Note: I welcome this opportunity to expound more fully on a few quotes from me in a New York Times piece about the AHA statement. You can find my Storify of the debates on Twitter and in the blogosphere related to the statement here. It is also worth reminding readers that the opinions in our pieces are those of the author and not of the blog as a whole.
A recent policy recommendation by the AHA on the embargoing of dissertations—i.e., limiting online access and distribution for a specified period of time—has created quite a stir in the blogosphere and on Twitter. Many are criticizing the AHA for a reactionary policy that concedes the status quo, i.e., the undue influence and interest of university presses in hiring and tenure decisions and the profession’s overall laxity in adapting to the digital revolution.
Let me be clear from the outset: I am not defending the AHA’s statement, per se. It does indeed ignore the broader issue of what the AHA intends to do about the long-term, systemic problem of the profession’s transition into the digital era, more generally. I am, however, going to defend the policy of allowing students the option to embargo.
The profession is in a liminal moment. That is, while the rest of society and many professions have moved into the digital realm, the academic history profession has not. Historians have taken it upon themselves to bring our work and other perspectives into the digital world. There are exciting new digital history projects being created all the time. But the administrative structure of the profession (i.e., universities, departments, university presses, and professional organizations) has been much slower to adapt to the digital environment. This disconnect between practicing academic historians and the administrative structure of the profession has led to some of the frustrations with the AHA and the profession, more generally.
The AHA’s embargo policy is trying to balance two competing interests: promoting the open availability and sharing of knowledge and the professional interests of its junior members. However, much criticism has accused the AHA of “supporting,” “recommending,” or “proposing” that dissertations be embargoed “for six years.” Here is the opening of the statement:
“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.”
It seems that many have misread the statement. The policy recommends that departments and universities give students the option of whether to embargo their dissertation and for how long. In the statement, they claimed that university presses are reluctant to publish monographs that come from openly available dissertations. Many have called for the need for more than anecdotal evidence regarding this practice and I agree. That said, UMI’s “Guide 4: Embargoes & Restrictions” offers similar warnings regarding potential conflicts with academic publishers.
It is also worth keeping in mind that an embargo usually relates only to online distribution. Scholars and library users would still have access to many dissertations through ILL, as they have had for many years. An embargo is not about keeping research, dissertations, or knowledge permanently unavailable; it is about giving students the ability to protect their own professional interests in a situation that did not exist for previous generations of academic historians. And that need only increases as the job market continues its downward spiral. How free does information need to be to be considered “open?” Is something not “open” if it requires more than a Google search and a few mouse clicks to download it?
Surely graduate students should have the same control over their dissertations as other historians have over their manuscripts. An argument to the contrary, it seems to me, requires a justification of why that is not so. It is a bit surprising from a profession so attuned to issues of class that many have not seen any problem with those in the position to influence and direct such policy insisting that graduate students and recent unemployed, or underemployed PhDs be forced to give their work away for free before they’ve had the opportunity of reaping the benefits of that work.
Fortunately, my department does not require that we make our dissertations freely available but allows us the option (when submitting to UMI) of choosing to embargo for six months, one year, or two years. I am wholly in favor of making all our work as easily available as possible, but I am also a single-father of two young boys who is trying to make a career to support them. As a graduate student who hopes to get a monograph out of my dissertation, I will almost certainly embargo my dissertation from online distribution for 2 years. At the same time, however, I would be willing to share my dissertation (in digital form) with anyone who asked.
What I would not like is my department (or anyone else, for that matter) requiring that I distribute my work against my will, especially if it might have even the slightest chance of harming the career prospects that, by the time I finish my PhD (and including my undergraduate years), will have taken more than ten years to cultivate. The idealist in me wants the dissertation to be as easily available as possible to anyone who might want to read it, but the realist in me wants to make sure that I don’t do anything that might diminish my chances at making a career as an academic historian. It is a paradox that is indicative of the liminal situation I described above, one that puts graduate students and recent PhDs without a job or a first book published in a situation that previous generations of historians did not not experience.
As a graduate student, I appreciate the AHA taking our professional development into consideration and recommending that graduate students be allowed to control the distribution of their own work. For me, that is the practical crux of the issue: one’s control over their own work. After all, why should a graduate student (who has received no public funding of their work) have less control over their dissertation than established historians have over their book manuscripts? And why should established historians be able to dictate the terms of distribution of graduate students’ work?
All that said, as an academic history blogger and podcaster and a proponent of digital humanities, I am especially concerned with the profession becoming more digitally proactive and with issues of how we define the dissertation and the practices of hiring and tenure committees. Nevertheless, dealing with the present does not preclude one from also working toward improving the future. The AHA has done the former; now, it must do the latter.