A PhD Student’s Case for Embargoes

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.

30 responses

  1. Very well put. In the prestige economy of higher ed, scholars with cultural capital to burn should not insist that the risks and costs of transitioning to a digital age be borne by those with the least cultural capital to spare.

    • As an independent historian in his 8th decade with no axe to grind re embargoing dissertations, let me tell a story directly relating to the controversy, on a subject not mentioned in today’s article in the New York Times (7/29, p.B6). In the summer of 1960 I took a course in archival and historical administration at Radcliffe, under the renowned Lester Cappon. At one session in the Harvard University Archives, the Archivist, the late Clifford Shipton, pointed at shelf after shelf of bound Ph.D dissertations — in red as I recall, but I may be wrong — and noted that Harvard College policy was to keep them private for a number of years — don’t recall how many but it was a good number — in order to give young scholars a chance to publish. He then told us the reason behind the policy. A young man, married with at least one child, finished his history dissertation and got his degree. But burdened with the pressures of family, life, finding a job, getting settled in his teaching profession, it was at least a few years until he was ready to publish. Meanwhile, an established scholar read the dissertation, which in some respects was ground breaking with new insights, and relatively quickly published a book based on the young historian’s findings. The young man was devastated and thereafter never attained his potential. Mr. Shipton said that was when Harvard established the “embargo” policy. Another argument, I believe, for the embargo. By the way, in the story in today’s Times the executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, “which favors open research,” was quoted as saying, “The thing that bothered us the most is that it was a one-dimensional response to a multidimensional issue, and a missed opportunity.” Isn’t that one Harry Truman called gobbldygook?

  2. My problem with the AHA statement is not that it supports the policy of providing a choice, but with the accompanying language and reasons:

    “…an 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 statement goes beyond being pro choice to being pro embargo. And it remains very unclear how accurate the statement is in regard to how “reluctant” University presses are to consider a (revised) dissertation for publication. Most of the evidence they enlist is anecdotal when there is also anecdotal evidence about people being excited for the publication of a book by someone whose dissertation is known to be really good (and already available). Like Michael, I support the policy of allowing the embargo (though I haven’t decided yet if I will use it), but don’t think the AHA should be raising fears unnecessarily unless they have real evidence that online availability is an actual problem.

    The fear that someone else might “scoop” your research and findings is a real concern. But at the same time, the online availability of your dissertation could publicly establish that you were in fact the first. So I’m curious to hear other people’s thought on that issue.

  3. Nic, the part you quote is the AHA trying to explain the reasoning behind the UP’s approach to openly available dissertations, not their own recommendation. Also, I think the AHA is raising awareness of a potential pitfall for junior scholars, not fear-mongering. It is important they do this precisely because we are not sure the degree to which this is occurring. Between the AHA and many commenters on various blog posts, it seems clear that this is an issue that some junior scholars are encountering. Why not be safer than sorry in trying to protect the profession’s most vulnerable practitioners in the midst of one of worst job markets in the profession’s history?

  4. Michael, these are fair points, and form a good grad student companion piece to the longer essay William Cronon published on the AHA website. I also agree that students should have a choice to embargo or not to embargo — if anything positive has come out of this debate, I think it’s the formation of a fairly broad consensus (on the part of the AHA’s critics and defenders) that the final say over access to student work should rest with the student. The most vulnerable should have the most control: L.D.’s summary is dead-on.

    That said, I share Nic’s concerns about the language of the AHA’s initial statement — they may be trying to explain university press concerns, but it really ends up sounding like they believe the logic of those anti-access concerns is evident to all. (It’s that damned leading “Presumably…”) As one commentator put it in response to Cronon’s essay, the AHA almost seems unaware that its views are not an independent descriptive statement about the workings of the profession; in fact, they carry normative force. Cronon’s piece and the FAQ that followed have clarified things a bit, but the wording of the initial statement remains. University presses inclined to take a strong anti-access line can now say, with some justification, that the major disciplinary organization in history has endorsed the idea that open-access dissertations do not deserve consideration to be published as books.

    In a debate characterized by anecdotal evidence on all sides, I figure I might as well toss up some of my own (I firmly believe in free open access to meaningless anecdote). My graduate advisor’s advice on the embargo was straightforward: no one ever got anywhere, he said, by hiding the gem. I don’t think he had a major ideological commitment to open access, but he did believe (as HUP has noted) that by making your work public, you attract valuable attention, and also (as Nic suggests) stake an initial claim to your findings that can’t be erased by another work. If you hide the gem in the cupboard, you gain neither attention nor precedent.

    So while I’m all in favor of allowing students to embargo their work, I’m not sure I would actually advise anyone else to do it.

    • “University presses inclined to take a strong anti-access line can now say, with some justification, that the major disciplinary organization in history has endorsed the idea that open-access dissertations do not deserve consideration to be published as books.”

      I actually don’t think they can say that with any justification whatsoever. What they can say is, “Look how much we are able to bend the profession to our will.” The AHA statement was not about approving of the practice, but simply of warning junior scholars about it and recommending graduate schools give them the choice of how to deal with it. The most disappointing thing about the whole debate has been the repeated mischaracterization of the AHA statement by its detractors, as I mentioned in the piece. I want to promote open access as well but not at the cost of my career or even a single book contract. As an ideal, I think most of us agree that it is better for our work to be available, I also think that there seems to be an unquestioning attitude toward open access when all the evidence we have of the benefits of open access is just as anecdotal as that against it.

      I mean, we’re talking about dissertations here. We complain about how nobody reads our books, how many are reading our dissertations? Enough that would justify the ruination of a few young careers for the open access ideal? Writing a dissertation is probably the least effective way of getting your work seen. We now have many other avenues for putting our scholarship before the public, of which The Junto and the podcast is one. More people read a single post on this blog than will probably read any of our dissertations in fifty years. I believe it is these alternative routes to making our scholarship public and available that will ultimately diminish the influence of the UPs not the availability or embargoing of academic dissertations.

    • “University presses inclined to take a strong anti-access line can now say, with some justification, that the major disciplinary organization in history has endorsed the idea that open-access dissertations do not deserve consideration to be published as books.”

      But university presses inclined to take a strong anti-access line already have more than enough reason to turn down first time authors if they are determined to do so. Many are already prevented from even considering a manuscript from a first time author unless it’s delivered in full. They certainly don’t need the AHA’s help to not publish books.

      I suspect that in 10 years time the statement will seem anachronistic. But it’s not anachronistic now; it’s essentially calling for students to think carefully about how they want to disseminate their work in a profession that still has a very specific hierarchy with regards to publication. Clearly that’s changing, and I expect the increasing prevalence of blogs and other types of digital publication may force a rethinking of what counts as scholarship (at least if historians want to maintain any sort of relevance to a wider reading public).

      That’s clearly not the case now, though, and I don’t think open access fundamentalism helps on this. Why should recent PhDs have to release the first draft of their manuscript, which has to be written to different criteria (and audience) than a book (and that’s also a problem for the discipline – we get trained to do something we will never do again), but senior scholars working on their magnum opus decide with whom and when to share their drafts?

      • Michael, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree about the wording of AHA’s initial statement, but really that’s a small matter of textual criticism compared to the larger agreement about the need for a right to embargo. (You guys have been following the debate more closely than me: are serious historian-types actually calling for an absolute end to all embargos? I hadn’t seen that.)

        On an individual level I’m not convinced that the risks of ‘hiding the gem’ outweigh the rewards, and as Caleb McDaniel and others have noted, the AHA statement may push people in that direction without much good evidence. (Or, maybe not: at this point, the backlash has been so strong that it may push people in the other direction). But either way, I don’t think for a second that students should be deprived of the decision.

  5. The recent discussion of the AHA statement on embargoing recently completed dissertations seems to me to strike at a fundamental question that divides our discipline – what, exactly, is the PhD degree? Is it, as the examination regulations would suggest, ‘a significant and substantial contribution in the particular field of learning within which the subject of the thesis falls’, or is it a vocational degree designed to prepare students for a career in academia? The answer is critical in establishing a response to the question of embargoes.

    If the pursuit of the PhD is primarily for the pursuit of knowledge, then it follows that access to the product of the degree – the substantial contribution to learning – is as wide and as open as possible. This would outweigh the notion that the dissertation is itself a work-in-progress; if the work is good enough for public examination, it is also good enough for public dissemination.

    Alternatively, if the PhD is primarily vocational, then historians should pursue whatever is in the best interest of the student finding a job. In this instance, an embargo designed to protect ideas while they are refined for the publications that will lead to a job and tenure is most reasonable – with the student being given the choice as to what sort of dissemination will benefit them most.

    • “If the work is good enough for public examination, it is also good enough for public dissemination.”

      I don’t think I agree with this, necessarily. The dissertation is a very different form of writing than a book manuscript. It is written with thoroughness in mind with an intended audience of one’s dissertation committee. I don’t know if I’d actually call that “public examination.” We’re often advised to write the dissertation as if it were a book (to minimize the amount of revisions necessary) but the fact that we have to be advised of that shows, in part, how we conceive of the dissertation differently than other forms of writing.

      As to your larger argument, the answer I think is: both. We are required to make an original contribution in order to achieve our professional credentials. That requires a balance. Speaking for myself only, I am doing a PhD with the main goal of establishing a career. That is why I think the practical immediate concerns of the individual outweigh the idealistic long-term goals of the profession.

      • Michael, I don’t know about your institution, but at Oxford the DPhil was a public examination that anyone would have been welcome to attend (at least if they’d been prepared to dress up in sub fusc!). That’s why I used the term – though in practice it’s only the examiners who show up, in theory it’s a defense of your expertise in front of a general audience.

        • Right, Ken. The examination here is public as well, but the dissertation is not made available online ahead of time to anyone wanting to attend. There’s a difference between being able to hear someone discuss a work and actually being able to read it.

      • As a professor involved in directing doctoral theses, I feel necessary to state the following: if a student told me that he/she wants to do a thesis mainly to advance one’s career, I would tell that student to look for a different director. Sorry to sound so harsh, but, imho, knowledge production is far more important than career advancement. And a budding academic career that exhibits poor priorities looks suspicious to me.

        An issue that should also be mentioned is that universities have lazily and unjustifiably outsourced evaluation criteria to presses (and journal titles) rather than doing a good job themselves.

        • I understand your position, Dr. Guédon, but, considering the job market, does not pursuing an advanced degree in History already show “poor priorities” on the part of the student, if indeed their primary goal is a career?

          I would hope that you could see why graduate students might be a bit suspicious of those already ensconced in their careers criticizing grad students for wanting any kind of similar security rather than being wholly dedicated to a lofty academic ideal.

          Lofty ideals tend to be harder to come by when you are a first-generation college student from a working or lower-class background and/or have to support a family with a graduate student stipend (and part-time job) that puts you just barely over the federal poverty line.

          Speaking only for myself, my goal is to make an original contribution AND to somehow forge a career and I am just as equally unwilling to potentially compromise my prospects of either. It’s not about choosing one or the other. Perpetuating those lofty ideals at the expense of acknowledging the fact that the PhD is indeed professional training is a good way to ensure that only those with independent means or wealth pursue advanced degrees in the field.

        • Your first paragraph is bizarre and hollow. How many graduate student applications have been accepted in your department which proclaimed little or no interest in a career of teaching or research? And what value do you add if your department’s PhD program is NOT the gateway to their careers?

          Of course the grad students want careers, and of course they want to write a great dissertation so that they can finish the degree, get a job, and start the path to tenure by publishing; and of course they are passionate about their field or they’d put the same time and energy into investment banking and make some serious money if an uninspired career was what they sought.

          “…imho, knowledge production is far more important than career advancement.” I would think that knowledge production is important FOR career advancement. How cynical it would be for anyone to think that the two can be mutually exclusive in academia. Indeed, the “publish or perish” mentality of most tenure committees would suggest otherwise.

    • Again, I support the idea that graduate students should be able to make the choice. But it is still unclear to me that an embargo is actually in their best interest, though the language of the AHA, Michael, and Ken seems to imply that it clearly is.

      • I’m not certain it is in the best interests of the student to embargo work, Nic. But I’m also not convinced that it isn’t. And I certainly think that universities deciding on open access policies tend to have the best interest of the university as a whole at heart, regardless of the implications for an individual student.

      • Ken is right about the interests of the student vs. the university. I think we all accept that we don’t have enough information to really know for sure how detrimental open access is or how beneficial emabrgoing is (or vice versa). My point is that, with that lack of knowledge, it’s better for vulnerable graduate students to be safe than sorry.

  6. Good quote: “Academics almost by definition are delayed-gratification specialists, but still.” I have to say, I’m a bit surprised by this controversy. Of course students should have a choice on whether their diss. can be immediately available. And of course they can quit a grad program whenever they want. But if a PhD doesn’t want people to read their dissertation, it likely isn’t very good, and they will struggle in a highly competitive field. As an editor of a series at an academic press, we don’t care at all if the diss. is available, because we aren’t publishing the diss, but an improved, strengthened version that we can have a role in shaping (which gratifies, at the least.) We do not, on the other hand, like manuscripts in which substantial portions have already been published (i.e. peer reviewed journals or book chapters) As a scholar, I always like to cite the latest dissertations to promote work that I like, and enjoy being able to get those dissertations into my hands as soon as possible–it also allows me to recruit manuscripts. I can understand the concern of some that dissertations are not perfect, and have problems that you might not want to reveal too soon. Still, 6 years seems like an eternity to me, and grown-up scholars in the field understand the difference between a dissertation and a completed manuscript. Dissertations can be unbalanced, and gigantic, and filled with spectacular historiographic asides, and crazy digressions, and detailed appendixes that are not suitable for the academic press–I really do consider them as substantially different from historical monographs, as any serious person should. (Aside: Compare my dissertation with my book to see where the bodies are buried). Some of my own students I think would benefit from a “wide” (meaning excruciatingly narrow) readership of their work, en-route to building a “more perfect” book version which will become their truly permanent word on the subject. (Aside #2. I only know of one person who actually receives royalty checks from ProQuest for his dissertation, and his book is highly, and I mean highly anticipated.) But from my point of view I guess I need to see more evidence of people not being able to publish a book for this reason–other than the fact that the diss. really doesn’t make a contribution outside of an article length piece. Academic presses in early American history seem to be highly competitive and generally starved for good manuscripts—and they publish plenty of stinkers–please send me the names of those with good work that can’t find a press. The work may not be as good as they think, and the only way people will ever take the time to see it, is if it is available online.

    • It’s great to have an editor of a series clarify their position on this (just as HUP’s statement last week was really valuable, too)

      As far as the reasons for the controversy, I think the bigger problem is that we’re having a proxy debate on an issue that’s tangential to what really worries most people involved in the debate – the fact that standards for promotion and tenure have remained static even as the publishing landscape has changed dramatically. The AHA statement hasn’t said anything about this – but this is clearly a much bigger and more important issue than the question of student choice on embargoing dissertations.

      It’s also, of course, a much thornier and more entangled issue and one where it’s harder for the AHA to call for departments to take a stand. As one commenter mentioned above, universities have outsourced professional evaluation to university presses and journals. That’s where the real problem lies. I can’t help but feel the AHA’s attention would have been better spent either addressing this directly or trying to produce guidelines for evaluating digital scholarship.

      • I would also like to thank Douglas for adding the highly valuable perspective of a series editor. And I agree, Ken, that much of the debate has used the embargo issue as a proxy to vent other highly valid and reasonable concerns with both the future of the profession and the AHA’s inaction on that front.

        I don’t know if the AHA’s time would’ve been “better spent” by producing guidelines for evaluation of digital scholarship. That phrase implies that they should have done that instead of addressing the embargo issue. Perhaps, the embargo statement should have been released along with those kinds of guidelines, which I agree are sorely needed. But I think some give the AHA too much credit in terms of what it can actually do. It can only release guidelines or recommendations, it is up to the members of the profession to really execute on the ground the change they want to see.

        • Thanks for drawing my attention to this, David. That said, a policy that predates even my start date as an undergraduate probably needs some revision.

          I wonder what the response to this policy would have been in an era with Twitter and Facebook?

          • That is surely true, but that’s not the only time the AHA has engaged with it. From June 2010:

            Click to access EngagedHistorianReport-June2010.pdf

            Including the quite radical statement:

            “Current standards for evaluating historical scholarship for tenure and promotion do not reflect the great variety of historical practice undertaken by faculty members, including a growing body of publicly engaged and collaborative scholarship. The work of faculty members pursuing civically engaged and collaborative scholarship is too often overlooked in a tenure process that emphasizes single- authored monographs and articles at the expense of other types of scholarly production.”

            Too much of the criticism of the AHA over the embargo recommendation has reflected a lack of due diligence in researching what the AHA actually does recommend with regards to current tenure guidelines and new forms of scholarship.

            • I agree completely. There was a fair amount of criticism that seemed to me to be either self-serving or self-righteous posturing. One could easily have engaged in a discussion on the tangential issues that Ken identified without making it all about how horrible the AHA is.

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