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

On December 18 Inside Higher Ed (IHE) ran a story on the recent statement by the Organization of American Historians (OAH), which has joined the American Historical Association in recommending that universities give doctoral students the ability to opt out of online distribution of their dissertation for a reasonable period of time while they prepare their scholarship for print publication. 

We are gratified that the OAH has joined the AHA arguing that PhD candidates ought to have a choice in how their work is disseminated in the digital environment. While pleased with the OAH’s statement, I remain dismayed by the continued misrepresentation of the AHA’s position by the press. The AHA is not pushing for embargos, or even recommending that students embargo their work. On the IHE’s website, I offered a mild correction of fact in the comments section, referring readers to the Q&A related to the AHA statement:

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.

Misrepresentation of the AHA’s position has been rampant. Debate is good. These are important conversations. But let’s at least get the facts right.

In addition, the article in College & Research Libraries that is once again cited should be read beyond the abstract. For an in-depth look at how the data in that article suggest that publishers are still wary, and even outright dismissive, of dissertations that have been distributed online, see William Cronon’s essay for AHA Today.

Moreover, advocating choice with regard to digital dissemination of scholarship is not a “reactionary” position. In fact, it is largely consistent with the open access policy for professors adopted by the University of California (UC), which allows authors to opt out if free online dissemination interferes with their publication plans.

Even further, the AHA and OAH’s position is also largely consistent with the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOIA), which recommends that all dissertations be made open via an institutional repository, but also insists on an opt-out policy. As section 1.2 of the BOIA states, “At the request of students who want to publish their work, or seek a patent on a patentable discovery, policies should grant reasonable delays rather than permanent exemptions.” We can quibble about what constitutes “reasonable,” but the principle is the same, whether we are talking about the OAH statement, the AHA statement, the UC policy, or the BOIA framework. Authors should have some control over their work.

Neither the AHA nor the OAH is suggesting, by the way, that students be permitted to make their dissertations utterly inaccessible. Free and immediate digital download is not the only form of access. The larger point here is important: we should not be thinking about “pro” vs. “anti” open access; we should be thinking about the many different ways in which new technologies enable us to broaden accessibility to scholarship.

There is much else in the IHE article that deserves commentary. It is ludicrous, for example, to argue that the AHA has not been “advocating that the history PhD is a versatile and relevant degree for leaders in a range of leadership roles.” Any reader of Perspectives on History (the AHA’s newsmagazine) is well aware of our widespread advocacy on just this point, including a substantial collaborative project with the Modern Language Association oriented towards broadening the career horizons of history PhDs. Nor is the AHA ignoring librarians who are thinking in new ways about open access: our annual meeting next month includes a session on just that topic, and one of the panelists is the executive director of the Association of College and Research Libraries.

Along those same lines, contra an assertion quoted in the IHE article, the AHA statement does not say that history is now and will continue to be a book-based discipline. It says, “History has been and remains a book-based discipline.” This is not the same. Some will say it is close enough; others will disagree. But let’s get it right. And let’s look at what the AHA has actually said about products of historians that aren’t books.

As for the AHA working to, as quoted in the IHE article, “sustain a broken system whereby book publishers largely make or break the tenure cases of the small number of history PhDs who make it into a small number of tenure track faculty positions,” the AHA has not ignored the growth and significance of activities other than book publication that ought to be considered as serious historical work. Rather, over the past two decades the AHA has published forward-looking guidelines on evaluation of other forms of dissemination of historical work (see “Redefining Historical Scholarship,” “Suggested Guidelines for Evaluating Digital Media Activities in Tenure, Review, and Promotion,” and “Tenure, Promotion, and the Publicly Engaged Academic Historian”) and is in the process of updating the guidelines for assessment of digital work. Historians regularly use these to make the case for an expanded definition of productivity—which is exactly what was intended.

In addition, I do not consider it productive to cast our colleagues at university presses as the devils in a drama of good and evil. The AHA is committed to working for and with a wide variety of stakeholders in a very complex ecosystem: historians working in diverse professional venues, librarians, publishers, archivists (our partners in the National Coalition for History), journalists, and the many individuals who simply love to read and think about the past.

Most important, we welcome debate on all of these issues. But let’s get the facts right about what the AHA has said, and what we have not said. About what we are doing, and what we are not doing.

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