Personal Property and Academic Work: A Reflection on Responses to the AHA Dissertation Policy

I’m sitting here, reflecting on the AHA Statement regarding the Embargoing of History Dissertations as well as some of the conversations and comments that I have seen over the past few days. I have noticed an approach to argumentation about which I want to make a brief comment.

Some have argued that a thesis or dissertation (and, reasonably, by extension any academic work) is personal property — to make public or keep private as they wish. Intellectual property is hardly a new discussion among those in STEM fields, and from time-to-time, we’ve seen this conversation take place in the humanities. As we all know, each institution sets its own policy, and I don’t have any desire to challenge the systems in place.

Rather, I would suggest that we think carefully about whether this is a line of argument that we wish to take. Framing academic work as property is a two-way street — especially when individuals are compensated (directly and indirectly) from university and non-university entities. It reinforces the notion that ideas are commodities. And, it sets up a situation in which scholars and institutions could potentially tangle over rights. In an extreme case, couldn’t a university (or, even a funding institution) claim ownership and decide to prevent the public dissemination of scholarship?

There are better ways of framing this debate. I suggest that we focus on the ways that our institutions are embedded in an economy of money and prestige. We need to ask whether these institutions (and the processes and expectations that they impose) serve the ultimate goals of scholarship.

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