The Rear Guard Makes Its Stand

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.]

9 thoughts on “The Rear Guard Makes Its Stand

  1. Jacqueline Jones

    The AHA welcomes informed debate about its recent statement on dissertation-embargo policies; but we do ask that contributors to that debate get their facts straight. The statement does not urge universities “to embargo the digital publication of new history dissertations unless the author chooses otherwise”; rather, it calls for universities to adopt flexible policies that will allow newly minted PhDs to choose whether or not to embargo their dissertations for a specific period of time. The distinction is a crucial one: the fundamental principle here is choice, especially for the most vulnerable members of the profession. We note that many of the statement’s critics promote a “one-size-fits-all” policy that would deny graduate students and junior faculty the opportunity to decide for themselves whether or not they want their dissertations to go online immediately. Historians in general should have control over the dissemination of their own scholarship; we object to university administrators making that decision for them.
    –Jacqueline Jones
    Vice President of the Professional Division of the AHA

  2. Mills Post author

    Fair enough. While I don’t dispute that the AHA statement couches its points in the language of choice, the gist of the statement is that these young scholars should be very concerned that if they make their dissertations available online they are at substantial risk of not being able to publish that dissertation as a book later on, with disastrous consequences for their careers. Without specific data to support the underlying premise here, what these young scholars are left with is an unsubstantiated warning — a warning that if they don’t embargo their work they risk significant professional consequences down the line.

    The statement says, “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.” Increasing since when? 2000? 2010? And how many is an “increasing number”? 5? 10? 50? And which presses? Presses that publish many first monographs, or those that rarely do? These are the kinds of questions I urge my students to ask of their sources, so I’ll ask you to offer some more detail here.

    Similarly, the statement says, “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…” What is the evidence for this statement? How many cases are you, as the VP of the Professional Division, aware of? Again, more data would certainly help these young scholars, who you’ve certainly made at least a little anxious, to determine for themselves what the risks and rewards of open access to their work might be. After all, if they face a “tangible threat” as the report argues, they deserve to know just how tangible that threat is.

    And, the statement asserts, “With the online publication of dissertations, historians will find it increasingly difficult to persuade publishers to make the considerable capital investments necessary to the production of scholarly monographs.” What is the evidence for this assertion? None is cited in the statement beyond the vague mention of “increasing numbers” of presses.

    So, while I agree it is important to get the facts straight on this matter, what’s missing from the AHA statement is facts, so it is difficult to get them straight. A little more sunshine on the who matter would be very useful — sunshine that I would suggest could begin with the publication of the minutes of the Council’s discussion of the statement. That way the junior scholars who the AHA is purporting to stand up for can better decide what to believe.

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  4. Young Scholar

    “…gist of the statement is that these young scholars should be very concerned that if they make their dissertations available online they are at substantial risk of not being able to publish that dissertation as a book later…”

    Young scholar, here (anonymous due to ass’t professor nerves!). I consider the AHA’s statement broadly supportive of me and people like me, and I am dismayed at the reaction of senior faculty to it.

    I don’t read the AHA’s statement as an assertion that I can’t get a book out of a widely circulated digital dissertation. Even if they were claiming such a thing, as a scholar I’d look for independent verification, so the harm they’d do in that case would be minimal. I don’t see them as advocating anything but my right to choose what happens to my work and how.

    Some dissertations benefit from some time in public scrutiny. Some should be offered not just to university libraries, but to all readers. Some have fundamental flaws and, by consensus, are enough to get a Ph. D. but not ready to read (I’m thinking of non-native speakers of English, here: remember, dissertations are not copyedited). Some do once-in-a-lifetime work that is incredibly poorly served by being stuffed under the bushel basket of ProQuest (and I’m not sure if you’ve compared ProQuest to other methods of dissemination, but it is impossibly shitty — I use that term with full consideration). Some should be circulated, but from a home site that is revisable by the author. My dissertation contains original translations under copyright in their native languages — for which I can’t afford payment, and the authors of which (rightly) turn their noses up at ETD ‘publication’. ProQuest, although mandated by my university, will not (and in fact cannot — they lack the manpower and completely lack the expertise) engage with this issue. I am not even allowed to call them on the phone. There can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution to these problems. We have to return control to the scholars themselves, and to dissertation committees. The AHA statement is a good start.

    I also have to admit to feeling that your demands (and you’re similar to a great many other critics of this statement) for extra information are a bit disingenuous. Publishing is a business, and it’s in the interest of publishers to claim that they’ll print books from online dissertations even if they don’t — this ensures that they’ll get the most, best submissions. Meanwhile, 2013 dissertators are getting their work shared indiscriminately right now. From my perspective, the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate to me that digitally shared dissertations lead to identical career outcomes as embargoed dissertations — because even the counterargument data (that some substantial fraction of publishers will consider accessible dissertations as books) strikes me as a powerful argument in favor of embargo.

    I understand and support your idealism and your desire to share information. I just don’t think you care about what happens to me or people like me, and you don’t want me to have a hand in that choice. I’m ten years younger than you — I know what happens once you post something on the Internet.

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  6. Mills Post author

    For those on Twitter, many of the tweets on this topic are being gathered under the hashtag #ahagate. In addition to Cronon’s defense of the AHA position cited above by Jacqueline Jones, be sure to read Trevor Owens’ comments in his blog: What all this conversation demonstrates to me is how passionate people feel about open access in the historical profession, but even more importantly, about the future careers of graduate students and early career scholars.

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