Graduate Students

Embargoes Can Go Only So Far to Help New Ph.D.'s Get Published, Experts Say

Gene Preuss

Mari Nicholson-Preuss earned her Ph.D. in the history of medicine in 2010, and her dissertation was posted online. Now she's having difficulty getting a revised version published as a book. Officials of scholarly presses and university libraries say the recent call for extended embargoes on digital dissertations may not be the best way to help young scholars like her.
July 30, 2013

Mari Nicholson-Preuss doesn't like having scholarly research locked behind pay walls. But she does wish she had placed an embargo on her dissertation when she finished it three years ago.

If she had known then what she now knows now about the business of academic publishing, she would have done so, had the option been available. The University of Houston, where Ms. Nicholson-Preuss earned her Ph.D. in the history of medicine in 2010, is one of many of institutions that require graduate students to submit their dissertations electronically. When she signed the required copyright form that was needed to microfilm her dissertation and make it available through ProQuest, an online database, she said the option to embargo did not exist.

"The form was simple and perfunctory. I signed it and moved on," she said. "At the time, my adviser and chairperson did not anticipate any of the difficulties that I have had in getting the dissertation published."

Ms. Nicholson-Preuss said that editors at two university presses backed away from offering her a book contract for a revised version of her dissertation, which is about urban public hospitals and the care of the poor in Houston in the mid-20th century, upon learning that it was posted online. Some half-dozen other editors voiced interest in her work at scholarly conferences and then said they could not publish a monograph based largely on a dissertation readily available online.

She was forced to shelve efforts to publish a revised version of her dissertation with a university press.

In an effort to protect young scholars like Ms. Nicholson-Preuss as they navigate the increasingly competitive world of scholarly publishing, the American Historical Association recently released a policy statement asking universities to give Ph.D. recipients the option to extend embargoes on their dissertations for as many as six years. Posting dissertations online, the association said, can jeopardize potential book contracts, which are necessary for tenure.

An official at the historical association said the statement had drawn significantly more readers than did their typical blog posts, and evoked strong responses from both supporters and critics.

A Moot Issue?

Some critics said the policy recommendation wasn't grounded in good data about the willingness of book publishers to consider revised versions of electronic dissertations, or about whether libraries will buy monographs that derive from them. Some press editors and university-library officials have asserted that the history association also seems oblivious to new library-purchasing practices that are mitigating potential threats to revised dissertations.

Michael Zeoli, a vice president who oversees electronic-content development at YBP Library Services, formerly known as Yankee Book Peddler, says that libraries are being given a bad rap in this debate. He maintains that libraries strongly acquire revised dissertations.

"Virtually all libraries exclude unrevised dissertations," he said, "but thousands of revised dissertations get sold each year."

Mr. Zeoli, whose company helps libraries make decisions about which books to purchase, has traced publishing and sales rates of revised dissertations back to 2004. He says that, since then, more revised dissertations have been published, and the average number of copies sold has remained stable.

"Libraries do not punish this category of books any more than others," he said. "Libraries apply various approval-plan filters to all titles. Hundreds of other elements weigh in the balance that will ultimately decrease or increase sales."

Buying practices of libraries are changing in ways that may make the issue moot, says Sandy Thatcher, a former director of the Penn State University Press. "Libraries are beginning to favor patron-driven acquisitions," he said, "and they are ceding decisions about what books to acquire to people on campus."

Many people have cited a study, described in an article published in the current issue of College & Research Libraries, that shows that some press directors worry about how librarians act with respect to revised dissertations.

"Those presses' worries translate into concerns about publishing them, which is evidently the basis on which the AHA decided to ground its new policy," Mr. Thatcher said.

And advocates of open access to scholarship accused the association of undervaluing online scholarship in favor of traditional book-length monographs as the "gold standard" of the discipline.

Young scholars themselves expressed varying opinions on the association's blog. Ryan M. Poe, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Duke University, said that embargoes inhibit the free exchange of information that scholars need to build their research. "As a graduate student," he wrote, "I absolutely can't stand when others guard their dissertations and theses close to their chest, as if their work is so genius, so ground-breaking that releasing it early will surely cause it to be scooped."

A commenter named Jessica wrote, though, that young scholars need the option to embargo their work. "I was told by two different publishers at the last AHA conference that the book would have to be substantially different from the dissertation because, at smaller presses, university libraries are the primary purchasers of their books, and the libraries would be hesitant to buy a book that was at all similar to a dissertation already available on ProQuest."

Ann Twinam, a professor of Latin American history at the University of Texas at Austin, shared with The Chronicle an angry letter that she wrote to the graduate deans at her university on behalf of one of her students who is now in a tenure-track position and had been asked by the deans to justify extending the embargo on his dissertation.

"History dissertations are not like science dissertations," Ms. Twinam wrote. "After the candidate receives the Ph.D., it typically takes at least five years to engage in additional research, writing, rewriting before a manuscript is submitted to a press. During that time the work needs to be PROTECTED."

Barriers to Publishing

Embargoes, some scholars say, would only go so far in helping new Ph.D.'s, given the limits that a changing marketplace for scholarly books impose on university presses and the ways in which technological advances have transformed the availability of dissertations. Other ways of helping young scholars might involve things like providing better guidance about the publishing world and advice about navigating it.

Another debate surrounding the history association's policy statement concerns whether university-press editors discriminate against revised dissertations when they are selecting manuscripts for publication. Some editors declined to speak on the record, saying they'd been told by supervisors to "stay quiet," given the controversy around the association's recommendation. Others said that their presses had no formal policies against revised dissertations.

An editor at one large university press in the Midwest said that most of its first books originate in dissertation and that it is the editors' job to guide scholars through the extensive revision process.

At another large press, in the Southeast, electronically published dissertations were more of a concern. An editor who asked that his name not be used said in an e-mail that "among the questions we ask during our intake process for a manuscript are the specifics of whether the work is a revised dissertation and whether the dissertation is available in an open university repository."

"Even the most extensively revised first books often share a common research base and core ideas with a dissertation," he added. "We have to think about the freshness and 'news' in a book if significant parts of that news have been published elsewhere."

Douglas M. Armato, director of the University of Minnesota Press, said that university presses are in the business of being selective. "We see a lot of proposals for books based on dissertations," he said. "We personally don't look back and say, Is this available electronically?"

Mr. Armato said that his press decides whether to publish revised dissertations on a case-by-case basis, and that 40 percent of first books published at his press are based on revised dissertations.

"Revised dissertations can be best sellers when there's a lot of effort put into editing them," he said. "But there's a lot of pressure on the scholarly book market. Libraries are buying fewer monographs, and given the pervasive digital availability of scholarship, publishers have to be more selective."

Even though some editors wouldn't speak on record, some of the submission requirements posted on their Web sites suggest hesitancy about publishing revised dissertations. For example, Oxford University Press's guidelines for proposing a book for its history list say: "We will not usually consider for publication any book held in its entirety or in significant part in an institutional or commercial electronic depository."

New York University Press asks in its author questionnaire: "Has any portion of your book appeared in one or more periodicals? Where? When? If you are including a revision version of any previously published work, please detail what changes you have made."

And Manchester University Press says: "Because Ph.D. theses are increasingly freely and widely available in digital repositories, our policy is that we will not consider books based on theses for publication unless they are of exceptionally high quality and broad appeal, have been expanded significantly, and have been rewritten and restructured for a wider audience."

What Graduate Students Should Know

Some press editors say they advise graduate students and new Ph.D.'s to guard their work if they plan to publish it later in a revised version, and they support practices that give authors full control over how, when, and where their work is disseminated.

The editor from the large university press in the Southeast said in an e-mail that he tells graduate students to take advantage of embargo options, which help them understand publication expectations and give them control and flexibility as they navigate the hiring, tenure, and promotion processes.

Jessica Brannon-Wranosky, an assistant professor of history at Texas A&M University at Commerce, says that graduate programs need to provide a guide for students about their publishing options before they defend their dissertations. She and others also say that students need to carefully decide what content should appear in the dissertation and what should be saved for later publication.

"You conceive your book and you conceive your dissertation," she said. "They are two codependent projects. They are not two different projects."

Correction (7/30/2013, 7:41 a.m.): This article originally misidentified a university publisher. It is Oxford University Press, not the University of Oxford Press. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.