a ‘what if’ story about a dissertation opened up too late

I posted my 2003 Stanford dissertation, Gender Mistakes and Inequality, on the open access pre-print server SocArxiv in July of 2016 and it has been downloaded over 2000 times to date (it got out of the gate strong too). Prior to that, it had been cited once, and I assume read (maybe) by my committee and the few friends I begged for feedback. I never submitted it to a ‘real’ journal, so it was available in print at Stanford Libraries and behind the ProQuest paywall only.

Here’s what I think would have happened if I could have deposited it (or an earlier  working version of it, even) in SocArxiv all those years ago:

  1. I could have gotten feedback from folks other than my committee and fellow grad students. My favorite part of my dissertation is the nascent queer theory part, but there was no one in the Stanford sociology department whose work was even close to the same ballpark as queer theory then. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and my committee wasn’t telling me.
  2. Related to #1, I like to think that with the chance at more diverse readers I would have revised some of the cringe-worthy parts of the manuscript that are not trans-inclusive at all. My advisor, a well-known gender scholar, does not do any work that really questions the gender binary; so even though my dissertation is all about what happens when we are ‘wrong’ about someone’s gender, it still hews pretty closely to binary and non-mutable conceptions of sex and gender. That sucks and I’m embarrassed by that. If an early version of this had been on a SocArxiv, maybe someone would have told me about the sucky parts and I could have made those parts not suck.
  3. If it were widely and openly available early on, maybe I would have realized that it had a potential readership; and maybe I would have prioritized revising it for submission to a ‘real’ sociology journal. That, in turn, could have gotten the ideas and the findings into the literature way earlier.

I know some folks are concerned that grad students and junior scholars are ill-served by incentives to publish working papers in open access repositories like SocArxiv because they might be embarrassed at criticism of ideas and work that is not fully vetted and not ready for prime-time. My experience is the opposite – I would have welcomed a more open and diverse audience, criticism and all, of my dissertation. As it is, I’m embarrassed by parts of it that I fully believe would have been caught and corrected/revised if it had been available openly to a wider audience early on.

So, yeah, I fully support the proposal to open up ASA section paper awards; and so should you.

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