Some Thoughts on Digital Dissertations

Recently, there has been a good bit of talk about policies governing the digital publication of dissertation. I blogged about it a couple of weeks ago, but most of this came from American Historical Association’s well-meaning efforts to urge us to adopt flexible policies toward the digital publication of dissertations immediate after their completion. Instead, they recommend allowing scholars to embargo their dissertations for up to six years after they have been completed. They did not necessarily recommend that every scholar do this, but they recommended that a 6 year embargo be an option.


The fuss was sufficient that the AHA made real efforts to clarify their position and then the president of the AHA, William Cronon, responded directly to criticism of the Association’s position. His response was measured. He argued, in a nutshell, that recent Ph.D.s are particularly vulnerable because their dissertation is their most significant scholarly achievement to that point. Allowing recent Ph.D.s to embargo their work is a policy that protects that work and ensures that these vulnerable scholars can deploy their dissertation for greatest professional benefit. He is particularly concerned that academic publishers might look askance at publishing dissertations that are available for free digital download. This would make it more difficult for scholars at the start of their career to publish books heavily based on their dissertations. Since books remain the gold standard for tenure, any reluctance by publishers will perhaps make it more difficult for scholars to earn tenure.

It is interesting to consider whether this policy is closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. Smaller numbers of historians are hired to tenure track positions and a smallest percentage of Ph.D.s over the past 40 years earn employment at all. As a result, the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and even the AHA have called for academically trained Ph.D.s to embrace the possibility of non-academic careers. The culture of academia is changing.

Moreover, state universities are under increased pressure to justify their expenditures on the humanities. Making dissertations available to the public (who often understand their tax dollars as directly funding graduate research) is a key way to assuage public concerns that money invested in higher education funds exclusively boutique projects that the average citizen could never access, much less appreciate. One response to these concerns has been to encourage more open access research. Moreover, this practice follows national programs like the NSF and NIH which are requiring scholars to make available their research. Dissertations, especially those receiving “public funds” at state universities (putting aside the vagaries of state university budgets), would appear to many people as the products of their tax dollars. In the UK, this concern has fueled a recent spate of graduate student blogs where students advocate for themselves by making more of their research transparent. Other fields in the U.S. are making the same argument for different, but related reasons.

Most historians have come to accept that our field is undergoing tremendous change, and Cronon admitted that the status of tenure remains uncertain in our changing academic landscape. More than that, we all know that the character of academic publishing is in transition. Even the idea that an academic publisher would shy away from a dissertation that was freely available as a download is hardly a clear situation, as Cronon points out. Our world is changing and the AHA has the opportunity to promote policies that shape future expectations in the discipline.

I respect Cronon tremendously; he’s smart and the AHA’s heart is in the right place. It appears, however, that the AHA has  adopted a policy the limits the circulation of academic research to protect a career path that follows an increasingly obsolete trajectory. (I really want to make the problematic analogy that this is like a well-meaning administrator advocating for lower standardized-test scores to keep under performing schools from being stigmatized.) If dissertations become immediately available for free download, it will accelerate the process of changing the expectations in both academic publishing and on the academic career path.

For publishing, the re-publication of embargoed dissertations as books is not the best use of increasingly straightened publisher or – more importantly – library resources. This policy will make libraries more likely to expend resources on research that will eventually become available for free. It’s hard to see this as a way forward.

More than that, the embargo would tend to protect dissertations that do not undergo substantial revisions. Substantially revised dissertations will retain value to a publisher as an original book. Cronon admits as much:

“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.”

In other words, this policy advocated by the AHA protects the lowest value books – ones that are not substantial revisions of dissertations – and creates a scenario where university libraries spend money to purchase lightly revised dissertations as book! Considering how academic publishing works, they might end up purchasing these lightly revised dissertations a year or two before dissertation embargoes would expire.  

More importantly, the push to make dissertation research available quickly after its completion fits the changing character of American graduate education with fewer candidates entering academic jobs or joining the tenure track. In effect, we’re not only protecting the weakest dissertations, but we’re protecting the research of an increasingly small number of scholars who pursue traditional academic careers. I wonder if this calculus is short-sighted and creates a system that privileges an elite career path over the massive quantity of valuable research. 

Some scholars have argued that dissertations are labor and apply a traditional reading of capitalism, unfortunately I am not convinced that graduate research fits the capitalist model perfectly. In fact, I have argued elsewhere that history remains a craft and graduate students have an apprentice relationship with their advisors making the ownership metaphor of graduate research problematic. After all, most of us relied heavily on graduate advisement to produce the dissertation and as a result, it is as much a product of a system in which advisors and students are both deeply embedded. This isn’t to suggest that graduate students aren’t entitled to the fruits of their own research, but to suggest that it is more complex equation than simple labor costs might suggest.

There are always forces that resist change in academia. In many ways, academic culture is deeply conservative. So I understand – and begrudgingly respect – Cronon’s arguments. The AHA has to represent the interests of all historians as well as protect the intellectual product of these scholars. In this case, I feel like they’re doing more to protect the scholar than the discipline. I suppose, if an organization has to pick one or the other, they’ve made the right choice, but I’m still not entirely satisfied. 


  1. This is an extraordinarily complex situation. I agree with everything you’ve said here. On the other hand: my dissertation, although it’s not freely available online (it seems to have fallen through the cracks, for reasons that are obscure to me), has been circulated by myself and others. It has also been plagiarized by an article published in a peer-reviewed journal. I can see the logic in protecting early scholars from such predatory practices. I also think that Cronon is right to point out that it is hypocritical for senior historians who don’t make their research freely available (although many are in public universities and may receive public money to conduct their research) to require junior scholars to do so.


    1. I guess what I’m saying is that the dissertation is a strange thing. For many people, it isn’t a real piece of scholarship (like a book is) that one gets credit for — I mean, do you put your dissertation on your CV? I don’t, unless it’s listed after my degree. For some scholars, it apparently doesn’t count as an authoritative publication that one is required to cite. Those are the things that needs to change, I suppose…


    2. Great response! As an independent (poor) scholar I am still working to reform education although I received my Doctorate in 2001. In a world filled with incompetence, we must give every advantage to scholars who “own” the copyrights to their research! Now, if work was not copyrighted–then, it may be moved into the public domain after a brief period of time!


  2. I think this is the most realistic and well consider position statement I’ve seen. Into the mix I will only add the reality that many books and most articles are read by almost no one. There is a danger to building a false valuation system.


  3. Christos G. Makrypoulias July 29, 2013 at 4:08 pm

    Open access is a tricky issue, but I feel that both sides have a point. I can understand the AHA trying to draw attention to the problems young scholars face while trying to embark on a career, but Bill is right, that ship has sailed years ago! Also, 6 years is a hell of a lot of time for someone to keep his work away from interested colleagues. In Greece we have the option (I personally have taken it) of keeping our dissertation out of the National Documentation Center’s PhD Digital Database for 3 years, but we are still obligated to provide hard copies to the alma mater’s library, the National Library and various other research libraries, so one’s postgraduate labor is not exactly the state’s best-kept secret. I can’t comment on the AHA’s reasoning regarding publication and tenure, since I come from a country where there are precious few academic presses and the chances of a recent PhD finding gainful employment in academia anymore are about the same as Glenn Beck joining the Communist Party of the USA…


    1. Well, sounds like things are much the same here in the USA (as they are elsewhere). Therefore, all “copyrighted” research should be protected from “infringement”–while (unemployed) scholars attempt to publish their works via platforms that have the potential to generate revenue. Their is a revolution occurring in education! A revolution where capitalism rewards the efforts of the free and the brave (i.e. faithful). The only option for scholarship to be published by the “owner” of copyrighted materials (i.e. Books and/or Research) is to utilize an independent publishing platform such as mine at

      This independent publishing site offers authors the option of charging a fee for work or distributing it for free! I conclude my argument with the following: We must retain the right to make ALL decisions regarding the distribution of “copyrighted” materials. For more about, research efforts and/or the potential to publish works via follow me on twitter @kenfetterman


  4. As a double major in History and English and a self-published author, I understand some of what is going on, and I get that the AHA wants to protect the work of their members and ensure that they can at least get employment. However I’m not sure that an embargo of 6 years is the right thing to do, especially since that’s a very long time to wait for publication or sharing the work.


    1. Rami,
      See my reply (above) under comments by Christos G. Makrypoulias;

      I agree with the policy statement put forth by the AHA and their president William Cronon. If you want to disseminate your work to the world immediately (for free or otherwise) then you should remain in control of that decision.

      Your right to control the distribution of “copyrighted” materials should be retained. Therefore, I applaud the policy statement adopted by AHA. Hope my effort(s) to reply–encourages (all) scholars to retain control over the distribution of their work.

      Go to to learn more about independent publishing. Then, download the (FREE) Smashwords Style Guide.
      It is very informative–Best wishes!


  5. Maybe I am lucky as when I did my Dissertation it was before they were digitized?


  6. Thanks for a really interesting discussion. I remember the outcry that arose in 2000 when Steven Brill’s company Contentville acquired the commercial rights to all the dissertations that were held by Bell & Howell – and at many schools students had to sign those rights over to B&H to get their dissertations approved. It seems like there is a long and inglorious history of depriving students of control over the distribution of their dissertations, so it was fascinating to me to read of this latest round.


  7. Reblogged this on kennethfetterman and commented:
    Comments: A discussion about Digital Distribution of Dissertations


  8. Reblogged this on Singapore and the United States: A New Cold War History and commented:
    Here’s a thorough critique of AHA statement and the problematic tenure system in academia. I can’t agree more with the writer.


  9. I am close to submitting my History PhD dissertation and really quite annoyed by the debacle that academia is in. Sadly, I get very little encouragement to publish my dissertation with an e-press. I want my research to be accessible to students and interested readers for a free download. Some say I can forget about an academic career after that because publishing my second book with a traditional press will not “undo the damage” of having published my first book with an e-press – I have already shown the world that I don’t value my own research. I wonder if such a career is even worth pursuing. I am tempted to be brave and go ahead with e-publishers, but I have mouths to feed, waiting for me to quickly climb out of the grad student economic situation. This is just crazy.


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