Historians Seek a Delay in Posting Dissertations
By NOAM COHEN
Published: July 28, 2013
the American Historical Association last week… issued a statement calling on universities to allow newly minted Ph.D’s to “embargo” their dissertations for up to six years
Some details in the story suggest the reasons students have for wanting the embargo may not always be as straightforward as one might think, and may not be entirely clear to anyone.
Despite this clear explanation of motive and intention, a lot of fogginess remains in the arguments from all sides, beginning with the central question: Do university presses really care if a dissertation is available when they are publishing a thoroughly revised work years later?
A recent survey of university presses found a sliding scale of concern among executives who were asked about publishing work derived from a dissertation that was “openly available.” Depending on how the findings are interpreted, they could be worrisome — only 10 percent responded “always welcome” — or reassuring in that a large majority said they were open to giving such work a chance to impress.
Peter M. Berkery Jr., the executive director of the Association of American University Presses, said he spent a day quickly learning about the issue, which had not been on his radar, and came away confused by the stir.
He said he spoke to 15 heads of university presses, and “I haven’t found one person who has said if it is available open access, we won’t publish it.” Citing his own experience at Oxford University Press, he said that a book was necessarily an entirely different work from the dissertation that laid its groundwork, and is judged on its own terms.
Still, Professor Jones and others say they know directly from their students that there is pressure to keep material out of general distribution. As for the leaders of university presses, she said, “They don’t necessarily know what their acquisition editors know.”
To be sure, the people answering the survey at university presses may not be giving answers that actually match the presses behavior, for a variety of reasons.
Other arguments in defense of the graduate students put the august Ph.D in a less than flattering light.
Professor Jones and others described the dissertation as little more than a rough draft on the way to becoming a monograph, on which the hopes of academic tenure rest. When a new Ph.D decides to withhold her work, she is really saying to her professional colleagues, do not judge my research and analysis until I am ready to publish in print.
“Really, if my scholarly career was based on my dissertation I probably would be washing dishes at Denny’s,” she said, adding that, “four years later it was a good book.”
I suspect that student desire for the embargo is in part about fear of harming the market for a book version — it’s less clear if that fear is justified by behavior of publishers, and even if it is, if publisher behavior is justified by the actual market! (And to be clear, the concern for getting a book version pubished is not about the historian making money, few scholarly history books will; it’s about the prestige of doing so, hopefully leading to a job.)
But I suspect student desire for embargo is also about other things — including, apparently, an academic system in which, weirdly, people’s dissertations aren’t actually expected to be high-quality enough to represent them (they need another four years of post-grad work to turn the dissertation into that?). And, in general, just fear of change, of doing anything that might be unusual, that might for any reason upset your slim chances of academic career success in the first place.
To me, it’s just more indication of the broken nature of our current academic system, in just about all disciplines. The academic promotion system theoretically encourages scholars to share their work with the public — promotion is in theory based on publishing, the act of sharing your work with the public. But in fact, the current system discourages scholars from sharing their work with the public, from maximizing public exposure to their work, in different ways in different disciplines, but across most of them.
As one student says in closing on the article:
“It may look to us like a step back, but they have never stepped forward,” he said. “We still do the degrees in the way we did in the 1800s.”
What would an academic promotion system that encouraged wide sharing of one’s work with the public look like? Is there any chance of institutions changing in this way?