Notes toward a Bizarro World AHA Dissertation Open Access Statement

Bizarrow World AHA is totally into Open Access
Bizarro World AHA would be totally into Open Access

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.

  1. Assert that the scholarly society’s goals are for the proliferation of knowledge not the proliferation of a particular kind of media (like monographs) or a particular business model (like selling academic monographs, primarily to university libraries).
  2. Thank doctoral students who have made their dissertations accessible to anyone for supporting the value of sharing their research.
  3. Note that dissertations are fundamentally different than the books a university press might edit, develop and revise based on them. Beyond that, assert that open access to dissertations in no way compete with books that are developed from dissertations.
  4. Explain that the scholarly society would speak out against publishers who decided to blackball scholars who had made their dissertations publicly accessible through their universities repositories.
  5. Suggest that it is fundamentally problematic that the tenure and promotion of historians is based directly on the commercial viability of academic books. Where scholars in other disciplines often control the primary means of tenure (journal articles) in fields like history that rely on book publication those decisions are (in large part) made by academic presses.
  6. Call for members of the association to explore, and encourage the development of new models for the review and evaluation of a wide range of historical work, particularly those that make scholarship as widely accessible as possible.
  7. Note that it is a fundamental problem that career development for historians in the academy is focused on the production of books that are read by few people and encourage the community of historians to refocus their energy on how they can produce historical work that people will read and can have an impact on society.



20 Replies to “Notes toward a Bizarro World AHA Dissertation Open Access Statement”

  1. Thanks for articulating some things we’re feeling but are too tired to write down this evening.

    BTW, I would love to be thanked for publishing my dissertation!

    Anyway, one other piece that I’ve noticed is that this statement seems to resurrect divisions I thought were disappearing between different types of history work, such as between “academic” historians employed at universities and public historians who are working in museums, libraries, archives, et al. It seems to assert that AHA is society working only for tenure-track teaching faculty. And that has been their core membership for many years, but it seems as if this statement further cements that commitment.

  2. All good suggestions. But like so many of our DH colleagues, I think you forgot the thank you. Thank you to the AHA for considering the career progression needs of young scholars. I’m starting to see more can be done from within these organizations with a ‘yes, but…’ than with a brazen defiance of the status quo. We’re all on the same team. Softly softly.

  3. Good point Adam. It’s a brief quick post and it would have been good to thank them for thinking about early career historians. I agree that it comes from a heart being in the right place. I remain a fan of the AHA, which is why this reads as rather frustrated.

  4. By the time we get to 5, 6, and 7, you are asking for many of the fundamental aspects of the current professional world of academics to change, and the grounding reason–providing open access to dissertations–is a pretty thin base to stand on for such massive changes. We need more arguments about why books are bad and make information unavailable, given how long we have relied on books to do exactly the opposite, and how few historians regularly complain that they can’t get the books they want for their research. Even if there is some (contested) evidence that OA journal articles get wider distribution than subscription ones, I have yet to see any evidence that OA books get wider distribution than ones that pay. The publishers I speak to tell me that in general books made out of widely-available dissertations do not sell as well as others. (They also tell me that books made up of too many published articles do not sell as well as others.) You are asking for a great deal of stuff to be turned upside-down for a very small benefit.

    And look which side you end up on: the side of telling people what they have to do. The AHA statement only says that graduate students should not be denied the choice to do what is best for each student. It is politically odd to be championing freedom by insisting that things be done only one way. Go ahead and argue that people should put their dissertations online immediately, that it’s good for them, etc.–but that is different from arguing that students should be denied the choice to do with their own (inherently) copyrighted research what they see fit. That is a fundamental right each person currently has, and I’d need to see much more robust argumentation for why we should open ask to lose it.

  5. @withheld I realize I’m asking for some fundamental aspects of the professional world to change. Personally, I think it’s in the best interest of the profession to step back every once and a while and say “forget how we do things now, given the communication mediums we have at hand, what would be the best way for us to do our work.” That is part of what I am trying to do here.

    To your point about having to make your dissertation open access vs. deciding on making your dissertation open access. Your right. It’s different, but the defaults matter a lot in these kinds of systems. If the professional organization says they are thrilled with 6 year embargoes those become the defaults. If the organization reluctantly acknowledged they were being held hostage by six year embargoes it has a different effect. For reference, think about how mathematics has changed and how the publishers have responded to the change in practice of the mathematicians.

  6. I think that the important thing is that a recommendation from the AHA is not just an idle thought. It becomes normative for the discipline and grad students in history who want to publish their dissertations online will have this used against them. Moreover it validates sloppy process on tenure committees by reassuring them that there is no need to reexamine their practice in light of what is clearly a non-trivial intellectual and methodological movement that believes strongly in Open and Public Research.

    In my view it is this last that makes the AHA’s position disgraceful. By “recommending” the “optional” embargo to grad students rather than recommending that T&P committees be sensitive to different approaches to Open Access, it places the burden of accommodation on the backs of the more vulnerable group.

  7. No one has so far made a cogent argument for why someone else has a right to see my copyrighted unpublished work *before* I can publish it or make it available in the format that I feel comfortable with.

    Whether or not presses are squeamish is I think subsidiary to this point. Even if 100% of presses will publish work available online, you cannot force me to make my work available online. Let each person decide for herself/himself on her/his timeline how and when to publish her/his own work. Your curiosity does not trump my control of my own work.

  8. @YouDontHaveARight: A few points on this.

    1) I’ve yet to hear about policies that actually require every student at an institution to make their thesis public when they turn it in. That is, I’ve yet to hear about organizations that are not allowing their students to embargo their dissertations. So you have to ask, if there isn’t actually a problem here, what is it that is being reacted to? In practice, the statement has a chilling effect making it seem that any reasonable student would want to embargo their dissertation because that is just what one does.

    2) Theses have always been public to some extent. The defense is supposed to be a public presentation of one’s work and copies of dissertations are available through inter-library-loan. Aside from that, copies of dissertations make their way into Proquest’s database. In short, defending a dissertation is supposed to result in the dissemination of scholarship. This is to say that requiring people to distribute their work has been a part of the process for a long time.

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