American Historical Association Statement on PhD Dissertations: an Initial Point-by-Point Response

In their June 2013 meeting, the AHA Council drafted a statement on policies regarding best practices for embargoing completed history PhD dissertations. On July 19, the Council approved the following draft.  This is an initial point-by-point response in order to generate conversation.

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.

  • Given the institutional significance of the AHA, it is likely that graduate programs and libraries will follow their advice – especially if they feel (whether or not the data supports it) that their students will be at a disadvantage.

Because many universities no longer keep hard copies of dissertations deposited in their libraries, more and more institutions are requiring that all successfully defended dissertations be posted online, so that they are free and accessible to anyone who wants to read them.  At the same time, however, 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 assumes that the purpose of research is to sell a published book.  Isn’t the purpose of academic research to produce high quality work which can be efficiently disseminated to the widest audience possible – and, ideally provoke and engage broader academic discussion?

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; it is not unusual for an early-career historian to spend five or six years revising a dissertation and preparing the manuscript for submission to a press for consideration.

  • The first assumption here is that the book, as an object, is the standard of scholarship and that it is worthwhile to wait 5-6 years for the dissertation to be converted into a book. Of course, there are reasons for assuming that books are indicators of quality, especially in the case of an academic press.  The text will have gone through some process of peer review, and it will likely be copyedited (although, the quality of the copyediting can vary since much of this work is outsourced).  There are some useful technologies inherent to an academic book: most notably the index (but, again, the quality of indexes vary according to indexers, and it is rare for presses to compile an index in house).  The technology of the codex itself is valuable from both a user interface and a preservation perspective.  
  • The second assumption here is that most historians have and will continue to develop their dissertations into monographs.  Statistically, I’m not sure if this has been true, and I have doubts that it will continue to be true.  But, in any case, it does not consider the possibility that dissertations might translate into other formats: exhibitions, blogs, films, etc. — formats that might be better served through immediate distribution.  This might especially be true of the scholars who wish to enter the field of public history.
  • The question seems to be: is it worth delaying the exchange of information and ideas in order to preserve the traditional academic press book?  And, would another workflow be comparable or even superior?  If the purpose of academic research is the dissemination of quality scholarship as widely and efficiently as possible, there is a strong case to be made for  making dissertations open access upon completion.  It allows for debate to take place openly and immediately, which would help the authors develop their ideas.  And, peer review, copyediting, indexing, and quality user interfaces could be replicated — and possibly improved upon in an open access environment.  This would mean that authors could refine their work and release it as new versions making the codex format unnecessary for most people.  

During that period, the scholar typically builds on the raw material presented in the dissertation, refines the argument, and improves the presentation itself. Thus, although there is so close a relationship between the dissertation and the book that presses often consider them competitors, the book is the measure of scholarly competence used by tenure committees.

  • Emile Charles Wauters, Scholar at the Table, 1865-67, Hermitage Museum, Russia
    Emile Charles Wauters, Scholar at the Table, 1865-67, Hermitage Museum, Russia

    The problem here seems to be that the evaluation of tenure dossiers is ossified and unable to modify itself to new professional needs.  This statement seems to further reinforce the rigid tenure and promotion system.  It also reproduces the myth of the archive-bound scholar, struggling independently amongst a dusty stack of manuscripts: after 5-6 years, the historian emerges with a manuscript fit for an academic press.  

  • While tenure and promotion guidelines in most institutions are beginning to change, there is resistance to the idea of valuing other research products (blog posts, Twitter conversations, online exhibitions) on the same level as books.  Even a series of articles in top-tier journals rarely elicits the respect of a book published with a prestigious press.  The reasons for this are complex, but they are disciplinary constructions that don’t necessarily translate to better scholarship.  These constructions reinforce traditional notions of academic status, authority, and prestige.  They also integrate assumptions about institutional processes such proper modes of knowledge production and exchange.  
  • Rather than bending to the current status quo of the promotion and tenure process, early career scholars might be better served by a statement that prods institutions to adapt to the 21st-century professional landscape.

In the past, most dissertations were circulated through inter-library loan in the form of a hard copy or on microfilm for a fee. Either way, gaining access to a particular dissertation took time and special effort or, for microfilm, money.

  • This was of little value to scholarship.  Likewise, it privileged those institutions and scholars who could afford access.

Now, more and more university libraries are archiving dissertations in digital form, dispensing with the paper form altogether. As a result, an increasing number of graduate programs have begun requiring the digital filing of a dissertation. Because no physical copy is available, making the digital one accessible becomes the only option.

  • This, on the other hand, has an equalizing effect that democratizes at least a portion of the academic research process.

However, online dissertations that are free and immediately accessible make possible a form of distribution that publishers consider too widespread to make revised publication in book form viable.

  • Again, the data seems to be missing here.  Most publishers have only ever considered a dissertation for publication if it was significantly revised.  

History has been and remains a book-based discipline, and the requirement that dissertations be published online poses a tangible threat to the interests and careers of junior scholars in particular.

  • The economics of book publication are changing rapidly.  And, driven by new methodologies and technologies, the book may not be the best form for distributing research in the near future.  

Many universities award tenure only to those junior faculty who have published a monograph within six years of receiving the PhD.

  • There are other publication formats for monographs, in addition to print.  The major value of an academic press book is the input of a handful of peer reviewers, and peer review could be accomplished through other mechanisms.  Support from the AHA (as well as guidelines) could encourage departments to evaluate and accept non-traditional research outputs.

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.

  • This seems the crux of the problem.  The AHA Statement on PhD Dissertations is attempting to thread the needle between the interests of the scholarly community and the market-based needs of publishers.  The academic research ecosystem has become so enmeshed in the market economy of publication that our institutions are having a difficult time adapting to 21st century needs and possibilities.  There needs to be a sustained examination of the relationship between academic research, professional institutions, and academic publishers.  At the heart of the conversation must be the question: WHAT ARE THE GOALS OF ACADEMIC RESEARCH (I would suggest that the goals are high quality, timely and broad distribution/discussion both within and beyond academia)?  Every other community in the academic research ecosystem should align itself accordingly.

Students who choose to embargo their dissertations should be required to deposit a hard copy of their dissertation in the university library (or two if required as a condition for inter-library loan).  Alternatively, if university libraries no longer provide any way to archive physical dissertations, students should be permitted to embargo the digital copy for up to six years, with access being provided only on that campus or with the student’s explicit permission off campus.

  • This puts a burden on libraries.  It also limits access to research.

By endorsing a policy that allows embargos, the AHA seeks to balance two central though at times competing ideals in our profession–on the one hand, the full and timely dissemination of new historical knowledge; and, on the other, the unfettered ability of young historians to revise their dissertations and obtain a publishing contract from a press.

  • It is important to protect the interests of early career historians.  But, this statement seems to understand their interests narrowly.  What kind of academic community should we help craft with them?  I would suggest that we help craft a community of openness and collaboration — one that embraces technologies that are likely to expand our impact and reach wider audiences.  This may mean remaking the conventions of the profession and likely requires that we abandon ad hoc attempts to protect the status quo.  This will likely mean confronting the habitus of our profession and disrupting the institutions that we have been working in for over 100 years.

We believe that the policy recommended here honors both of these ideals by withholding the dissertation from online public access, but only for a clearly stated, limited amount of time, and by encouraging other, more traditional forms of availability that would insure a hard copy of the dissertation remains accessible to scholars and all other interested parties.

Adopted July 19, 2013

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