Sociologists of Science, and those who study the social contours of the scientific enterprise, will be well acquainted with such attempts to creatively write history. And let there be NO DOUBT that attempts such as these are attempts to write for oneself a privileged position in the documentary record. No less than a ploy to gain immediate legitimacy at the expense of a competitor, it is a maneuver to ensure history is written in a specific way and from a specific position with a specific champion of science, objectivity, neutrality, and rigour on top. We have all heard the rhetoric about the chaotic Internet have we not? Now in Sociology we have a champion that will, with their greater attention to the precepts of scientific rigour in the peer review process, clear away the refuse and bring into being a new dawn of intellectual clarity where once there was only the scattered and muddy experiments of scholars playing at being publishers and distributors of scholarly material.

We feel, however, that you misrepresent our effort. While it is true that we offer a sort of extended peer review process by providing space for authors to rebut the comments of their peer reviewers, it is certainly not true that this innovation makes us any less rigorous than other journals. In the first place, while it may be possible to see this as a highly unorthodox shift in the peer review process, it is hardly without precedent. Even in the realm of paper, it is not unusual for authors to disagree with and challenge the judgements of the peer reviewer. Our only innovation here is to try to institutionalize a process (made possible by information technology) that goes on in the realm of traditional peer review anyway by formally recognizing and investigating the additional rigour that some have argued it would bring to the peer review process. In the second place, we still require all articles submitted be reviewed by at least two, and more often three, readers prior to the final acceptance of the submission. Thus on closer inspection it is clear that our process differs only in the institutionalization of a practice normally confined to informal communication between scholars. Whether or not this is a radical innovation, and whether or not it makes us 'less rigorous' (in your words) or more rigorous (as we might choose to argue) is an empirical question that cannot be answered by an amorphous appeal to a discredited ideal of scientific inquiry.

On the other hand, your concern with exploiting the innovative potential of information technology, with being "at the forefront of proactive and sociologically informed uses of such media," with being the "leading-edge means of communicating," and your concern to be all these things in "ways fully informed by Sociology itself" is belied by your uncritical, unreflexive, and sociologically naive acceptance/propagation of the standard rhetoric/mythology of science, scholarly communication, and peer review. Let us not forget that the whole point of moving scholarly publication into the electronic age is to fix what is broken about it and not to duplicate the well known problems of paper based publication. It seems to us that if electronic publication can be of any use to sociology at all, it will be in the area of fostering innovative approaches to all aspects of the scholarly communication system. The whole endeavor will be worse than useless if we do not recognize all the limitations of the traditional system and at least try to experiment with alternatives modes of delivery. We might also add that unless this contribution is critical of the current 'utopian' flavour of the discourse on scholarly communication and information technology, and unless it proceeds in a reflexive and fully informed manner, the effort will be worthless. Worse, it may simply be a smoke screen suitable for moving the status quo into a position to dominate the Internet.

Will such attacks as yours become a regular occurrence in the new cyberspace as more and more traditional publishers and their representatives seek to carve out a space for themselves above the early innovators? Perhaps. Yet despite our awareness of what might become a regular occurrence as traditional publishers jockey for position, we feel unfairly slighted by your attack and we formally request that you withdraw the offending statement from your editorial policy on pain of us taking you to the ISA and seeking censure. Further, we demand a public apology for your insensitive editorial and for your initial campaign in which you claimed to be the first peer reviewed journal of sociology on the Internet. In fact, the EJS predates your own journal by almost two years.

We also note that you have incorrectly specified the URL to our journal. Please note it is http://olympus.lang.arts.ualberta.ca:8010/ and not http://gpu.srv.ualberta.ca:8010/

Finally let us say that we are perfectly aware that we may have set up a straw person in our characterization of your publishing effort. Just as many will recognize the bugbear of scientific rigour, so too will many recognize the bugbear of the big bad status quo against the isolated and struggling innovator. Against this charge we offer two defenses. We note first that our characterization was constructed in response to your own and would never have existed but for your own characterization of our journal. Second, we admit that our characterization is tentative and suggest further research designed to uncover the sociological parameters of the current state of scholarly publishing. We suggest an investigation of the history of innovation in scholarly communication and the response of the status quo to these innovations in order to demonstrate the salience (or irrelevance) of the interests that we have suggested underlie current and anticipated disputes in the electronic realm. We further suggest a critical examination, informed by a clear awareness of work done in the Social Studies of Science tradition, of the current discourse on scholarly communication and the current direction which our electronic efforts are taking us.

We submit to our peers in the sociological community that a sociologically informed analysis of scholarly communication, and sociologically sophisticated publishing efforts, await the results of this sort of research. Only when such research has been conducted will you be able to make good your claims to be aware of the "range of factors which a sociological understanding can inform." Only then will we understand the salience of "patterns of funding between institutions and the distribution of computing facilities and technological support" that "will impact on who is able to make use of [the] possibilities" of information technology.


Jeffrey Ady, University of Hawaii at Manoa, USA
Fran Collyer, University of Canberra, Australia
Carl Cuneo, McMaster University, Canada
Carl H.A. Dassbach, Michigan Technological University, USA
Stan DeViney, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, USA
Art Jipson, Miami University, USA
Richard Ling, Telenor Forskning og Utvikling, Norway
Brad Nash, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, USA
Andreas Schneider, Indiana University, USA
Mike Sosteric, University of Alberta, Canada
David V. Waller, University of Texas at Arlington, USA