The Theme’s the Thing – Editing Contemporary Social Science

February 28, 2016

Cover of CSS Social Death

David Canter describes his approach to editing the new journal of Contemporary Social Science.

How do you bring an interdisciplinary social science journal to life if it has no central topic to hold it together? Economists would rather publish in a bona fide economics journal, sociologists in places that focus on their discipline, and so on for different social sciences. Yet the Academy of Social Sciences, recently established to promote the development and cross-fertilisation of the social sciences, wanted very much to support a flagship journal which would be fundamentally interdisciplinary as well as international.

Besides the challenge of attracting quality publications there is also the difficulty of knowing enough about the full range of social science disciplines to be able to identify reviewers with confidence. I do not think that anyone would know who to ask to review a paper on remittance to India, as well as also being clear on the best person to comment on innovations in secondary education, as well as instantly remembering who is an expert on developments in Web 2.0. Of course a wide-ranging editorial board could be set up and canvassed for suggestions but that is rather hit and miss and would be very slow.

So, when I was asked to edit this emerging journal it seemed to me there was only one way to enable it to thrive and receive quality submissions. That was to build each issue around a topic that was inherently multidisciplinary. I believed that experts who usually published in their own pet journals would be more likely to want to reach out to a wider audience by contributing to a themed issue.

It also dawned on me that by drawing in guest editors who were engaged in a specific topic they would know who to get to review papers as well as who to encourage to submit them.

The act of faith underlying all this is one shared by the founders of the Academy of Social Sciences. This is that the social sciences are cognate. That they do relate to each other, and there are important topics that benefit from being explored from different social science perspectives.

Unexpected Topics

The exciting discovery was that my beliefs were supported by topics that were offered and emerged into themed issues of the journal. Some topics that are clearly interdisciplinary are obvious, such as social science aspects of climate change, or even protest movements. But others were a complete surprise. Our recent issue on ‘social death’ deals with a fascinating area of research of which I had been completely unaware. The legacy of hosting Olympic Games is another theme that requires inputs from many different disciplines. The wide ranging explorations of social media and the interactive opportunities of what is known as Web 2.0 does not sit comfortably in any one social science, but is a perfect fit for Contemporary Social Science.

The technical aspects of getting a different guest editor for each theme have proven something of a challenge. The Scholar One online system, which the journal uses, can be adapted for this, although it is unpopular with some guest editors. However using it is essential so that I am part of the decision making process in order to uphold the Academy’s quality control systems.

Podcasts

As part of the promotion of this new journal the publishers asked me to do a podcast for each issue. This is much more feasible when a theme is being described rather than the usual mix that make up contributions to an academic journal. But it has the added requirement that I have to get some mastery of what the theme is and how it is explored in the journal. This has turned the editorial process on its head. The journal is teaching me what is happening in the social sciences, drawing my attention to topics that are, to use the current web-ese, ‘trending’.

When I started to produce these podcasts I thought I could glance through the journal and chat into a digital recorder. What a fool I was. Not only did it take the publisher’s tech people ages to edit out all my glitches and stumbles, but I discovered they were transcribing my chat to put a written version online for those who wanted to read the commentary rather than listen to it. Linguist would have a field day examining the sense, and often lack of it, the transcribers made of my Liverpool accent.

I therefore started studying the journal for what I considered juicy bits and the cumulative argument I could unravel across the papers. I write a script from this and have invested in decent editing software. I’ve even bought one of those things that you see pop singers have over their microphones when they are in a recording booth. This, I discovered, stops the pops of plosive consonants being recorded. So I can now send the publisher a clean recording and a script that says what I said.

Books from Themed Issues

That script then comes in handy when I’m asked to write an editor’s forward to the books that are usually produced from these themed issues. You see, because the issue brings together writing on a specific topic as an entity, it is typically a useful resource for something that may not have been brought together in one pair of covers.   So libraries are happy to purchase hardback versions, which include an index as well as my foreword that summarises the volume. Aware of this, I should mention, I always insist on guest editors producing an overviewing introduction that puts the papers in context.

In the five years that the journal has focused on themed issues a dozen books have been generated. Now guest editors see this as a distinct perk, wanting details of how that comes about when they sign up to put an issue together.

The uptake of the journal has increased dramatically since it became devoted to themed issues. In the currency of the day, the downloads have increased exponentially and many individual papers achieve significant citations. But more importantly a host of social science topics are emerging as multidisciplinary with a coherent range of perspectives that elucidate them. Looking back over these topics it is clear that their relevance to contemporary society dominates their outlook. Whether it is the study of how social science has an impact, the nature of identity in the modern world, or the behaviour of crowds and many other issues, the social sciences, from social psychology through to economics and geography, history, educational studies and political science, come together in contributing to our understanding of these matters and opening up possibilities for policy and practice.

The natural sciences have always assumed that different disciplines can sit happily in one journal. Look at the success of Science, Nature and The American Scientist. Perhaps the recognition of the themes that hold the social sciences together, rather than arcane methodologies and abstruse theories, is a coming of age of the study of people and their social contexts.

The latest issue – on Social Death – can be currently read online via your subscription at http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/rsoc21/current

Print version