Seal of the American Historical Association
Seal of the American Historical Association (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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:

  1. 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?
  2. Is there reason (again, beyond inference and anecdote) to believe that individual readers are less likely to buy scholarly monographs that are revised dissertations?
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is University Librarian at Brigham Young University. He has worked previously as a bibliographer for YBP, Inc., as Head Acquisitions Librarian for the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, as Director of Resource Acquisition at the University of Nevada, Reno, and as Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah.


27 Thoughts on "Dissertation Embargoes and the Rights of Scholars: AHA Smacks the Hornet's Nest"

Well said but unfortunately we are dealing with a political movement driven by a technological revolution. A political movement is just a lot of people getting the idea that things should be a certain way, while others disagree. Anectdotes, ghost stories and fear play a major role. While your questions make scientific sense they may not be answerable, nor would the answers be accepted. But the questions themselves express a position in the debate.

Embargos are emerging as a fundamental feature of the new information economy. They are a form of ownership that is not well understood and which remains to be properly articulated. Embargos may be the new copyright. Do we need a new body of embargo law?

This is the complex fog of revolution.

This is a very good post and is remarkable for its even-handedness. Rick has also introduced an interesting innovation to the blogosphere in that he chose actually to read the AHA statement before commenting on it. I must take exception to one item, however, which has big implications. Rick comments that most academic books end up in libraries. This is not so. About 25% of university press books are sold to libraries, a figure that continues to drop every year. Most U. press books are sold to individuals. The reason that this is important is that (a) it reveals that libraries are not in fact at the center of scholarly discourse for some fields and (b) that the AHA may indeed have some cause for concern with regard to the matter of cannibalization when it comes to free online viewing of material. I don’t support the AHA policy, which I think is ham-fisted, but it’s not the work of stupid people. My view is simply that whether one agrees with it or not, it would be comforting to get the facts right.

Joe, thanks very much for the kind words. And I don’t dispute the figure you cite (“about 25% of university press books are sold to libraries”) — that’s why I said “scholarly monographs,” which comprise a subset of university press books. My impression is that the great majority of UP books being bought by individuals are non-scholarly, trade-y type titles, of which UPs now publish quite a few. I believe that libraries are still the primary market for hardcore scholarly monographs. If that’s not true, then I welcome the correction.

I’m in total agreement with you, Rick, which may be a first for me. I think you’ve not only clearly and fairly explained the AHA’s nuanced position, but you’re also spot on about splitting out the serious scholarly monograph piece of what university presses do, and how incredibly important libraries are to that piece of any university press list. When you’re working with a list like ours at the Penn State Press, highly focused monographs aren’t just a piece of our list, it’s the majority of the list. Presses and list compositions obviously vary, and thus so to does the impact of library buying decisions.

There really is only one solution to protecting serious scholarship from the kind of uncertainty that markets impose and which are at the core of this policy, and that is moving the serious scholarship part of university press lists out of the market. It might have made more political sense for the AHA to have coupled this policy with an endorsement of having a junior scholar’s home institution’s department fund most of the first copy costs of that junior scholar’s first book, particularly if that junior scholar was at a free rider institution that didn’t itself have a university press. They could then have presented one policy to deal with the current mess we’re in, and one policy attempting to address that mess. It also clears a path for open access of both the resulting book and the dissertation it’s based on.

In the humanities, the sooner we can figure out a viable open access model for serious scholarly content that has micro-markets, the better, because those micro-markets are continuing to shrink (most recently due to demand driven acquisition and short term loan models) and in response the prices for that content will continue to rise until we in the humanities find ourselves in the same position as those in the sciences—where the price of access is something even the libraries themselves won’t be able to afford, and more and more scholarly content will be locked behind an embargo or expensive pay-wall, or both.

And I agree with Tony, which means that I also agree with Rick, with whom I have debated this topic vigorously for some time now. I think Rick has got exactly the right perspective on the AHA policy and has raised exactly the right questions. I too would like to know how many, and what kind of, people the AHA consulted before announcing this policy. I do know myself, but only anecdotally, that many university press editors harbor this idea about revised dissertations selling more poorly than other books, but I wonder how many presses have actually done studies to confirm this hypothesis? We did a study at Penn State for one specific field, which showed a pattern of lower sales for that field, but the explanation for that pattern remains elusive and perhaps overdetermined.

I agree. If the 25% figure is an aggregate number representing sales of all kinds of university press books, then it would be badly skewed toward a lower percentage by the substantial sale of trade titles (including not only general nonfiction but also fiction and regional books, which have a strong market outside academe). A better figure would be to determine what the average sale to libraries for just monographs is. My guess is that that figure would be much closer to 75% than 25%, based on my experience at Penn State.

As you noted, Rick, when quoting Mike Furlough, we need data and research before any of these numbers can be cited with any authority. I don’t doubt that this 25% figure applies to certain titles, but I would very much like to see the methodology used to calculate these figures.

One thing that I think any UP (or publisher) will struggle with is determining who precisely the end consumer is. Given that many libraries now routinely use credit cards for purchases where speed is valued more than discounts, how could a publisher possibly assert that, say, the 130 copies of a title sold via Amazon (to name just one platform) have been sold to inidividuals and not institutions? This becomes even more complicated with sales overseas, where a book passes through various commericial entities on its path to its purchaser. German libraries, for example, often purchase titles through standard retail commercial paths, not from jobbers, not least since discounting is largely illegal.

Perhaps the only reliable methodology–and it would be difficult to implement–would be to see how many copies show up in library catalogues. The OCLC database would be fairly ineffective for this since holdings there are clearly just a snapshot of actual ownership; moreover, only a certain number of non-U.S. libraries are represented (granted, that number has been rising in recent years, but then the other issue still pertains). Perhaps some enterprising software developer could create a non-noxious script that would quietly search a set of catalogues to arrive at a more accurate figure. This would be, in essence, a much fancier and more methodologically grounded version of the KVK catalogue ( Sounds like an excellent digital humanities project to me (The Commercial Life of a University Press Book: Tracing Pathways Through the Retail Market).

I enjoyed this informative, thoughtful piece and I look forward to watching the conversation continue. One of the ironies here is that the reaction to the AHA statement may in fact turn into the larger conversations about promotion, tenure, and scholarly communication that many of us want to hear.

But as a member of the university press community, I have to ask you to reconsider your comment that “print publishing used to create a barrier to access that the online environment has destroyed.” I would argue the converse was true. Didn’t the barriers pre-date the arrival of the university press? Before the internet, print publishing was one of the few ways that scholarly works were made widely available. Far from putting up barriers, we were building bridges.

If I can continue the bridge-building metaphor…in the pre-Internet days of information scarcity, UP’s owned the only bridge and we charged a toll. The internet essentially dried the riverbed so everyone could get across for free. As a result, some people pushed to tear down the bridge, an aging relic of an older era. But people crossing the dry riverbed began realizing it could be an uneven, time-consuming experience and many were glad that the bridge remained an option.

UP’s need to come to terms with the fact that new options for scholarly dissemination exist and react to it by upgrading the experience of going over the bridge. (Couldn’t you extend this metaphor to describe one of the key challenges librarians are experiencing? If everything is available online, why do people need a library? Because you offer a significantly better version of the experience which is worth the costs associated to create it.)

This digression is important to the larger discussion here because the motivations ascribed to UPs (incorrectly, I would argue) are a key part of the AHA statement. But to assume that our motivation is to create barriers feels like a short-cut in your thinking that is worth considering further.

Thanks for the great piece.

John, thanks very much for your kind words and thoughtful comments. In response to this:

But as a member of the university press community, I have to ask you to reconsider your comment that “print publishing used to create a barrier to access that the online environment has destroyed.” I would argue the converse was true. Didn’t the barriers pre-date the arrival of the university press? Before the internet, print publishing was one of the few ways that scholarly works were made widely available. Far from putting up barriers, we were building bridges.

I think you may have interpreted my comment about print publishing generally as a criticism of university presses in particular. What I was actually talking about was the print format itself. A bound codex is a marvelous tool for extended reading — but it’s a terrible tool for distributing information to large numbers of people. That’s no one’s fault, and to point it out is to say nothing negative about publishers. I only meant to support the AHA’s point that the problem being addressed in its statement is one that has emerged largely because of the shift from a clunky, inefficient distribution mechanism (ink on paper) to a slick, highly efficient one (putting documents on a digital, worldwide network). That very efficiency is, in the AHA’s view, what poses a challenge for authors who need to exert control over their work until they’re ready to release it in its refined version. Hence the call for enhanced embargo options.

I am puzzling over the apparent abuse of the authors’ copyrights in dissertations? Isn’t it enough that grad students pay (many incurring debts) for the opportunity to study without bureaucrats and bean-counters trying to rob their work-product in pursuit of greater institutional profitability?

What abuse? Dissertation authors retain their copyrights. What universities do is to insist on deposit of the dissertation either in ProQuest or an IR, or both, as a condition of graduation. The author retains all rights to sell the work separately from the ProQuest database, which gets a nonexclusive license only.

Copyright is a fairly weak protection against career ruin when you can’t afford lawyers to prosecute your plagiarists, which is the situation most graduate students and young scholars would be in. And even if you won a plagiarism case, what press would take on a book project substantially published under another name? (in an ideal world, this would not matter. But young historians do not have the luxury of planning for utopian scenarios.)

I think the question is has anyone’s dissertation been stolen and published under another’s name? In my 43 years in publishing I can think of none.

As a publisher, I knew an academic’s dissertation was available. However, I knew that what the scholar was proposing to publish was in reality rather different than the dissertation. I looked at a work in reference to its market potential and if I felt it had a reasonable chance of making my press some money would send it out for review. In short, the fact that the dissertation was on file had no bearing on my decision making process.

Regarding the need to publish to get tenure, it seems to me that faculty positions open and young scholars get jobs. To keep their job, they have to publish. They understood this requirement when they took the job. The young scholar can publish articles or books if in the humanities but not in the sciences – they want articles. In fact, historians fall under the same requirements for tenure as any member of the faculty.

I do not believe that internet publication meets the requirement for tenure in most institutions, if any.

On the other hand one could argue that something like “letters” journals which exist in some science disciplines do count to some degree. However, historians can list book reviews on their dossiers and I don’t think scientists can or do.

Digital books can now be like software in that they can be versioned. You know, version 1.0, 1.1, 2.6 and so on. Presumably, refinement and value rise with version number. Designating the version number is now part of the iBookstore publishing process and I expect that will eventually be taken up by other digital publishing facilitators.
So, without the need to publish under a new and different title as well as a new ISBN, historians and other scholars need only to continue refining their work and increment the version number with each significant milestone. Purchasers (even where the original price was $0.00) are notified of the availability of a new version from within the eReader.
That strips away almost everything but the felt need to monetize the work, not so much for the author’s pockets but to provide “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 the long run, this is generally seen as more important than whatever royalties a scholarly book might earn.
All of which raises the question of whether revenue-driven publishers should be the ones conferring or withholding prestige with respect to academic writing. In the days of print when the risk of publishing was much greater than today with digital, we could argue that publishers would not go out on a limb very far if the work was of questionable merit. The risk that those substantial costs (paper, ink, printing, warehousing and transport) might not be covered would preclude that. That’s what people like, a single metric. If the publisher has prestige then what it elects to publish must have merit. But does that equation still hold up in the digital age?

Well, in fact it is not true that digital publishing is cheaper than print publishing. The costs associated with print, which you mention here, constitute about 25% of the overall cost of publishing a monograph. That cost is easily equaled by the costs that are incurred from implementing and maintaining a digital work flow.

The question to me as a publisher is: Will I publish that which is freely available on the web? Will I invest in reviewing, production, indexing, sales, and marketing of a work that one can get for free?

Of course one could argue that the published work is massaged and to an extent different than the dissertation, but is it so much so that I want to put my efforts into bringing it to the market when much of the market has already read it!

What will the tenure committee say when on the VITA under publication it says dissertation available on X site. Reviewed by committee but not vetted by anyone outside of the committee?

There is a steep cost for everything that is free and in some if not many cases it is a career.

I would be more interested in, and sympathetic to, an argument that young scholars should be able to embargo their own dissertations because it is work they do not yet consider finished. Dissertations generally require more than a fair bit of work after they’re accepted in order to get published as a text. The author of a work has a very real vested interest in when that work becomes available to the public. When did we all agree to the rule that that point comes when the PhD is conferred? Why not just have everyone compose their journal articles, dissertations, books and blog posts on publically viewable Google docs, in real time, so we see every typo and deletion and edit?

I find the outrage over this rather odd. The zeal with which some people have picked up the OA banner is so fiery and strong that even the suggestion that authors have the option of embargoing their own work until they can finish it results in pitchforks and torches. It’s almost cult-like in the devotion of the converted.

Also, the Budapest Open Access Initiative holds that “The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give the authors *control* over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged or cited.” Shouldn’t this control extend to deciding when a work is ready to publish?

What I found most disappointing about the AHA’s statement is their unwillingness to tackle the insane system of publishing/tenure in their field. Instead of capitulating to the status quo, they should have said something like:

“The way scholars in our field are evaluated is broken – so broken, in fact, that a young scholar in our field feels immense pressure to hide their work from public view for years so that they can cater to antiquated policies from our presses and our universities. The inability of our field to take full advantage of the internet as a means of dissemination should be a wakeup call for all of us in the field – and the AHA is committed to using our pull, and that of our members, to reform our presses and alter the rules for tenure at our institutions as rapidly as possible.”

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