Interview with Socio-Economic Review’s New Chief Editors, Akos Rona-Tas and Alya Guseva
The flagship journal of SASE, Socio-Economics Review (SER), is welcoming its new leadership this year. The two chief editors, Dr. Akos Rona-Tas, Professor of Sociology at the University of California, San Diego, and Dr. Alevtina Guseva, Associate Professor of Sociology at Boston University, took the reins on the 1st of January 2022 from Dr. Gregory Jackson, Professor of Management at Freie Universität Berlin who had shepherded the journal to its current ranking and impact factor for over a decade. Here, Rona-Tas and Guseva reflect on the brief but remarkable history of the journal and share their vision of its future.
Interview conducted by Ke Nie
20 years and the future of SER
“Socio-economics has become such a successful interdisciplinary effort to understand the economy from a social perspective, and I am very optimistic as to its future.”
Congratulations on becoming the new chief editors of Socio-Economic Review! I am excited about your tenure leading the journal, but I also want to take a moment to look back at the extraordinary achievements SER has made in the past two decades. It has thrived since its founding in 2003, becoming one of the most cited and impactful journals in the social sciences. How did SER make such a remarkable achievement in such a short period of time? What has SER done right in the past?
Akos Rona-Tas: SER has been at the right place at the right time. The 1990s was going to be the great and ultimate victory of neo-liberal capitalism and neoclassical economics. 1989 is the year when communism collapsed, the end of history was proclaimed, and the Washington Consensus was supposed to have descended to Earth. This is also the year the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics (SASE) was founded in critical opposition to this academic and political triumphalism.
By 2002, the year SER was launched, this triumphalism turned into high anxiety. The post-communist transition to capitalism turned sour, the greatest economic success of the decade was China, which forcefully rejected the Washington Consensus and Western advice, financial markets had experienced terrifying volatility, and 9/11 reminded all of us of the fragility of our entire world. By then, SER could build on a vigorous, inclusive, international community cultivated by SASE and connected by a wish to re-invent our approach to economic life.
SASE and later SER have wisely balanced openness to new ideas and high academic standards. The term socio-economics, proposed by Amitai Etzioni, the founder of SASE, deliberately rejected disciplinary boundaries and attracted a wide variety of scholars interested in creative interdisciplinary synergies, bringing together different intellectual traditions and cultures: new economic sociology from the US, institutional economics from Germany, STS from France and the UK, as well as political economy, management science, organizational research, all making a scholarly bid to rethink the economy as an open system interacting with its social, political, and cultural environment.
The first few years are the hardest period in a journal’s life cycle when it is still unknown and unranked. The new journal rode this difficult initial wave on the reputations and institutional and personal connections of the SER founders: David Marsden, Alex Hicks, and Wolfgang Streeck.
Since SER’s inception, history has continued to be on the journal’s side. The 2008 financial crisis, the Great Recession, and the Greek debt crisis all made the need for new ideas amply clear. Gregory Jackson and his editorial team, including Nina Bandelj and Bruno Amable, who served as Associate Editors for over a decade, have done a marvelous job harnessing the intellectual energies released by these developments.
SER is obviously known for its interdisciplinary approach to the study of social economics: it draws insights from sociology, political science, economics, management, business, and many more fields. Does the success of SER reflect a promising future for the study of socio-economics? How does the field of socio-economics overcome the institutional and intellectual boundaries of the respective disciplines on which it draws?
Rona-Tas: There is a delicate dialectic between the creativity of tight intellectual communities and wide, interdisciplinary exchanges. A good scholarship needs both. Closely knit communities of scholars can incubate and develop new ideas. Their members’ common understanding of what the problems are and how they should be attacked can help at the early stages when there are many unknowns and uncertainties, and later when new knowledge needs to adhere to earlier discoveries. This was the basis of the spectacular success of economics. Yet after a certain point, the marginal utility of this form of knowledge production begins to decline. And that is the point where brokering across the boundaries of these communities becomes imperative for moving forward, as long as we believe that the social sciences are here not to build a perfect, quasi-religious intellectual system but to solve problems and reflect on what is happening in the world.
Alya Guseva: I agree that there is a time and place—for fields of knowledge and, perhaps, for individual scholars’ careers—for strongly disciplinary work, which helps define disciplinary boundaries and propel disciplines forward, sometimes in competition with other disciplines. But there is also a time for work that is driven not so much by disciplinary concerns but by questions that necessarily require broad cross-disciplinary collaborations. Socio-economics has become such a successful interdisciplinary effort to understand the economy from a social perspective, and I am very optimistic as to its future.
Granted, this collective effort attracted only certain fractions of the many disciplines that joined in, the rest of them continuing to pursue work more within their disciplinary boundaries. Generally speaking, there is a lot of excitement about interdisciplinary work of any kind—perhaps—as part of the growing conviction that it takes different perspectives to address the really complex questions. But practically speaking, the reward system in academia—citations, hiring, promotions—is still largely discipline-bound. SER seems to be breaking this rule, at least from the standpoint of our own discipline—sociology: it is an interdisciplinary journal, but it is highly ranked in the discipline and sought out as a publication outlet not only by seasoned academics, who should be less bound by concerns of disciplinary belonging but also by many junior scholars.
You seem to think of SER as a place to build a diverse but united community. Is that your vision of the journal under your leadership?
Rona-Tas: We see the social sciences as a very special conversation where much of the value comes from discussions among diverse views and voices. SER is already following this ideal, but we would like to open this discussion both in space and time. In terms of space, we would like to bring other parts of the world into the conversations about the social economy—especially Latin America and Asia, but, possibly, Africa, too—and to encourage submissions not just on but also from these regions.
Guseva: We would also like to expand the scholarly discussion curated by the journal in time. Traditionally, once an article is published, the article is on its own. It often feels anticlimactic. Books often experience significant post-publication lives: they are discussed at Author-Meets-Critics panels, and there are book reviews. But not the articles. Many of the authors can relate to the frustration that follows an article’s publication as it usually takes a year or more until the first citations begin to appear. We would like to change this by creating a forum where authors of recently published SER articles could discuss their ideas with the readers.
We will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of SER in 2023 under your tenure. Do you have any plans?
Guseva: This is in the works, but we cannot share any specific plans yet. We have just welcomed the first cohort of SER graduate student interns. Coming up with an idea on how to mark this milestone is one of the tasks on which they are currently working.
New leadership, new practices
“We will certainly be on the lookout for manuscripts that take roads less traveled.”
I understand that one of your goals is to make the journal more global and diverse. What does this mean in practice? And how are you going to move it forward?
Guseva: We are currently looking for two additional Associate Editors, one dedicated to Asia and the other to Latin America. We would also like to increase the representation of these two regions on our Board of Editors. More importantly, we would like to recruit more reviewers with regional expertise. We will also travel to regional conferences to promote SER and offer regional workshops explaining how to submit to SER successfully.
The quality of articles has been the key to SER’s success. I know that in recent years, there have been about 500 manuscripts submitted annually, with an acceptance rate as low as 10%—equivalent to other top disciplinary journals such as the American Sociological Review (10% in 2020) and the American Economic Review (7%). Yet the low acceptance rate may also be a hurdle for the journal to become more international and diverse since research on non-traditional topics and areas is more likely to be deemed “unimportant” or “not interesting”. How, then, to balance quality and diversity? How to expand the repository while maintaining the journal’s standards?
Rona-Tas: This is a difficult problem. It is important to understand that about half of the submissions we get are rejected without substantial review. Many of these desk rejections are simply telling authors their articles were sent to the wrong journal. If your paper is sent out for review, your chances of getting published have already doubled. As SER is going fully online, our “page budget” has increased somewhat. SER already published more articles last year. Still, SER will remain a selective journal.
Guseva: I actually do not think that topics or areas that are unusual or rarely get covered in SER are at risk of being labeled “not interesting” or “unimportant”. If anything, the opposite is true. I have been a member of the SER Editorial board for the past 8 years and reviewed for SER for a decade and a half, and, personally, I am always particularly excited to see manuscripts on the topics and regions that rarely get represented. Now that Akos and I are going to have much more leeway in both shaping the editorial policy and managing day-to-day submissions, we will certainly be on the lookout for manuscripts that take roads less traveled.
The question of quality is a more serious one, particularly as we want to attract manuscripts from scholars working in a broader set of geographic areas. It is actually a question of academic standards that are tied to different academic cultures. But I am optimistic, given the changes we are proposing with expanding the number of editors and capitalizing on the close links with SASE and the Early Career Workshop, that the journal will be able to expand its geographic scope without compromising its hard-won reputation and standing.
Public exposure is also relevant for a journal to succeed. Are there plans for SER to enhance the post-publication circulation of its articles and the discussion of them in the public sphere?
Rona-Tas: As I mentioned earlier, we are committed to facilitating the post-publication discussion of articles to mirror the excitement that usually accompanies the publication of books. We would like to call this feature “The SER Café”.
We would also like to help connect our authors with college instructors in a format we call “bring authors to the classroom”, to allow SER authors to Zoom into graduate or advanced undergraduate classes where their work is assigned and discussed. This would undoubtedly enrich the education of students and also contribute to the goal of enhancing post-publication engagement with the work that SER publishes.
Our student interns are also exploring the possibilities of using social media to better promote SER to potential authors as a publication outlet and to generate conversations around recently published articles.
In recent years, we have witnessed the trend of open access in the academic publishing sector. More flexible publication options such as preprints, although less prestigious, have become an increasingly important venue for scholarly communications. How will SER respond to this trend?
Rona-Tas: Open access is a major change. Overall, making knowledge more accessible is obviously a good thing, but it has at least two aspects that the journal and the entire scientific community must grapple with. The first has to do with the business model of publishing, the second with the structuring of scientific knowledge.
As for the first, managing a journal has certain costs. Traditionally, these costs were borne by the readers, or to be more precise, by the libraries that ordered the journals and, to a lesser extent, by individual subscribers. This system discriminated against the readers without access to well-funded university libraries. The authors have neither paid for publications nor were paid to submit. They are just paid by their institutions, though publication is a key component of their career advancement. As an aside, journal reviewers have not been paid either, but getting good reviews is becoming harder and harder, so it would make sense to consider paying even a small honorarium for reviews, except it would probably not be possible financially at SER.
With open access, the costs will be shifted from the readers to the authors. Now the authors or their institutions would have to pay, while readers everywhere would be able to access the articles free of charge. This system will undermine scholars whose research funds or institutions cannot pay the publication fee. Clearly, unless we find alternative sources of income, we just trade resource-rich readers for resource-rich authors. And this brings us to the second problem: unfairly excluding authors from publication is worse than unfairly excluding readers from reading those publications, as the former directly affects the content of science, by cutting into diversity.
There is also a hybrid model emerging. Journals have both paywalled and free articles. Universities keep their subscriptions, and, in exchange, they get a discount both on the subscription and the publication fees of their affiliated researchers, whose articles will be open access. Universities use the savings from the subscription to provide subsidies to their affiliates. It is unclear to me how stable this hybrid model is, but for now, it holds.
Young scholars are now facing tremendously fierce competition in the job market, and their career future is closely tied to publishing in highly impactful journals such as SER. Does SER have specific policies or programs that would assist early-career researchers in their publication processes? Do you have any tips for young scholars who want to submit their manuscripts to SER?
Rona-Tas: We are very interested in work from young scholars. My main advice to them is that they study earlier issues of SER. Articles that follow the SER format and that are in conversation with articles published earlier in SER have an edge in the review process.
Moreover, we will try to demystify the review and publication process. We will post useful information on the SER website. In addition, each year we give a few presentations at conferences, including at the annual SASE meeting, where we answer general questions about the publication process, and give advice on how to increase one’s chances of having the manuscript sent to review. We also hope to use SASE’s early career workshops to create a submission pipeline. To be clear, what we promise is that those papers that were selected for the workshop will make it to the blind review phase.
Finally, our graduate student intern program is another way we try to help young scholars understand the process of academic publishing.
Guseva: I agree with Akos that an important way for young scholars to master the art of publishing is by learning from already published articles. Plus, as Chief Editors, we will continue the fine tradition established by the previous Chief Editor Gregory Jackson of giving a presentation on the nuts and bolts of publishing in SER at a special “Meet the Editors” panel at SASE annual meetings. And finally, we are fully aware of the importance, particularly to the careers of young scholars, of timely editorial decisions. We are keeping an eye on these decision time averages and are committed to reducing delays and speeding up the review and publication process to the extent possible.
Personal stories with SER
“I very much appreciate articles that are well-written and make lucid and bold arguments.”
What is your research area? How did you become interested in it? And how does that speak to the study of socio-economics?
Rona-Tas: I started my career at a time when communism collapsed in Central and Eastern Europe. My first book, The Great Surprise of the Small Transformation, looked at how the state socialist command economy based on large-scale production fell apart and gave rise to a more decentralized economy in Hungary already during the last decade of communism. In the 1990s, like many others, I studied the post-communist transformation. Then I started to work on credit with Alya and that resulted in our book Plastic Money, which is about the creation of markets. Studying credit raised the issues of risk and uncertainty, which led me to my current interest in predictions.
Guseva: Come to think of it, since I discovered economic sociology, which was still a nascent field when I was a graduate student, I have always been interested in how the economic exchange is organized socially and culturally, and how it congeals into a market. My first book, Into the Red, about the birth of the credit card market in Russia, and our joint book with Akos, are focused on markets for consumer finance. If you are interested in learning more about how precisely I got interested in credit cards in Russia, you should read the preface to Into the Red.
Several years ago, I got interested in markets for assisted reproduction services, specifically surrogacy. My general interest is still the same: how the exchange—in this case, the markets are often global in scale yet exist in a context of fragmented or variable legislation—is organized. But the nature of the exchange, which involves human reproduction, gametes, babies, families, unyielding desires to become parents, etc., took me in the direction of studying the legal and moral scaffolding of markets, and the power struggles of actors—medical doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, parents, politicians—to shape these configurations.
What was your first experience with SER? For example, a successful or unsuccessful submission? A review request?
Rona-Tas: I believe my first publication in SER was a piece in 2007, co-authored with my then student, Nadav Gabay, about how economics rediscovers sociology, carefully avoiding to credit the discipline.
Guseva: My first publication in SER was in 2005. It was a comparison between the Russian and the American credit card markets, the subject I initially took up in my dissertation, our co-authored ASR paper with Akos, and my first book Into the Red.
Which SER article you’ve written is your favorite? Why do you like it?
Rona-Tas: It is always the last one. My SASE Presidential address on “Predicting the Future: Art and Algorithms”. I think it formulates important questions or at least questions I would like others to take seriously.
Pick a favorite SER article not written by you or the other chief editor. Why do you like it?
Rona-Tas: I’d rather not pick favorites, but I would still say that I very much appreciate articles that are well-written and make lucid and bold arguments. I think it is very rare that some brilliant content justifies jargon and turgid prose.
Guseva: There are quite a few articles I could put into the category of “favorites,” some of them were the ones I reviewed as manuscripts. So, without naming specific articles, and speaking generally, as a reviewer, a reader, and now as an editor, I particularly like the articles that are written in an illuminating way, are focused on new or rarely-written-about topics, and those that make an exciting theoretical point that transcends the original data.
Last question: Why did you want to become the chief editor of SER?
Rona-Tas: Out of a thirst for adventure.
Guseva: COVID made me do it! Jokes aside, I, too, was looking for something new and exciting to help me see the light at the end of the tunnel during the uber-depressing winter of 2021. It made sense to respond to the open call for Chief Editor—I have been a part of the journal and SASE for many years and consider both very special.