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An Embargo on Dissertations Will Not Solve the Bigger Problem

From one perspective, the American Historical Association’s call to allow the “embargo” of dissertations by new Ph.D.’s for up to six years makes eminent sense. No one seems to know for sure whether having digital copies of a dissertation immediately and openly available on a university Web site will actually make publishing houses less likely to publish a revised version—but why take the chance? In most of the humanities, and much of the social sciences, the single most important ingredient for a successful academic career is “the book”—the revised dissertation between hard covers.

From another perspective, however, the controversy has highlighted the oddity of a system in which the completion of a long, grueling research project, and the triumphant awarding of a Ph.D., leads directly to several more years’ work on precisely the same subject. The system is not the result of conscious planning. Once upon a time, some universities automatically had all dissertations published by their house presses—the open access of the day. Relatively few universities required “the book” for tenure. But over the past 40 years, the pressures of competition and the wretched job market have gradually led more and more universities to the current system. Is it really necessary?

There are always benefits, of course, to revising a piece of work—prose is sanded and polished, arguments are sharpened, evidence is reinforced. In most cases, the project also benefits from the dissertation’s formal evaluation process, from readers’ reports, from the trimming (or massive cutting) that academic publishers often require, and from the seasoning that comes with additional experience in the field. Some heroic academic editors actually edit, and help improve manuscripts. In some cases, a first book ends up not simply better than, but strikingly different from, the thesis that preceded it. When I was in graduate school, one junior faculty member liked to say that his first book was the definitive refutation of his dissertation, and all the better for it.

Yet against those benefits, we have to weigh several considerable drawbacks. First, there is simply the declining enthusiasm that often comes with having to do yet another version of a project that has already consumed so many years. When I started my own dissertation, everything I found out about my subjects seemed ridiculously exciting. When I had to turn back to their dossiers to revise the finished dissertation into a book, I could still summon serious interest. But by the time I had finished the revisions, I was more than ready to shovel additional dirt onto their graves just to make sure I never encountered them again.

I have also seen, in the course of my career, more than a few cases where such a decline in enthusiasm produced real harm—where young scholars ended up making a brilliant if rough dissertation significantly worse through a labored revision process. They added new complications, slathered on layers of questionably relevant theory, and leached the prose of all freshness and bite through endless rewriting.

A second problem stems from the fact that, at most American universities, the period of revising the dissertation coincides almost exactly with the probationary period before tenure. The finished product appears in print just as the tenure process begins, or even months (years!) thereafter. Only at that point does the scholar start a second project in earnest. But at precisely that moment, the golden chains of tenure make their true weight felt. Additional administrative responsibilities come crashing down, while many other long-deferred obligations, professional and personal alike, demand attention.

Meanwhile, the choking pressure to produce that has haunted the young academic since starting graduate school finally dissipates. Is it any surprise that, under these conditions, so many scholars fail to finish a second project, or take decades to do so? The need to revise a thesis is hardly the only reason for that slackening of pace, but it certainly contributes.

Finally, there is a problem for the colleagues who must evaluate young professors for tenure. While some students do their dissertations almost entirely on their own, with only minimal guidance from overworked or checked-out advisers, many others end up with something that could almost be called a collaborative product. The adviser has suggested the subject, provided a basic methodology, guided the way to the source material, discussed the conclusions at length, and closely edited the writing. Some works produced under those conditions are absolutely brilliant, but how much credit does the author really deserve? And can he or she be counted on to do it again, this time without the guidance? Faced with cases of that sort, tenure committees can often do little more than engage in an elaborate guessing game.

Given those drawbacks, it’s worth considering what an alternate system might look like. What if, instead of young scholars’ taking an additional four or five years to revise a dissertation for publication, the dissertation instead immediately went into open access on a university Web site? Students might be given a short revision period—no more than a year—to clean up any pressing problems, check references, and so forth, before the dissertation actually went online. Suppose that the scholars were then encouraged to write one or two substantial journal articles that summarized and perhaps sharpened the dissertation’s main arguments. The articles would not have the full apparatus of evidence, but they could very easily point back—link back, in fact—to the dissertation itself, for readers who wanted more. The articles would likely take at most one or two years to produce, and would be completed with the scholars still fresh and enthusiastic about their subjects.

And then, well before a tenure decision, there would be a chance to move onto something genuinely new. Not only would this provide a better context for judging scholarly achievements, but with the second projects already well launched by the time of a tenure decision, they would have a greater chance of actually getting finished.

I would have preferred that system myself. While I am proud of my first book, most of the actual evidence was recycled without much alteration from the dissertation. I never produced an article summarizing my principal findings, largely out of fear it would make a publisher less likely to take the book. But doing an article of that sort might have forced me to think harder about the project’s overall meaning, and to produce a more cogent statement of it.

Would that alternate system work for everyone? My friend on the junior faculty might never have produced the definitive refutation of his dissertation—but in his case, despite all his work, he failed to get tenure, and might have done better by moving forward more quickly. This alternate system might also benefit new Ph.D.’s without tenure-track jobs, whose conditions of employment make it almost impossible for them to produce something as substantial as “the book.” This alternate system could keep them eligible for tenure-track jobs for longer.

Of course, there is no reason to impose a new system on anyone who does not want it. But perhaps young scholars should have more freedom to choose. Those who feel the need to revise their dissertations as books should do so, and have the right to embargo the dissertations for as long as they feel necessary. But others may well decide that the dissertation already says most of what they wanted to say on a subject, and for them it may be a relief—even a liberation—to have it appear online, accessible to all, while they summarize their findings in a pair of cogent articles, and move on toward new frontiers. Universities would do themselves, and their faculties, a favor not to penalize Ph.D.’s who preferred this path.

David A. Bell is a professor of history at Princeton University.

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