Graduate Students

Scholarly Group Seeks Up to 6-Year Embargoes on Digital Dissertations

July 24, 2013

The American Historical Association has published a new policy statement that "strongly encourages" graduate programs and university libraries to allow new Ph.D.'s to extend embargoes on their dissertations in digital form for as many as six years.

The association says its stance seeks to balance the competing ideals of the profession: timely dissemination of new historical knowledge and the ability of young historians to choose when to release their research without jeopardizing a future publishing contract or tenure.

The statement, which was released last week, says that because many university libraries no longer store hard copies of dissertations, more and more institutions are requiring graduate students to file their theses and dissertations electronically. The institutions then often post those documents online so that they are free and accessible to anyone who wants to read them.

History-association officials say they drafted the statement in response to complaints by new Ph.D.'s and assertions by university-press editors who say they are reluctant to offer publishing contracts to young scholars whose dissertations are already widely available online.

Graduate students who've successfully defended their dissertations are commonly allowed to embargo them from one to three years. Once that initial term is up, scholars can request to extend the embargo for a limited amount of time.

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

Squeamish Publishers

Association officials say they are acting to protect the interests of new Ph.D.'s and to make sure that book publishers still have a stake in historical scholarship.

"Our concern is that students have choices," says James R. Grossman, executive director of the association and a senior research associate in the history department at the University of Chicago. "We are aware that some university presses are getting squeamish about publishing dissertations that are available widely and freely across the Internet and even if they are substantially revised."

Jacqueline Jones, vice president of the association's professional division and a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, says that extending an embargo can be beneficial because it gives new Ph.D.'s more time to revise a dissertation into a publishable monograph. Students can fine-tune their work by excising some material, incorporating new archival findings, and further developing their arguments in a style and tone that can resonate with a wider audience.

Supporters of the association's statement say that new Ph.D.'s are operating in a world where the market for scholarly books, which are often specialized and expensive, is shrinking and so, too, are library budgets. The option for extra embargo time, the supporters say, will help young scholars protect their work from predatory publishers and from being scooped by other researchers as they navigate a tough job market for tenure-track positions.

Critics of the statement note that the movement for open access to scholarly material has picked up steam in the past few years, and they suggest that the association's new policy reflects how it feels threatened by that movement. The bid to extend the embargo length, the critics say, is a maneuver to delay a movement that is not going away.

The critics also argue that, by putting the printed book on a pedestal at a time when research is taking many other forms, the association is marginalizing historical research. Meanwhile, there's a standoff between the competing priorities of university presses, libraries, and hiring, tenure, and promotion committees. Graduate students are caught in the middle or are being used as proxies in debates over scholarly publishing, they say.

'Anecdotes, Ghost Stories, and Fear'

The association's statement has sparked much debate on social media and academic blogs.

"Surprise, surprise, open-access advocates everywhere have started sniveling," Adam Crymble, a doctoral student in history at King's College London, wrote in a blog post titled "Students Should Be Empowered, Not Bullied Into Open Access."

"No! they cry," Mr. Crymble continued: "We shouldn't support a resolution passed in good faith to protect the career progression of new scholars against scholarly presses that are allegedly refusing to accept manuscripts based on openly available dissertations. We should be burning books and the organizations that publish them. Down with books, up with free information on the Internet! Lovely, but you can't eat free information."

But some critics of the association's suggested policy, including Dorothea R. Salo, a faculty associate at the University of Wisconsin at Madison's School of Library and Information Studies, say the statement is couched in paternalistic language.

"With the degree of fear that these young scholars are feeling, they're going to hear the message loud and clear. The message is that we the AHA do not think you can succeed if you do not embargo your dissertation for the full six years," Ms. Salo said.

She maintains that graduate students and new Ph.D.'s are not vulnerable because of open access, especially since many more of them are looking for careers outside academe. "They are moving from a venue that is very cloistered and insular into a much more open world."

On Twitter, other critics implied that the historical association was behind the times.

"American history society can't cope with digital word, writes suicide note," Hugh Rundle, a librarian at the Boroondara Library Services, in Melbourne, Australia, wrote in a tweet.

Mike Furlough, associate dean for research and scholarly communication at the Penn State University Libraries, voiced frustration on Twitter, too. "Henceforth my tweets will be embargoed for six years until I revise them thoroughly," he wrote.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Furlough said the historical association's concern for new Ph.D.'s is legitimate, but he called the new policy "a reactive statement" based on wrong information about the purchasing practices of university presses and libraries.

"We are operating in a world of anecdotes, ghost stories, and fear," he said. "We don't have very good data showing what the impact is on sales when dissertations appear online."