When Michael Sosin became the seventh editor of Social Service Review (SSR) in the summer of 1999, he wrote an introductory editorial summarizing the venerable journal’s mission since being founded more than 70 years earlier. “It is quite a challenge,” he concluded in a typically self-effacing way, “to live up to the standards of the past.”
In June, Sosin, SSA’s Emily Klein Gidwitz Professor, stepped down from his post at SSR. Colleagues contend that after 14 years, 56 issues and 313 published articles, he has met that challenge. “The journal was in excellent hands under Michael Sosin’s leadership,” says Susan Lambert, an associate professor at SSA who is assuming the editorship. “SSR continues to enjoy a place of enormous respect in the profession.”
Sosin says that leading SSR, one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious social work and social welfare journals, was “something, since I was hired at SSA, that I always wanted to do.” He craved the opportunity to help shape a distinct publication, one that helped establish scholarship in the profession from its earliest days. Social Service Review publishes thought-provoking, original research on social welfare policy, organization and practice, and its articles analyze issues from the points of view of various disciplines, theories, and methodological traditions, view critical problems in context, and carefully consider long-range solutions.
“It’s very unique in its emphasis not just on social science methods but social science theory and interdisciplinary research,” Sosin says. Working over the years with managing editors Brooke Olson, Jill Rollet and Chris Leiker, Sosin did not aim to alter the type of work SSR published. Rather, says Leiker, who joined the staff in 2002, in an era when technological and economic changes made “publishing an academic journal harder and harder to do well,” they focused intensely on improving the quality of their pages.
Most notably, Sosin revamped the manuscript review process. The detail-oriented Sosin, who holds a PhD in social work and sociology, would read every submitted paper at least twice—and sometimes three or four times—so that he understood fully the underlying research. Early in his tenure, he added an external review board alongside an internal board comprised of the faculty of SSA, which historically shouldered the majority of the work entailed in reviewing submitted manuscripts. Consisting of top scholars from social work and related fields, the external board simultaneously increased review transparency and deepened the expertise into which SSR could tap. “The external board helped increase the prestige of the journal and helped ensure a high-quality review process for the manuscripts,” Lambert says.
For articles that were provisionally accepted by reviewers, Sosin would take his red pen to the page, making adjustments and suggestions about how the author could tweak the work. “Part of what we’re doing is just trying to improve the articles technically, to make sure that their methods are clear,” he says. “But if we have a good idea we feel fits into what the authors are saying, we will ask about that.”
Even for manuscripts that were rejected, Sosin would re-read the text to double-check that the levied criticisms were fair (and on rare cases, he would reverse the decision). In the cases where the reviews weren’t comprehensive enough, he would pen his own secondary review so the potential contributors—junior authors learning the ins and outs of journal publishing, for example—would receive useful feedback and better understand how decisions at SSR are made.
Sosin also worked hard to upgrade the journal’s design and digital capabilities. An “old-fashioned” footnote style of citation—seen as a barrier for prospective authors—was jettisoned, and the journal’s cover was reconceived. Behind the scenes, Sosin started receiving submissions, corresponding with authors, and editing documents electronically, a notable change in the traditional world of journal publishing. SSR indexed its entire back catalog, starting with Volume 1 in 1927, so subscribers can read any of its scholarship online. “[The changes] give the journal a wider reach,” Sosin says. “I’m probably an average user of technology, but this was important for the journal, so I did it.”
Going forward, it’s Lambert’s intention to uphold the journal’s reputation for rigor while continuing to widen SSR’s reach across disciplines. “A lot of social work journals have a distinctly applied focus. Our focus is on advancing understanding of not only what we as social workers do, but also of the social problems that social work seeks to address. An interdisciplinary approach to knowledge development is needed to make such strides,” she says.
Leiker, now an editor at Washington University’s Center for Social Development, is optimistic about SSR’s future, even as he extols Sosin’s principled leadership. “For many years,” Leiker says, “he has been a voice for integrity and for excellence.”
— Adam Doster