U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The AHA Statement on Dissertation Embargoing and the Future of the Profession

Last week, the American Historical Association issued a statement on the apparently growing practice of newly-minted PhDs embargoing their dissertations in order to make books based on them more publishable.  While dissertations have traditionally been available through interlibrary loan, the internet has made non-embargoed dissertations more-or-less instantly available in electronic form. Expressing a concern that such publicly available dissertations were less attractive to publishers than non-available dissertations, the thrust of the AHA’s statement is to encourage programs and universities to give their students the option to embargo their dissertations.

The AHA statement was greeted with a variety of responses, positive and negative. Just today, the New York Times covered the story.  Like my fellow history bloggers Erik Loomis and Eric Rauchway, I find the AHA’s statement disappointing and, ultimately, counterproductive.

Let me start by saying that I entirely understand why individual graduate students want to embargo their dissertations and I don’t question their decisions to do so.  A recent study seems to suggest that, while most university presses are still willing to consider publishing books based on openly accessible dissertations, a significant minority will not.  And given the incredibly difficult professional situation in which new PhDs in history find themselves today, they cannot be faulted for doing what they must to maximize their chances for professional success.

But as Rauchway and others have pointed out, a situation that effectively forces young scholars to keep their work out of circulation is fundamentally bad for the profession…and for young scholars themselves.  Faced with the dual crises of academic hiring and academic publishing, our best response as a profession is not to try to approximate a status quo ante that is unlikely to return, especially if doing so discourages the dissemination of historical work, as the embargo strategy does.

Instead, we need to take a step back and think about the function that dissertations and books play in our profession and how we might best encourage the production and dissemination of historical knowledge and best gauge the professional progress of young historians.

In conversations about the embargo statement on Facebook, a number of defenders of the AHA’s position—among both graduate students and senior scholars–have pointed out that dissertations are not “finished work,” that graduate students are (in the words of one student) “under pressure to complete [their degrees] as soon as possible” and that “the days of deeply thought-out and long-gestated PhD theses are long gone.” 

Dissertations surely are not books.  And, almost always, books based on dissertations are superior to the dissertations on which they are based. Such books have been through an extensive further process of peer review. Their revisions have been overseen by professional editors.  They have been polished and rethought by their authors.  There is a reason that, once such books are published, the dissertations on which they are based are rarely consulted. But rarely is not never. Sometimes portions of a dissertation that are later cut out en route to a book remain valuable and interesting to scholars.

More frequently, in the years between the completion of a dissertation and the publication of a book based on it, other scholars can benefit from the dissertation and, in using and citing it, can actually further the reach of the dissertation author’s scholarship.  If dissertations have come not to be polished enough to be valuable in this way, that is itself a problem that has to be fixed.  The tradition that dissertations be publicly available both served the dissemination of historical knowledge and reflected the fact that the kind of work that results in a doctorate in history ought to be work that is ready for public dissemination.  That this work can be further improved (as it almost always is en route to publication as a book) is precisely why the public dissemination of the dissertation ought not be a bar to the future publication of a book based on it. That the public dissemination of dissertations has begun to become a bar to such future publication tells us much more about the dire economics of academic publishing today than about the scholarly value of publishing a book based on a publicly available dissertation.

We should surely not underestimate the difficulties of those economic circumstances…or what they mean for young scholars. As Bill Cronon noted in his defense of the AHA Statement:

I’ve had at least one former graduate student whose publisher refused to permit publication of an article in one of our discipline’s most prestigious journals for fear that it might undermine sales of his soon-to-be-published book. Since the publisher threatened to cancel the book contract if the article appeared, I can only imagine what it would have done had the entire dissertation been available online. In another instance, I had to intervene with a government agency to request the removal of an online version of one of my students’ dissertations that had been posted without the student’s permission and that the publisher said would likely jeopardize the book contract if it remained available for free download. I’ve had several editors from distinguished presses tell me (off the record, unsurprisingly) that although they would certainly consider publishing a revised version of a dissertation that had been posted online, the general effect of online posting would be to raise the bar for whether they would look at such a dissertation in the first place or eventually offer it a contract. And I’ve heard of university libraries that now save money by choosing systematically not to purchase university press books based on dissertations that are available online.

The problem is that the apparent economic imperatives of the academic publishing industry run directly counter to a central value of our profession: the open dissemination of historical knowledge.  And any solution to the problems identified by Cronon that’s based on accommodating those economic imperatives will unnecessarily restrict that dissemination.

I say “unnecessarily” because there is no particular reason that book-length, extensively peer-reviewed, work needs to be produced in hardcopy by university presses.  As Eric Rauchway points out in comments to his post on the AHA’s embargo statement, one possible solution to the current situation is pretty simple:

It seems to me the logic points towards preserving the custom of monograph-for-tenure by counting manuscripts that pass a process of referring and are then distributed online, rather than printed. A database of monographs thus qualified could then be sold by subscription, rather like JSTOR.

It would not be totally open, but it would be pretty open. It would retain gatekeeping. It would reduce the imperative to justify printing, distribution, and storage of a physical book.

This is hardly a utopian suggestion. Indeed, it’s very conservative; it changes very little about the kind of work that young scholars would be given credit for producing.[1] It would only make them less dependent on a publishing industry that is in an ongoing crisis. Leadership from the AHA could be an immeasurable help in creating such a system and encouraging departments and universities to credit such electronically distributed manuscripts as they now credit books produced by academic presses.  Compared to such leadership, the AHA’s embargo statement seems like a step backward.

[1] A case can be made that we ought to be less conservative in considering the ways that digital media might change the way we produce and disseminate historical knowledge—and credit scholars—but that’s a subject for another day.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. The logical question to ask, at least to me, is, What do the MLA and APA, to name two other professional organizations, have to say about the issue?

  2. Amen. I know some colleagues for whom I have immense respect, and who like me are in early-dissertating phase, are very pro-embargo. I can’t ethically wrap my head around it.

    It seems to me that the AHA and OAH ought to create the database that Rauchway proposes–but unlike JSTOR, it should be open to the public. It should make a considerable capital investment, and perhaps establish real honoraria for anonymous peer reviewers. It should also hire a large team of recent PhDs as editors and administrators. Win win win.

  3. Thanks for this overview and response, Ben. I haven’t followed this debate that closely, except for Cara Burnidge’s great response at RIAH over the weekend, so maybe I missed the answer to this question: Has there been any effort by the AHA to sit down with editors/publishers and discuss this issue?

  4. I’ve enjoyed following this debate, and it’s difficult to contravene the nobility of this position which stems from the professional ideal of seeking to uphold the (relatively) free and open dissemination of knowledge. Few would deny the importance of this core tenant of liberal education. But I take issue with this article on a few points.

    Firstly, you begin by acknowledging that “I entirely understand why individual graduate students want to embargo their dissertations and I don’t question their decisions to do so.” Instead your problem rests with “a situation that effectively forces young scholars to keep their work out of circulation.” I am in complete agreement that such a situation would be unacceptable, but I think this is based on a misinterpretation of the AHA’s statement.

    According to the AHA’s statement, “The American Historical Association strongly encourages graduate programs and university libraries to adopt a policy that ALLOWS the embargoing of completed history PhD dissertations in digital form for as many as six years. Because many universities no longer keep hard copies of dissertations deposited in their libraries, more and more institutions are REQUIRING that all successfully defended dissertations be posted online, so that they are free and accessible to anyone who wants to read them.” (Capitals added). In other words, the AHA is taking issue with university libraries who make online publication of PhD theses obligatory. They wish for recently-completed PhDs to have the option to temporarily embargo the publication of their thesis, they do not intend to make the embargo mandatory. Any PhD who wishes to have their work placed online is of course free to do so – indeed I’m not sure the AHA or any other institution would have the power to prevent an author from publishing their work wherever they want – except for perhaps certain rare cases where issues of government secrecy of confidentiality are involved, or the author is already under certain contractual obligations. As I have personally discovered, recently completed PhDs are frequently pressurised by their university libraries to put their theses online. And, although this has not been my experience yet, but my embargo will soon run out, it sounds as if certain American university libraries place theses online without the author’s prior consent. If the latter is true, then this, in my opinion, is a travesty.

    Secondly, you write that ‘it is hardly a utopian suggestion’ that the AHA acknowledge the prestige of certain online publications on the same footing as published manuscripts. It may not be utopian, but it is idealistic, or at least unrealised. Under present circumstances I can’t foresee any post-doctoral student wilfully trading in a university press book contract for online publication, especially prior to interview. I appreciate the sentiment, but it simply elides the reality of academic recruitment in the vast majority of instances.

    Thirdly, to the same point, you acknowledge that “Dissertations surely are not books. And, almost always, books based on dissertations are superior to the dissertations on which they are based. Such books have been through an extensive further process of peer review. Their revisions have been overseen by professional editors. They have been polished and rethought by their authors.” In other words you accept that, for the moment at least, published books are ‘superior’, more ‘polished’ and improved by an extensive process of peer-review than their downloadable progenitors. Thus, I think it would be fair to say that you endorse the position that, for the time being at least, published monographs are more prestigious than online dissertations. Presumably you would therefore rather hire a candidate with a ‘superior’ book over someone with a less polished dissertation.

    Fourthly, I entirely endorse your suggestion of a prestigious and professionally-recognised online medium of publication. Given the rapid impulse towards ebooks, online newspapers and such forth, this is surely almost an inevitability rather than a utopian suggestion as you rightly claim. However, if such a medium were established along the lines you suggested, with a process of peer-review and perhaps even an accreditation from an organisation like the AHA, then it would be an entirely different beast altogether from a university library simply chucking a thesis online without such a rigorous scholarly process and without the author’s prior-consent. Indeed it would be closer, in spirit at least, to the ideals and services proffered by a university press. In other words, were your prestigious medium of online publication to come into existence, am I right in assuming that you would still support the AHA’s proposed embargo on unaccredited university libraries placing books online without a peer-reviewed process?

    Finally, the proposed embargo would only be temporary. I accept that this could potentially delay the dissemination of historical knowledge, but only temporarily. Moreover, those who choose to embargo their dissertations are likely to be post-doctoral students with career aspirations and therefore looking to improve and publish their thesis in book form. Wouldn’t it be better to wait for the finished product rather than a half-baked piece of preliminary research? Indeed, shouldn’t that be the author’s prerogative? Those PhD students not interested in academic careers are likely to either not request an embargo, or their PhD will be published anyway after a maximum of 6 years. I can only think of some extremely rare examples where a PhD thesis in its original form has made such a lasting and immediate impact to the profession that delaying its imminent publication could be deemed costly for the profession. Incidentally, William Cronon’s thesis would probably be among those examples.

    Anyway, this has turned into a bit of a long-winded rebuttal. Suffice to say I very much enjoyed reading it, respect your arguments and found the engaging, and thought them worth a relatively extensive reply.

    • I am defending my dissertation in March, and the thought that will be forced to publish it on-line makes me sick. First, because it will not be the final work I hope to publish as a book, and second because the work in mine and I should control it. I am trying to build a career as scholar and unfinished work does not help me. I should have the choice when my work is to be made public not my university or the AHA. There an issue of copyrights and seeking legal council for me is not outside the range of possibility.

      • an issue of copyrights

        Is your issue with copyright violations of an “unfinished work” available online, or conversely, that an embargo may delay copyright protections of your dissertation?

  5. As far as I know, scholars have always treated dissertations as a “publication”–which has always meant a “dedication to the public” (which copyright offsets financially). Scholars include dissertations on their publications page of their CVs, and dissertations are cited all the time in scholarly work.

    There is a set of rights enjoyed by Europeans vis-a-vis intellectual and creative work that would buttress the embargo argument, called “droit d’auteur.” But Americans have never enjoyed those rights. And as appealing as they might seem, the longer, more sober view would suggest that we not go down the “droit d’auteur” road. Since the “auteurs” would very quickly become mega-corporations, and rights of secondary users would become even more constricted. The victims would be the public domain and knowledge, in general.

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