Disembargo: An Open-Access Dissertation, One Letter at a Time

Disembargo ScreenshotOctober 21-27 is Open Access Week, in which libraries, colleges, and research institutions across the globe stress the value of free and immediate access to the results of scholarly research. Open access is a complex issue, though, as Adeline made clear when she released her dissertation under a Creative Commons license in July.

An open access advocate myself, I’ve long wanted to articulate clearly why I want my own scholarship to be public and freely accessible (and almost all of it is). The American Historical Association’s suggestion this summer that graduate students embargo their dissertations for up to six years was almost—almost—my impetus to make such a formal declaration. But there were already many other scholars writing many other things about the AHA, dissertations, embargoes, and open access.

So instead of writing something, I made something: Disembargo.

Disembargo is an open access dissertation (my own), emerging from a self-imposed six-year embargo, one letter at a time. Every ten minutes Disembargo releases a single character—a letter, number, or space—from my final dissertation manuscript. This character is published under a Creative Commons license, and it joins the previously released characters of my dissertation. The header image above is what Disembargo looked like thirty minutes after it launched on September 3, 2013.

It took roughly twelve hours for the full title (Radicalizing Consumption in the Fiction of Don DeLillo and Toni Morrison) to emerge. At the current rate of access (six characters per hour, or roughly twenty-five words a day), the entire dissertation will be available in the fall of 2019. A countdown timer in the right margin displays—down to the hour—when the Disembargo period will end.

I prefer to let Disembargo speak for itself, but I do want to note a few questions that ran through my mind as I worked on this project: How does an academic embargo play out? Who benefits from an embargoed dissertation? How much value does withheld research accrue? And how long is six years when it comes to scholarly communication? To at least this last question Disembargo provides a satisfying answer: publishing six letters an hour is an excruciating pace that dramatizes the silence of a six-year embargo.

Disembargo is completely closed, up until it’s not. Thanks to the server-side Javascript engine running the site (as opposed to browser-based Javascript), there is no way to access the full dissertation document. View source will not help you here. Apart from the four paragraphs that have emerged in the first six weeks, my dissertation might as well be locked in a vault. This tight control of a trickle of text across the years is the heart of Disembargo’s procedural rhetoric. Instead of making an argument about open access with words, Disembargo expresses itself through its processes, its algorithm. The actual words of my dissertation are almost beside the point.

I’m pragmatic enough to know that Radicalizing Consumption in the Fiction of Don DeLillo and Toni Morrison was never going to be read by more than a few people, even if it became a book. But I’m hopeful that my dissertation’s second life as Disembargo will prompt questions and discussions my dissertation itself never could have—not about American literature but about the state of academic copyright, the nature of scholarly communication, and the role of procedural expression in a community that overvalues writing at the expense of other forms of meaning-making.

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