E-dissertation embargoes in the NYTimes

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?

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.

But…

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?

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4 Responses to E-dissertation embargoes in the NYTimes

  1. As a Ph.D. in a humanities discipline (not history), I can say that fear of public humiliation is a big factor in desiring an embargo. The dissertation isn’t really your work. It belongs largely to your committee, and you write things to satisfy your committee members, even if they aren’t things that you would choose to include. When I finished my Ph.D. 15 years ago, I embargoed my dissertation in UMI. I didn’t like my dissertation. I remember thinking that in 3 years I would either have a record of publication that would represent me to the world or that I would be teaching composition in a community college where publication didn’t really matter.
    I sometimes now teach graduate students in library and information science, and most of their online work is done in “private” spaces (Blackboard and similar online learning systems). When I suggest that they might want to make their work public, they are generally resistant. It’s one thing to selectively post work you’re proud of; it’s quite another to post everything. Open access — where everything you “publish” is available to everyone — may be natural for some people, but it’s not natural for a lot of us.
    That said, of course there’s a possibility that things will change. One of the changes is for institutions to require that theses and dissertation be made available immediately. When and only when that becomes the norm will students agree that that’s how it should be. There’s a huge sense of “I did it, so you have to” in academic disciplines. I had a total of 12 hours of written exams plus a three hour oral defense to move to the dissertation stage, so you should have to as well — anything else would be watering the system down (although of course we can always add more hoops to jump through!). Once students start saying “I put my dissertation online, so you should have to put your dissertation online,” open access has won.

  2. jrochkind says:

    Thanks Danielle, that’s interesting information from someone who has been there before.

    But let’s be clear, when you say “it’s one thing to selectively post work you’re proud of, it’s quite another to post everything” — that’s a different discussion than what we’re talking about here, right? We’re not talking about ‘everything’, we’re talking about dissertations, which theoretically are the written product culminating years of studies, demonstrating your mastery of and original contribution to a field, thereby resulting in a doctorate being awarded. Talking about making dissertations publicly available is very much not talking about ‘everything’.

    The reasons you point out that someone might nonetheless not like their dissertation or think their dissertation accurately represents their scholarship — because they had to please a dissertation committee maybe — are interesting, and maybe give us sympathy for the graduate who wants to hide their dissertation (they probably want to hide it forever if they could, in those circumstances, no?). Still, a system that results in many PhD’s who hate their own dissertatations and don’t think they accurately represent their work — is a pretty darn broken academic system, isn’t it?

    But I think that’s the subtext of the nytimes article. The _real_ reasons people don’t want their dissertations to be available aren’t the ones they are saying; the real reasons remain mostly unsaid, because to say them would reveal some embarrassing things about the whole academic system.

    When you say that “one of the changes is for institutions to require that theses and dissertation be made available immediately” — that’s of course what the NYTimes article is about. Some institutions are moving in that direction — and the American Historical Association just published a statement urging them not to.

  3. I agree that the academic system is broken, which was one of the reasons why I decided to go back to grad school and become a librarian, instead of a professor!

  4. jrochkind says:

    Uh oh, have you discovered yet how broken libraries are as insitutions too?

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