A recent statement by the American Historical Association is generating heated debate about the rights and best interests of junior scholars, the market dynamics for scholarly monographs, and the competing needs of publishers, libraries, authors, and readers.
In its statement, the AHA “strongly encourage(s) graduate programs and university libraries to adopt a policy that allows the embargoing of completed history PhD dissertations in digital form for as many as six years.”
The Association goes on to explain:
Because many universities no longer keep hard copies of dissertations deposited in their libraries, more and more institutions are requiring that all successfully defended dissertations be posted online, so that they are free and accessible to anyone who wants to read them. At the same time, however, an increasing number of university presses are reluctant to offer a publishing contract to newly minted PhDs whose dissertations have been freely available via online sources.
It’s important to note both what this statement says and what it does not say. Contrary to the way it has been portrayed by some, the AHA statement does not call on departments and libraries to impose a six-year embargo on history dissertations. What it encourages is a policy that allows the authors of those dissertations to embargo them for up to six years (rather than the currently more common embargo options of one to three years) if they so choose. These are not minor distinctions.
That said, those who have pointed out the shaky factual basis for this statement are not mistaken. “Presumably,” the statement says, “online readers will become familiar with an author’s particular argument, methodology, and archival sources, and will feel no need to buy the book once it is available.” One problem with this presumption is that it assumes that “online readers” constitute the primary market of buyers for most dissertation-based books. In fact, when scholarly monographs are purchased, it is generally by libraries—whose selectors are not likely to have been reading widely in the online offerings of unrevised dissertations. A bigger problem, though, is that it is a presumption based on inference rather than an observation based on data—more about this in a moment.
On the other hand, it is certainly true that print publishing used to create a barrier to access that the online environment has destroyed. The current information environment, one in which the vast majority of scholarly documents are born digital and can be distributed instantly and infinitely as soon as they are uploaded to the network, creates tremendous benefits and opportunities for scholarship, as well as challenges—one of them being that authors have far less control over their published work than they once did.
Those of a more utopian mindset tend to see this decrease in control as something that right-thinking authors will surely embrace—after all, less control means broader, faster, and easier dissemination, which in turn means more readers, and isn’t readership and exposure what every scholar wants? Authors and publishers tend to be a bit more wary—after all, less control means that the ability to sell access is radically undermined, and that ability is what has created an incentive for publishers (whether for-profit or non-profit) to add value to authors’ products, which value in turn confers prestige on the author, which prestige then translates into professional opportunity and, eventually, job security.
In its statement, the AHA brings up a more specific version of that second concern: free public access to the raw, unrevised version of a book means (or is assumed to mean) less ability to sell access to a refined and finished version of the same book later on. Having had the chance to eat their fill of cookie dough, this reasoning goes, many potential buyers will be much less interested in the finished cookies when they come out of the oven. Or, as the AHA puts it: “With the online publication of dissertations, historians will find it increasingly difficult to persuade publishers to make the considerable capital investments necessary to the production of scholarly monographs.”
Needless to say, librarians (who tend to hate access embargoes of any length, to love openness in all its forms, and to be suspicious of the profit motive) are responding to the AHA’s statement with suspicion—or, in some cases, downright derision. Writing for Inside Higher Education, Barbara Fister (a librarian at at Gustavus Adolphus College) issues what amounts to a 1,000-word sneer, summarizing the AHA statement thus: “Turn the clock back. Put those printed dissertations on the shelf where they can be safely obscure. Protect the children.” In fact this is a fundamentally unfair interpretation of the AHA statement, which does not ask either that dissertations be pulled back into the print environment or that “the children” be protected. It asks that young scholars be permitted to choose for themselves (up to a limit) how and when their original work will be made available to the public–and says that those who do choose an embargo should be required to deposit a print copy so that it can be made available to scholars in that more limited way during the embargo period. (Hardly less abrasive is blogger Adam Crymble’s response to the OA advocates’ opposition, which he irresponsibly characterizes as a call to “burn books.” He does, however, then go on to analyze the real issues in a relatively even-handed way.)
More accurate and intelligent is the response of library administrator Mike Furlough, of Penn State, who is quoted in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece as observing that “we are operating in a world of anecdotes, ghost stories, and fear. We don’t have very good data showing what the impact is on sales when dissertations appear online.” Furlough is exactly right, and until someone goes to the significant work that will be required to produce such data, we will continue operating in the realm of inference, anecdote, and fear—none of which generally provides a solid basis for policy.
Here are some questions that the AHA statement suggests need to be answered:
- How do we know that “an increasing number of university presses are reluctant to offer a publishing contract to newly minted PhDs whose dissertations have been freely available via online sources”? I can understand the reasoning that might lead to this stance, but is there actual evidence to indicate that it is, in fact, an increasingly widespread one among publishers?
- Is there reason (again, beyond inference and anecdote) to believe that individual readers are less likely to buy scholarly monographs that are revised dissertations?
- Granted that most research libraries are buying fewer printed books than they used to, is there evidence for the proposition that this trend has anything to do with the move to online dissertation archiving? At my own institution, this development is explained primarily by a steady increase in journal prices and a relatively flat library budget, which has led us to shift funds away from printed books (which are used less and less each year) and towards the protection of as many journal subscriptions (which are in consistently high demand) as possible. We certainly have no policy against purchasing revised dissertations.
- What justification is there for a university to impose its institutional will on student authors, requiring them to make their original work freely available before they wish to do so—or at all? Please note that the question here is not “should young scholars want to disseminate their works as widely as possible?” The question is “why should the choice not be left to them?”
Speaking personally, I remain ambivalent about the AHA’s statement and conflicted about the issues involved (which, no matter what partisans on both sides will try to tell you, are very complex). However, I will say this: those of us who are fully-employed librarians—many of us securely tenured or in tenure-track academic positions—may not be in the strongest moral position when we lecture just-graduated scholars in highly competitive disciplines about how they ought to stop worrying and just share their work as freely as possible.