The AHA and Open Access Scholarship

Since my earlier post today, the debate over what the Twitterverse is now calling #ahagate has heated up rather than cooled down. Former American Historical Association president William Cronon has weighed in, as has the Harvard University Press. I’ve spent a good part of my Friday afternoon reading through the various responses on both sides of the debate about the AHA’s statement on embargoing dissertations and feel as though I’ve gained a much clearer understanding of the issues at play.

Having said that, I stand by my criticism of the AHA statement in my previous post. In fact, I feel even more strongly about that criticism, having read back through the history of the AHA’s position on open access scholarship. Before I explain why my feelings have gotten stronger rather than more forgiving, I want to stipulate one thing: I agree with the AHA that authors ought to have control over the ways in which their work is published, and so I agree that PhD students should be able to decide how their dissertations are published, with one caveat.

First, my caveat on authorial control. There is a reasonable question to be asked whether or not universities, especially state universities that are funded by the taxpayers, have the right to decide how doctoral dissertations will be published and disseminated. I can make a strong argument for the fact that dissertations written at state-funded universities can be considered public property, given that the university (i.e., the taxpayers) provides a venue, a faculty, a library, an Internet connection, and in many, many cases, multiple years of scholarship funding to doctoral students. With all of that financial investment in the dissertation, why should dissertation authors be able to lock their work away for some number of years? [For a dissent from this position, see Adam Crymble's blog post from July 23.]

If a state legislature were to mandate digital publication of dissertations, prospective doctoral students would of course need full disclosure prior to enrollment that their work would be published online upon completion. Then they could decide, in advance, whether to enroll at a university imposing such a requirement. Don’t agree with that requirement? Enroll somewhere else. While some might see this as in infringement on academic freedom, I do not, just as I do not see it as an infringement on academic freedom when the NIH demands that federally funded medical research be made available to the public.

Now to my strong disagreement with the gist of the AHA statement that launched so many tweets and blog posts. As I wrote earlier today, I see that AHA position on this issue as part of a continuum of opinion on open access scholarship that has ranged from temporizing to outright opposition. Implying, as the statement on dissertation access does, that making one’s dissertation available online risks ultimate failure in the race to tenure and promotion, the AHA statement on this issue fits nicely into that tradition of opposition to open access. After all, if enough PhD students can be frightened into embargoing their work, then academic presses won’t have to worry that potential readers might have already read the dissertation and so will take a pass on the book. But, as Rebecca Rosen writes at TheAtlantic.com, it’s not at all clear that academic press editors are worried about the digital publication of dissertations.

Given that academic journal editors are, as a group, not that worried about digital dissertations, and that the entire issue as framed by the AHA is only relevant to those few PhD students who get tenure track jobs at R1 universities, what’s really going on here?

The answer, it seems to me, is that for the past eight years the AHA has vacillated between temporizing over and outright opposition to open access scholarship. Last September, the AHA offered a statement on open access journal publishing in which the association expressed significant concern about the implications of open access for the field and for scholarly associations like the AHA. Dan Cohen’s thoughtful response to that AHA statement offers a succinct summary of the AHA’s shifting back and forth on the issue. Similarly, in his last article for Perspectives, Rob Townsend explains, with data, what the financial impact of the AHA’s experiments with open access has been.

As Dan points out, the main concern in both the AHA statement and in Townsend’s essay  was on the economics of the American Historical Review. As Townsend put it, “the AHA has yet to find a happy balance between our revenue needs and our desire to reach the widest possible audience.” And so we get to the nub of the problem. As a membership organization, the AHA derives most of its operating income from two sources — individual and institutional memberships and the revenue (subscriptions and advertising) from AHR. Without that journal revenue, the association might just be in serious financial trouble.

So, yes, I think it’s true that the AHA Council was trying to do the right thing. And yes, I think that, with my one possible caveat, PhD students ought to be able to decide when and how to publish their dissertations. But, yes, I also think this statement on dissertation publication, like so many others from the AHA over the years, is both a defense of a financial model that the association can’t find alternatives to and a defense of a way of life that is fast fading from the academic earth.

As AHR editor Robert Schneider put it in a panel discussion on the future of the academic journal at this year’s annual meeting in New Orleans, peer reviewed journals are “the embodiment of tradition.” If that doesn’t sum it up, I don’t know what does.

[For more on this issue, see this web collection.]

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