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.