Chris Uggen's Blog: July 2012

Saturday, July 28, 2012

ed's desk post: going for gold in open-access publishing?

Here's a collaborative post with Doug Hartmann from today's ed's desk (picture courtesy Sarah Shannon).

As editors and publishers of TSP, we take more than a casual interest in open-source publishing debates. And though some form of open access seems a foregone conclusion for publicly-funded research, there's still little consensus on the forms it will take and who will ultimately bear the costs of editing articles, administering peer review, and disseminating and maintaining scholarly work.

A new Economist article reviews open-access trends in Europe, foreshadowing some of the changes scholars are likely to see stateside. It describes three basic models for the future--a gold model, a green model, and a third way. In the gold model adopted by the Public Library of Science (PLoS), authors are charged $1,350-$2,900 to make their works available for free online. In the green model favored by the National Institutes of health, researchers continue to publish in traditional journals but they must also make their work available online within one year on the free repository site PubMed. A third model, exemplified by university-funded public repositories such as arXiv, does away with "peer" review altogether. Scientists upload drafts of their papers into this public archive, subject to open review from all comers.

One tension in these models is balancing timely public access against traditional review systems for scientific discovery and dissemination. In trying to develop and sustain TSP, these issues are never far from our minds. Don't get us wrong: we don't see our site as a medium for adjudicating or releasing original research. Nevertheless, with our peer-reviewed white papers and other special features, we do offer striking original content that includes both new data and new arguments. Moreover, our access policies allow us to quickly bring this research and writing to broader public audiences -- which makes us the envy of our editor friends working for standard scholarly journals.

Thus far, we've been able to preserve access to our articles and sustain our small shop (with the collaboration and assistance of a terrific forward-looking publishing partner in WW Norton). As editors, we know that we could do more good work if we had the sort of resources that another business model might provide. But as scholars ourselves, we "get it" -- open access is bringing exciting changes and, if we do it right, greater visibility and influence for our work. For example, opinion pieces in the New York Times and Washington Post linked directly to the full-text of one of our reports, with the Times also linking to a summary document written for the Scholars Strategy Network. We're certain that the absence of a journal paywall made it easier for these newspapers to link to our work. Yet we're equally certain that this work wouldn't have been cited at all unless the underlying research in the reports had been screened and published through a traditional peer-reviewed journal system.

Green or gold, we're just trying to build a sustainable model that works for TSP and our readers. With so many other scholars, editors, and publishers engaged in similar projects, we might see a whole new rainbow of publishing models in the very near future.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

images of felons and voting

As our friends at sociological images so ingeniously demonstrate, images send powerful messages. Here, on pubcrim, and in related articles, Michelle Inderbitzin and I have argued that popular images of crime and justice often serve to widen the gap between public perceptions and the best available scientific evidence -- and that evaluating and reframing these images is a central task for public criminology.

Since releasing a new Sentencing Project report last week with Sarah Shannon and Jeff Manza, I was reminded of the pervasiveness of certain stock images and the challenge of finding good alternatives. As I mentioned on the Ed's Desk, the report presented some new numbers on the people affected by U.S. felon voting restrictions. Some outstanding articles have since appeared in a good range of print and broadcast outlets, including the New York Times and NPR. I'm always impressed by how quickly smart journalists can master a complex issue and then write an informed piece that really teaches readers about the subject. Of the articles that quoted me directly, I especially appreciated passages like this one, in Eliza Shapiro's story in the Daily Beast:

Four million of the 5.85 million disenfranchised are currently out of prison, some on probation and parole. “The murderer behind bars,” waiting to cast his vote, “is an atypical case,” says Christopher Uggen, professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and lead author of the Sentencing Project report.

Yes! That's an angle that is too rarely mentioned in stories on felon voting. I've tried for years to convey how only a minority of disenfranchised felons are locked up -- and that a much larger number are already living and working in our communities. The relative rarity of the "murderer behind bars" is both an evocative image and a demonstrable social fact, so I felt like I'd done my small bit for public criminology. Before I could dislocate my shoulder patting myself on the back , however, I noticed something else in the article.

The story was accompanied by this even more compelling Reed Saxon/AP photograph, showing faceless inmates in uniform lined up along a wall. Regardless of what I might've said about the "typical case," I suspect that readers will call to mind a picture like this when they think of felon voting. Having edited Contexts magazine and the Society Pages, I know how challenging it can be to illustrate such stories. Even if the typical disenfranchised felon is a fortyish white guy who has served his time, how do you tell his story in a way that will visually engage readers? Show a picture of Uggen watering his lawn? Not likely.

Well, in this case, the editors found many creative ways to illustrate the story. The Courier-Journal created a graphic to show the disenfranchisement rate among African American voters; the Huffington Post offered a woman casting a ballot in Mississippi; Tampa Bay Online used a woman passing a VOTE sign; the Crime Report showed a sign labeled POLLING STATION; and, the Times-Picayune used a head shot of a former inmate and activist. Still, many outlets relied on prison imagery: the National Journal offered a picture of hands sticking through prison bars; the Grio showed inmates with their hands up, being searched near a chain-link fence; and WTVR showed inmates' feet walking along a yellow line.

There's no right or wrong way to illustrate this story or any other, though I certainly have my preferences. Knowing how hard Sarah Shannon worked on our report's maps, however, I was most happy to see the stories that reproduced them directly.

Monday, July 16, 2012

opportunities

At first I demurred -- and I was such a pretentious little dirtball that I might’ve actually said, “I demur.” I’ll get to the context in a minute, but today's hot summer wind calls to mind a July day that taught me something about opportunities.

Another epic post-church Sunday rush had finally wound down at the pancake house. Stuck over a hot grill since 5:30 in the AM, I couldn’t wait to scrub off the grease and collapse on the naugahyde couch in the cool of my parents' basement. As I walked out of the kitchen, I saw a couple of the twentysomething waitresses outside, making plans. Terry said her band was playing at Kaposia Park that afternoon and invited me to stop by and sit in on a few songs.

I liked Terry. She was too serious for some of the cooks, but even as a kid I respected people who took their work seriously. And, when we weren’t swamped with orders, I noticed she used the same tone of voice with everyone from the shift manager, to the cops drinking coffee, to the busboys working the carpet sweeper. That made her a good egg in my book. Somewhere along the line, she told me she sang in a country band and I’m sure I must've yammered on about my rock star aspirations.

Out in the parking lot by the walk-in cooler, I said, “It sounds like fun, but I’m just not into that kind of music. No offense.” I’m sure it was the “no offense” that did it. For a second, Terry flashed me the sort of look I'd get if I’d dropped a plate on the floor. Then, with just a hint of a smile on just half of her face, she said, “Well, you must be one heckuva musician if you can afford to be so picky about opportunities to play.”

A direct hit - and totally disarming. She knew I was a 3-chord wonder, more scared of the stage than averse to the genre. But instead of calling me out on it, she was offering a face-saving invitation: C’mon, man, are you serious about this or not? I said I’d try to make it.

By the time I got to the park, there was a big joyful noise coming from the pavilion. I don’t recall much after that, except that the band was fast, loud, and awesomely sloppy and that Terry (who'd literally let her hair down) was an engaging frontwoman on stage. Eventually, I sang along on some sing-alongs, including Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys and Good Hearted Woman. My guitar stayed in its case and I had to freestyle-mumble the verses, but I stomped my feet and shouted along on the choruses. Though I didn't make much of a contribution, I felt more happy, relaxed, and energized than I’d been in weeks.

I never grew into a real musician, but I still think of Terry when confronted with new opportunities. I say no sometimes, but I try to make sure my knee-jerk negative reactions aren’t driven by the fears and insecurities I felt at 17. Now that I'm more "senior," students are starting to ask me for career advice. Often, where I'll see tremendous career opportunities they'll just see a bullet to be dodged. I’ll gently suggest that it might not be so disastrous to take that research assistantship or collaborative opportunity or post-doc position, even if it doesn’t perfectly align with their current career interests. And when I'm feeling especially bold or the summer heat just summons my own travails, I’ll offer half a smile and say, “Well, you must have one heckuva lot going if you can afford to pass on an opportunity like this.”

photo courtesy Curtis Gregory Perry, flickr.com

Thursday, July 12, 2012

press briefings and policy Reports


I just finished a press briefing with a bunch of very sharp journalists. I love this part of my job, though I'm inevitably way more confident in the research than I am in my ability to convey it to others. Today it was the release of a Sentencing Project report, coauthored with Sarah Shannon and Jeff Manza, where we offer some new numbers on the people affected by U.S. felon voting restrictions.

Academics often feel tension between their research and public outreach activities, but the two can work hand in hand. A few suggestions when writing a report such as this one:

  • Embrace description. To a much greater extent than academic audiences, journalists and their readers value our ability as social scientists to provide basic social facts about the world. We still sneak in a little theory and analysis in our reports, of course, which provides much-needed context for the data we present.
  • Vet your methods. If your report is not peer-reviewed, it is critical to be able to point to your peer-reviewed articles applying the same methods to the same data that you will be presenting publicly. Good journalists care about the academic integrity of the work they write about (and some will dig deep into the methods sections of those articles). At the outset, we could easily identify some particularly surprising and, hence, controversial numbers (sorry, Florida) and we did all we could to double- and triple-check them.
  • Insist on caveats -- but you don't need to lead with them. Responsible social scientists are transparent about potential problems with their data or analysis, but a high "caveat to content ratio" will kill a press release. Editing this report we ultimately moved some caveats from the first page to the last -- but we would not have cut them completely.
  • Choose partners who respect research. Marc Mauer and the Sentencing Project have earned a great reputation for their non-partisan reform work. While some organizations are more oriented to deadlines or to spin than to research integrity, Marc and his colleagues were remarkably patient and understanding about our need to get it right before going public.
  • Teach! Whenever I'm in doubt about how to present something to journalists or policy folks, I try to think about how I'd teach it. For example, Sarah, Jeff, and I realized that the felon voting story was increasingly "spatial as well as racial." So, we started doing cartograms like the one above to visually represent the concentration of disenfranchisement in the Southeast (arguing at length about whether it was appropriate to refer to certain states as "engorged"). We still present plain vanilla charts, of course, but the cartograms and our slider maps tested especially well in my lectures this spring, with students quickly picking up the story behind the numbers.
  • Tough it out. Backlash is always a possibility, with people sending nasty comments or emails about everything from your research to your haircut -- and they aren't always as polite as our academic critics. Sometimes this is because the reporter got something wrong or because you didn't express something precisely, but mostly it is because they just disagree with the implications of your work. That's just part of the deal, I think. If you've done the work in good faith and to the best of your ability, your career and your ego will survive the criticism.
  • Don't worry about cite count. To the extent that stories are written, some mention names and others won't make any attribution. Either way is just fine with me. We pick up certain research projects because we'd like to encourage a public conversation about them -- not to see our names in the paper. Often, I'll only know they're using my work because I recognize a number or two that came out of our shop.

Monday, July 09, 2012

unemployment and deportation

Some influential social theories predict a strong link between criminal punishment and unemployment rates, but the research usually paints a more complicated picture. The picture above, taken from a new article with Ryan King and Mike Massoglia, doesn't seem so complicated by comparison. I won't belabor the details, but one basic idea was to ask whether the United States deported more people for criminal behavior when unemployment was on the rise. Sure enough, unemployment and criminal deportation tracked each other very closely from about 1941 to 1986 (since 1987, deportations have more closely tracked the steep rise in incarceration). The chart shows year-to-year changes in each measure, with the spikes in deportation (the solid line) corresponding to similar spikes in unemployment (the dashed line). Of course, no picture is that simple; there's always a real danger that such correlations could be due to chance or to factors we failed to consider. At minimum, though, a picture like this could make it a little tougher to dismiss the old idea that punishment might have something to do with economic conditions.

jurek, evidence, and identification

Scott Jurek is a badass distance runner, but he's also one silver-tongued persuader. The ultramarathoner's Eat and Run lays out such a compelling case for a plant-based diet that this old-school marathoner suddenly found himself devouring baked tofu in lieu of his post-run steak n' eggs. Countless others had suggested I work in a salad from time to time. Why would I ignore years of advice from my doctor but take dietary cues from a self-described Minnesota redneck?

Well, I guess Mr. Jurek just spoke my language. He begins his story as a "serious carnivore," who grew up yanking walleye from Lake Mille Lacs. A skinny kid, he learned to run and ski cross-country, faring pretty well against the "cake eaters" on Duluth's east side. He was introduced to "'hippie food" by coaches and a college girlfriend, discovering that he felt stronger and performed better when he ate "plant-based" food (his diet is clearly vegan, but the "plant-based" label seems to come with less baggage). Oh, and I almost forgot: he regularly runs distances of 100 miles or more faster than anybody on the planet. His recipes are thus interwoven with ripping yarns from some of the world's toughest races.

Scott Jurek's crossover success as a food writer might offer a few lessons for social scientists aiming to get people thinking in new ways. As academics, we're often presenting our research in hopes of changing the hearts and minds (and votes) of politicians, publics, or policy makers. But we forget that it takes a lot to actually change somebody's mind. In my career, it only seems to happen when folks (a) agree that my evidence is really powerful; and (b) somehow identify with me as a credible expert who knows and appreciates their own worldview. Mr. Jurek nailed me on both counts, overcoming my prejudices with evidence and answering my knee-jerk objections in precisely my own language.

Before I give public talks, I ask what sorts of evidence might change my mind about issues on which I've developed firm opinions (e.g., gun control, progressive taxation, public education). That's a pretty high bar for most of us, right? I certainly wouldn't be talked off my opinion by some dork from the university half-assedly opining on his "reading of the literature." To get my attention (let alone change my mind), I'd want a supertight smoking-gun study along with some sort of richly textured first-hand testimony from people I trusted. So when I'm testifying, I never expect folks to accept my ideas uncritically. I might have real authority and legitimacy on the subject of crime, for example, but so too does the state legislator who served ten years as a district attorney. I'm not going to talk her off her position unless I've got something really convincing to say -- and I can say it in ways that resonate with her own experiences.

Scott Jurek and his editors understand all this implicitly. While it is certainly easier to preach to the converted, overcoming disbelievers can be a rich and satisfying experience. Sort of like that post-race lentil-mushroom burger ...

photo by Pete Aylward