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. 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.
 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.