Having been in the mountains and off the grid for a few days I missed the publication of this statement by the American Historical Association when it first came out on July 22. Now that I’m catching up on what I’ve missed, all I can do is avert my gaze from yet another rear guard action by the AHA.
Over the years I’ve watched the AHA and many of its members struggle to come to grips with the realities of the digital revolution. Way back in 2008 (almost a century in Internet years), I wrote a series of posts I called “The Future of the AHA” in which I castigated the Association for making this assertion in a report on the future of the AHA:
“Thus it is incumbent on the AHA to both understand and utilize all the cutting-edge possibilities of these new technologies, while transferring its traditional role as gatekeeper and authority for the discipline to this new medium.”
At the time I argued that for the AHA to claim some sort of gatekeeper role on the Internet was evidence of a fundamental misunderstanding of how the open exchange of information works online. This new report by the AHA Council urging universities to embargo the digital publication of new history dissertations unless the author chooses otherwise is, to my mind, of a piece with that earlier position, because it is but one more attempt to hold onto a series of past practices that are increasingly irrelevant in the modern scholarly landscape.
That portion of the Internet that is about the exchange of ideas and information functions best when access to that information is free, open access, and timely. Urging universities to embargo the digital publication of dissertations — and through such urging helping to frighten PhD students into keeping their dissertations behind a wall of silence — undermines all three of these pillars of scholarly exchange in the world we live in, not the idealized past described in the AHA statement, where dissertations were circulated by hand. Were I a doctoral student today, this bit of the larger statement might send chills down my spine:
“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. As a result, students who must post their dissertations online immediately after they receive their degree can find themselves at a serious disadvantage in their effort to get their first book published…”
If those chills I feel turn into actual fear, I might just follow the implied advice here, despite the vagueness and the evidence-thin assertions, and embargo my dissertation so that no one out there in Internet-land will have any access to my ideas for, say, six years — another whole century in Internet years. By the time my books comes out, I’ll be largely irrelevant to the discussion on my topic of interest, but so what? I’ll have a book from a scholarly press and will have a shot at tenure!
Imagine a biologist taking such a position? Or a physicist? Or a nuclear engineer? Or an economist?
Has the AHA heard, perhaps of the Public Library of Science (PLOS), whose mission is to “accelerate progress in science and medicine” through the rapid and open access publication of new findings? Or, perhaps, the Social Science Research Network, whose 179,000 authors have uploaded more than 380,000 papers, which have been downloaded more than 50 million times, mostly for free?
This latest salvo by the AHA’s rear guard can only be seen as another example of what is an essential hostility to open access scholarship.
All I can say is, good luck with that.
[For more on this issue, see this web collection.]