Inside Higher Ed: Embargoes for Dissertations?

By Scott Jaschik, for Inside Higher Ed

July 29, 2013

The American Historical Association has released a policy calling on history departments and university libraries to allow students to place embargoes on the online versions of PhD dissertations in the field for up to six years.

The association says that such a policy is needed to enable new PhD graduates to successfully publish books based on their dissertations. But some historians are upset about the proposal, which they say isn’t needed and runs counter to the scholarly mission of sharing research findings.

The statement contains some phrases - such as “history has been and remains a book-based discipline” - that were infuriating to those trying to promote digital scholarship and non-traditional forms of disseminating knowledge.

One historian posted a comment on the AHA site saying of the draft policy: “Stupid and stunting. The AHA should be recommending that departments change how they grant tenure - citation should matter not publication.” Another wrote: “What a foolish policy! The AHA was founded in the 19th century and is determined to remain there.”

Still others, however, asserted that the AHA was responding to a genuine challenge facing some scholars.

Historically, doctoral granting institutions have required copies of dissertations to be placed in the university library, so these documents have not been embargoed. But most of these library shelves haven’t attracted much foot traffic, let alone the kind of traffic that digital copies enable. More recently, many universities have embraced some or all of the open access movement, requiring digital copies to be made available.

The AHA proposed policy explains the problem this way: “[A]n 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.” The AHA is proposing that students designate that the digital versions of their dissertations be embargoed, but that PhD students who take that option again be required to deposit a hard copy in the university library.

“History has been and remains a book-based discipline, and the requirement that dissertations be published online poses a tangible threat to the interests and careers of junior scholars in particular,” the statement says. “Many universities award tenure only to those junior faculty who have published a monograph within six years of receiving the PhD. With the online publication of dissertations, historians will find it increasingly difficult to persuade publishers to make the considerable capital investments necessary to the production of scholarly monographs.”

Much of the debate that has turned up online about the proposed policy focuses on whether the AHA is exaggerating the danger to new PhDs of having their dissertations online.

The policy of Manchester University Press, in Britain, is being cited as evidence that presses do worry about publishing books based on dissertations that are available online. “Because PhD theses are increasingly freely and widely available in digital repositories, our policy is that we will not consider books based on theses for publication unless they are of exceptionally high quality and broad appeal, have been expanded significantly, and have been rewritten and restructured for a wider audience,” says a statement on the website of the press.

But others have come forward to suggest that such attitudes - while perhaps once dominant - have changed, and are likely to change some more.

Sherman Dorn, professor and chair of psychological and social foundations at the University of South Florida, asked on the AHA website: “Is the AHA statement based on real publisher behavior or on AHA gray eminence perception only?” He was among several who cited a study published in the journal College & Research Libraries that explored the question of whether journal and book publishers are hesitant to accept work based on digitally available dissertations. The study found that while there are indeed publishers who have the attitudes feared by the AHA, many do not.

The abstract of the article states: “The findings indicate that manuscripts that are revisions of openly accessible ETDs [electronic theses and dissertations] 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.”

James Grossman, executive director of the AHA, said in an interview that the article showed that there are still many presses that do punish those whose dissertations are online. He stressed that the AHA wanted to be sure graduate students “have the choice” to embargo their dissertations. But they could also ignore that option, he said.

Asked about the criticism that the AHA was defending an outdated system, Mr Grossman said that he was hearing reaction both in favour and against the AHA policy. And he said that the AHA was trying to be realistic. “We’re trying to help our students deal with the world as it exists,” he said. “And the world as it exists means that for many people filing PhDs, they are in a difficult situation.”

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