American Historical Association Says Scholars Should Lock Up Their Dissertations For Up To Six Years
from the tenure-committees-and-publishers-are-the-real-artifacts dept
For years, scientific research funded with tax dollars has been consigned to a sterile life locked up behind publishers' paywalls. The argument is that paywall fees fund scholarship, and without these fees, no one would be properly incentivized to... well, lock up published research behind paywalls. (Roughly paraphrased from journal publishers' defense of their business model.)
That's the scientific end of the spectrum: publicly-funded research locked away from the public eye in order to benefit the slim minority that can afford access. Sadly, historical dissertations aren't meant to be shared with the public either, at least not according to the American Historical Society, which recently released this statement in support of embargoing online copies of PhD dissertations.
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.Six years seems like an arbitrarily long time to lock up dissertations. The AHA points out that many universities are shifting towards a "paperless" library of dissertations and encouraging completed works to be published online where they can be accessed by anybody. That sounds more ideal than a six-year embargo. What's the AHA's rationale?
[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.This may be true. Of course, it also may be true that readers, online or not, will feel no need to buy the book one way or the other. The other difference, which the AHA addresses, is that the book and the dissertation are often significantly dissimilar, as the dissertation is refined over a number of years before being considered book-ready. This would seem to indicate that an online dissertation would not displace a significant number of book sales. But the AHA feels otherwise:
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.This seems to argue two things at once, and this bizarre argument isn't entirely of the AHA's making. Publishers consider the two (book/dissertation) to be competitors despite the "five or six years" of revision and preparation. Tenure committees view only the published work (read: book) as the true end product.
So, there are two forces at work here, and both are holding back the dissemination of information. Publishers are reluctant to offer publication to scholars whose works (even in "draft" form) are available for free online. Tenure committees insist that only books are the "true" measure of scholarly competence. This handily places all of the power in publishers' hands.
The AHA's statement doesn't help diffuse this concentration of power.
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. 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.That first sentence isn't strictly true -- although it is accurate. History remains a book-based discipline only because tenure committees won't move on from their "if it's not a published book, it doesn't count" metric. And that's the real problem. It's the tenure committees who are stuck in the past, and their reluctance to revise their standards to meet current realities is allowing publishers to control the circulation of published dissertations.
Forward-thinking universities are moving to online catalogs and encouraging scholars to upload their dissertations and make them openly available. These efforts are undercut by the stasis of their tenure committees -- the entity most in need of change. In AHA's defense, recommending authors embargo their work makes sense, but only because the tenure process insists on scholars delivering something in book form in order to be considered.
Unfortunately, it is in these scholars' best interests to play by the rules if they wish pursue tenure, and the AHA's statement diplomatically lays out the facts and recommends the best course of action considering the screwed up processes involved. But the AHA might better serve its members in the future by pushing for tenure committees to update their review process, rather than allowing them to continue demanding the future adhere to the standards of the past.