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. At the same time, however, an increasing number of university presses are reluctant to offer a publishing contract to newly minted PhDs whose dissertations have been freely available via online sources. Presumably, online readers will become familiar with an author’s particular argument, methodology, and archival sources, and will feel no need to buy the book once it is available. As a result, students who must post their dissertations online immediately after they receive their degree can find themselves at a serious disadvantage in their effort to get their first book published; it is not unusual for an early-career historian to spend five or six years revising a dissertation and preparing the manuscript for submission to a press for consideration. During that period, the scholar typically builds on the raw material presented in the dissertation, refines the argument, and improves the presentation itself. Thus, although there is so close a relationship between the dissertation and the book that presses often consider them competitors, the book is the measure of scholarly competence used by tenure committees.
The AHA’s Statement on Policies Regarding the Embargoing of Completed History PhD Dissertations has generated wide discussion, controversy, articles in Inside Higher Education and the Chronicle of Higher Education, and a number of questions. In the Q&A below, we’ve summarized some of the most common claims and questions about the statement that we’ve seen on Twitter, blogs, and the comment section of the AHA’s announcement. We welcome further discussion on this issue.
Notes toward a Bizarro World AHA Dissertation Open Access Statement by Trevor Owens, July 22
The American Historical Association published a Statement on Policies Regarding the Embargoing of Completed History PhD Dissertations. I found myself wishing that there was some kind of bizaro world AHA. I imagine this bizarro world AHA might have made remarks based on these bullet points. These are just a rough draft. I encourage others to refine and further develop them.
So I was shocked when I saw that the Executive Council for my professional organization had released a new policy on the Embargoing of Completed History PhD Dissertations. You can read the full text here. The upshot is that they recommend a six-year embargo on your dissertation to ensure that you have an opportunity to appeal to a publisher for a book contract. The response from the history community, particularly the public history and digital history communities, has been vociferous. See Trevor Owen’s bizzaro AHA world for a particularly comedic take on the issue.
My immediate response to this was astonishment that the AHA council hadn’t done a survey of its members to ask for comment on the policy prior to the vote. That there was no statistics or citations to back their positions: 1) that a book is the terminus for historians and 2) that publishers aren’t willing to entertain publishing a dissertation that had been released as open access. The list of assumptions embedded in that policy statement is too long to recount here but I do want to offer my own personal story of why I think this policy is bad for our profession.
“Do Open Access Electronic Theses and Dissertations Diminish Publishing Opportunities in the Social Sciences and Humanities? Findings from a 2011 Survey of Academic Publishers,” by Marisa L. Ramirez et al
An increasing number of higher education institutions worldwide are requiring submission of electronic theses and dissertations (ETDs) by graduate students and are subsequently providing open access to these works in online repositories. Faculty advisors and graduate students are concerned that such unfettered access to their work could diminish future publishing opportunities. This study investigated social sciences, arts, and humanities journal editors’ and university press directors’ attitudes toward ETDs. The findings indicate that manuscripts that are revisions of openly accessible ETDs are always welcome for submission or considered on a case-by-case basis by 82.8 percent of journal editors and 53.7 percent of university press directors polled.