Q&A on the AHA’s Statement on Embargoing of History Dissertations

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. Former AHA President William Cronon offers further elucidation on this statement here. We welcome further discussion on this issue.

 

Is the AHA recommending that students embargo their dissertations?

No. The AHA is recommending that universities adopt flexible policies that will allow newly minted PhDs to decide for themselves whether or not to embargo their dissertations.

 

What evidence does the AHA have to support the claim that “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”? 

This statement is based on direct communications between some AHA members and the acquisitions editors of several presses. In those communications, certain editors expressed the strong conviction that junior scholars placed their chances for a publishing contract at risk if their dissertations had been posted online for any length of time. Since the AHA’s statement was published, several more historians have come forward with accounts of editors recommending against immediate online publication.

Many critics of the AHA statement have cited a survey reported in a recent article in College & Research Libraries that, they claim, suggests the AHA’s concern is overblown. However, and despite the fact that the survey’s authors find encouragement in the finding that 43.9 percent of university press publishers would consider electronically published dissertations on a “case-by-case basis,” only 9.8 percent of university press respondents considered these dissertations to be “always welcome.” On the other hand, 14.6 percent would consider manuscripts only if they were not already published electronically (7.3 percent) or if they were limited to the campus where they were completed (7.3 percent). In addition, these authors admit, “our study does seem to indicate that the ‘smaller’ university presses and journals may view ETDs [electronic theses and dissertations] as a threat to their bottom line, and thus may not publish works derived from ETDs.”

There still seems to be enough resistance to electronic publishing of dissertations to justify giving students the ability to opt out, if they choose.

 

Don’t embargoes of dissertations primarily benefit book publishers?

No; embargoes, in certain circumstances, primarily benefit junior scholars. All historians should have the opportunity to revise their work before it is published. Some scholars might want to include additional archival material, shorten their historiographical analysis, or otherwise make their work suitable for publication. It does these scholars a disservice to insist that they must post online unrevised work that, in certain fundamental respects, is incomplete.

 

Why isn’t the AHA fighting for recognition of other forms of scholarship in hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions?   

The AHA has long supported flexible standards to determine scholarly distinction and achievement. Please see, for example, “Redefining Historical Scholarship,” “Suggested Guidelines for Evaluating Digital Media Activities in Tenure, Review, and Promotion,” and “Tenure, Promotion, and the Publicly Engaged Academic Historian.”

At the same time, we recognize that, like it or not, many junior faculty who want to achieve tenure today must produce a published monograph. This reality guides our statement on embargoes; we seek to protect the interests of historians who are junior scholars. Looking forward, the AHA is appointing a committee to revise the guidelines for evaluating digital scholarship for tenure and promotion, and has created a new position, “director of scholarly communication and digital initiatives,” to play a central role in these efforts.

 

Is this statement a recommendation against making dissertations open access?

Again, newly minted PhDs will have to make that decision for themselves. We do object to institutions requiring that all dissertations go online immediately. Preparing a book for publication can be an arduous and time-consuming process. Some junior faculty will want to revise and refine their arguments and supporting documentation before introducing their work to the larger world of scholars. We believe that they should have the option to do so.

 

Don’t dissertation embargoes stifle innovation and open discussion of scholarship? 

We believe that it is up to the historian to decide when and if his or her scholarship is distributed to the larger scholarly community. Presumably most dissertations will be posted online; even those embargoed dissertations would be available within six years. Most historians, regardless of the stage of their careers, want control over the dissemination of their scholarship. To insist that scholars, and especially junior scholars, distribute their work online before they believe it is finished does little to advance innovation and open discussion. And such an insistence might foreclose the possibility of a good dissertation someday becoming an excellent book.

Back to Top

Leave a Reply

Comment

* Required field

  1. Dr. Jessica Brannon-Wranosky

    My response: @AHAhistorians stmnt on Diss embargo.

    PhD’s on the market for their first job and/or first publishing contract are a disfranchised group, period. The reality is that open access endangers their academic viability. I began investigating and agitating on this specific topic as far back as 2008, when it came to my attention as a PhD candidate. I gathered names of academic editors and library administrators willing to go on record about the realities of their financial inability to publish/purchase books based largely on openly accessible dissertations. I think open access has a fabulous realm of current and potential uses and purposes. Yet, requiring open access of academic work is a luxury for those with jobs, with tenure, without the need of tenure, or fields not book based. Newly minted PhDs in history often do not fall into any of these categories. Before any stones are thrown, I am a supporter and practitioner of the field of digital humanities, and I am a digital media author. I am not a Luddite; I am a realist. The reality is books are needed for tenure in history, and it is not reasonable to expect those with so much at stake, and without job security, to shoulder a burden that does not show signs of industry wide change in the near future. There is an ever-present frustration with large professional organizations not supporting the graduate student or newly minted PhD condition of existence, but this is not one of those cases. I applaud the AHA for this statement as a stopgap for the interim to allow new faculty members to survive academically until we, historians as part of the larger academia, figure out how to incorporate open access into each discipline’s industry norms and future.

    Reply
  2. Ann Twinam

    I am a Latin American historian at the University of Texas, and yes, AHA President, Jackie Jones is a much-appreciated colleague. Since I arrived at UT in 2004 I have been on more then forty committees and I approach this issue with a great concern for these students. We need more truth-in-lending (or maybe more truth-in-carping) here. Those who support the policy of open access dissertations should consider whether they would be so adamantly for it, if it risked their career as an academic. It is very easy to support open access if your professional life might not be on the line.

    Times have changed and they are changing. Certain things do not—very few dissertations are ready to be published. Especially in history, students need more research, much rewriting, and even more rethinking. It is simply wrong not to provide a way for those graduate students and assistant professors who want to revise to be able to protect their early work so they might eventually present their best efforts to their colleagues and to the public.

    A darker note—there are a number of young scholars who have had key ideas simply “stolen” without attribution before publication. Putting original material online just begs for such theft.

    Young scholars need protection for the first few years if they request it. We are not scientists where citation-counts determine who succeeds and who does not—as many have eloquently pointed out; tenure is difficult to impossible in many institutions without a monograph.

    Would I change much in academe? You betcha. However, both to protect young careers and ongoing research, in this instance the AHA has made the right decision.

    Reply
  3. Ann Twinam

    I am a Latin American historian at the University of Texas, and yes, AHA President, Jackie Jones is a much-appreciated colleague. Since I arrived at UT in 2004 I have been on more than forty committees and I approach this issue with a great concern for these students. We need more truth-in-lending (or maybe more truth-in-carping) here. Those who support the policy of open access dissertations should consider whether they would be so adamantly for it, if it risked their career as an academic. It is very easy to support open access if your professional life might not be on the line.

    Times have changed and they are changing. Certain things do not—very few dissertations are ready to be published. Especially in history, students need more research, much rewriting, and even more rethinking. It is simply wrong not to provide a way for those graduate students and assistant professors who want to revise to be able to protect their early work so they might eventually present their best efforts to their colleagues and to the public.

    A darker note—there are a number of young scholars who have had key ideas simply “stolen” without attribution before publication. Putting original material online just begs for such theft.

    Young scholars need protection for the first few years if they request it. We are not scientists where citation-counts determine who succeeds and who does not—as many have eloquently pointed out; tenure is difficult to impossible in many institutions without a monograph.

    Would I change much in academe? You betcha. However, both to protect young careers and ongoing research, in this instance the AHA has made the right decision.

    Reply
  4. Pingback: To embargo or not to embargo, that is the question | Skulking in Holes and Corners

  5. Gene B. Preuss

    I’m really glad to see the AHA bring this problem to light. I was just discussing this problem with my very first history professor who was in Houston for a presentation, and just served for 10 years as the chair of a large mid-western history department.

    I brought it up because my wife, who just finished her dissertation a few years ago ran into problems trying to publish it. Although my dissertation found a home at the same press, the editor said it’s now their policy not to publish a dissertation that’s available electronically.

    We thought this was peculiar to my press, so at the January AHA, we went to about 8 different university presses and were told exactly the same thing: Not only do they not want your dissertation, they don’t want a revision, unless it’s substantial, and with a different thesis from your disserataion!

    I was fortunate, as I graduated, my university had just implemented a mandatory electronic dissertation policy. Candidates had NO choice, and we didn’t know that university presses would begin adopting the policy.

    The fact is that the biggest purchaser of published dissertations are libraries, and if libraries won’t purchase a bound book of something they can get electronically, a university press–most of which are hanging on by a thread anyway–won’t have any incentive to publish something that no one will buy because they can download it on ProQuest.

    Now the newly minted PhD gets a tenure-track job and must publish. The tenure and promotion committee is made up of people who weren’t in the quandry, and they think, “Just publish the revised dissertation.” Now it doesn’t work that way, but changing their attitudes and beliefs is a sea change, indeed! So the tenure-track professor has to start with new research, a new thesis, etc. all the while hard pressed against their first review.

    So, THANK YOU AHA for taking a stand, and bringing this Catch 22 situation to light. Maybe we will have that sea change in tenure and promotion commmittees once they see the problem as it is.

    Reply
  6. Sean Takats

    “A darker note—there are a number of young scholars who have had key ideas simply “stolen” without attribution before publication. Putting original material online just begs for such theft.”

    No, it doesn’t. Copyright is copyright, whether it’s dissertation or a book. Or a blog post for that matter. And professional standards are professional standards, in either case.

    Putting your work out there, under your own name, is the best way to assert ownership of ideas, not by cowering behind an embargo.

    Reply
  7. Pingback: Embargoing digital dissertations: A round-up of the discussion so far | History@Work

  8. Brian Cockburn

    To reply to the darker note. Copyright does not protect ideas, just the tangible expression of those ideas. It is possible and likely, that examples of new ideas have been usurped and used by others before the originator of that idea has had a chance to fix that idea into a fixed form.

    Reply
  9. Shelley Arlen

    As a long-time librarian, I offer this information. The requirement to make a dissertation available to anyone (online, on microfilm, or in print copy) goes against academic practice at a number of universities. The embargo practice has been going on for many years. PhD candidates in the sciences do this regularly to protect any possible patents they are working on, and those who write creative works–novels or short stories– do this as well. Social scientists often embargo their work for a number of years to protect the privacy of their informants. An anthropologist friend of mine embargoed his NYU dissertation to restrict access to sensitive and secret information on Native American religion.
    My request for a copy of a digitized dissertation from Oxford was met with a requirement to get the author’s permission (I eventually tracked the author down and was given a copy.) If you check ProQuest Dissertations Online, you will note that a number of the works are not available online, or they provide only an abstract. And, yes, some are embargoed due to intentions to publish. Here is the ProQuest statement regarding a 2012 diss. from Stanford: “At the request of the author, this graduate work is not available to view or purchase.”
    There are many reasons not to make dissertations available immediately after completion. The practice is not unusual.

    Shelley Arlen
    U.S./British History Librarian
    University of Florida Libraries

    Reply
  10. Pingback: AHA Statement on Policies Regarding the Embargoing of Completed History PhD Dissertations

  11. Pingback: What We’re Reading: #AHAgate

  12. Pingback: Juvenile Instructor » Troubling the AHA’s Embargo Waters

  13. Pingback: Can’t Find It, Can’t Sign It: On Dissertation Embargoes | Project PINOCCHIO50

  14. Pingback: Just Bust a Move | s-usih.org

  15. Pingback: Open Access – Access to What? | historywomble

  16. Tom Glynn

    Does AHA know of any institution that *requires* their students to publish their dissertation online? Most, I suspect all, allow them to embargo already, although embargoing is usually not the default. In fact, I don’t think it would be legal to require online publication. Students own copyright to their dissertations, not the university.

    Reply
  17. Pingback: Some Thoughts on Digital Dissertations | The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

  18. Pingback: On Embargoing Dissertations | Brenden W. Rensink, Ph.D.

  19. Pingback: Speculative Diction | The stakes in (no) change: The AHA and academic careers | University Affairs

  20. Pingback: Embargos, Miranda, and Khaaaannn! - The Edge of the American West - The Chronicle of Higher Education

  21. Pingback: Some Mild Corrections: On the Press Coverage of the OAH and AHA Statements on Dissertations

  22. Pingback: Publishing Dissertations on the Internet | Diaspora Hypertext, the Blog