On July 22nd the American Historical Association published to their blog a statement regarding the embargo of dissertations. The suggestion was for digital embargo periods to be lengthened from around 1-3 years to 6 years, so that new PhD graduates could revise their dissertation manuscript for the purpose of creating a book for publication. As a significant revision of the dissertation, this book would then become a major component within the process of applying for tenure.
The embargo period is designed to protect the dissertation digitally. Many universities are requiring new PhD students to submit their fresh dissertations to an online repository, such as ProQuest (“Embargos & Restrictions” guide). Even more problematic is the possible self-publishing of the dissertation on a non-restricted site, such as a public blog. With little celebration, a new dissertation can be made available online at little or no cost. Prodded, crawled, and examined by the search-engine bots and spiders, this new dissertation could be both widely accessible, and possibly tainted by its very digital existence.
The conundrum is that the availability of instantly downloadable dissertations could reduce the demand for the eventual book – certainly a negative outcome for publishers, and therefore a negative outcome for scholars attempting to get published. This is the major concern of the AHA, not necessarily to limit information, but to strategically release it in conjunction with career aspirations and opportunities.
However, an open access digital dissertation could also allow for a readership to develop, which in turn would show that there is demand for the eventual book, thus encouraging publishers to accept the project. This is the perspective of many historians who see the AHA’s statement as an example of an elite institution limiting access to information, and attempting to barricade academia from the wider public.
Regarding information policy, Sean Takats points out that the best way to protect the intellectual property of the dissertation is “by publicly and preemptively asserting ownership,” not hiding the project out of fear. Also, there is an underlying assumption that a book would be the only form a revised dissertation could take (or perhaps the only one considered by tenure committees). As Jason M. Kelly describes, “dissertations might translate into other formats: exhibitions, blogs, films, etc.,” and these could be essential for scholars in the field of public history.
Most information about the opinion of publishers as to whether open access to digital dissertations damages or improves the chances of the book project is either anecdotal or unclear. The wider picture is that digital dissertations are more likely to encounter a reduced field of welcoming publishers, and that each scholar must judge their options accordingly. For some projects digital access to the dissertation could presumably be disastrous, and yet for others this same access could make the difference in getting published at all.
While the AHA undoubtedly had the best interests of historians at heart, there was immediate outrage within the scholarly community, and then a backlash against those most vocal critics. The debate is very heated and also very personal, because of the devotion required to complete a dissertation, and because the finished product is a crucial part of an historians academic career. For some scholars, the AHA’s stance is pointing towards stodgy irrelevance in a new age of information, and for others the AHA is the last bastion of reason in an infectious digital environment.
At precisely this moment, there are other developments within and without the field of academia that are shaping the way information is viewed in the digital realm. MIT has just released its report on the Internet-activist Aaron Swartz related to his mass-downloading of JSTOR data, the subsequent federal investigation, and his corresponding suicide this January. The U.S. Army has just completed its verdict on Bradley Manning, concerning his leaking of military documents and diplomatic cables to Wikileaks. NSA contractor Edward Snowden remains in a Moscow airport, trapped in a territorial limbo over his leaking of government intelligence gathering procedures to the press. All of these current events point to the unease, uncertainty, and even danger surrounding the future of information within computerized networks.
With these examples in mind, the timing and tenor of the AHA statement seems far less anachronistic than perhaps at first glance. The advice the AHA is offering to both individual scholars and institutions is not that they should avoid digital publishing altogether, but that they should be well-informed about the process, and free from institutional coercion and peer pressure. William Cronon’s perspective on the issue is one of helping and protecting the AHA’s “most vulnerable colleagues,” not stifling them. Rather than hoping a dissertation might go viral on the Internet, however odd or wonderful that might seem, the concern is that openly entering the digital realm can lead to an infection, one that plagues a career at its most sensitive moment.
As a PhD Candidate just entering the process, I am still unsure whether or not I will quarantine my final dissertation, or for how long. I realize the importance of access to information and that there is more at stake in this debate than the dissertation itself. This debate is pressing on the moral aspects of education, it is focusing attention on the process of tenure, and it questions the very reason for being an educator of any type. Yet, I must also be pragmatic and weigh the prospects of employment within a market-driven system.
Most likely, my final dissertation will be digitally protected for a period of time, but the process of the research will be shared with friends and colleagues, in person, at conferences, and through online social media. I definitely want my dissertation to have an audience, to receive feedback, and to be found by publishers looking for interesting projects.