A pattern is starting to develop.
Here’s how it goes: first, a scholarly organization makes a statement saying that authors in its field ought to be able to decide for themselves, within limits, whether and for how long their dissertations will be embargoed from public access. The statement is then publicly mischaracterized in the formal press, the blogosphere, and across social networks. The mischaracterizations then go viral, leading to a low-grade moral panic.
This is what happened in the wake of just such a declaration made this past summer by the American Historical Association (AHA); I discussed that statement and the responses to it in an earlier TSK posting.
Now comes word of a new and very similar statement, this one issued by the Organization of American Historians (OAH). And the cycle of mischaracterization and panic has begun again, with a piece by Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Education. The headline calls the OAH’s statement “Another Push for Embargoes,” which manages to be wrong twice in the course of four words. The OAH’s statement is not a push for embargoes, but a push for authors to be given the choice whether or not to embargo. Nor, if it were a push for embargoes, would it be “another” one—the AHA’s earlier statement was not a push for embargoes either.
Jaschik’s third mischaracterization of the OAH statement comes in his first sentence: “The Organization of American Historians announced Tuesday that it opposes requirements—being embraced by some universities—that all doctoral dissertations be shared online.” In fact, the OAH says the opposite:
The OAH Executive Board strongly supports the right of authors to make their own decisions about the manner in which their doctoral dissertations will be published and circulated. The board urges history departments and graduate school administrations to support that right without qualification, understanding that embargoed dissertations will be available for public consultation upon the expiration of the designated embargo period.
Note the very important final phrase of that paragraph (emphasis mine). The OAH appears to accept—indeed, to take it as given—that doctoral dissertations will eventually be shared publicly. What it urges in this statement, much as the AHA did in its own, is that “advisers and students. . . consult with each other about the advantages and disadvantages of embargoing a dissertation, leaving the final decision entirely to the individual student.”
There are two issues here, one of them relatively superficial and the other more fundamental and significant. The superficial one is the unwillingness of many commentators to accept or even acknowledge the existence of both “advantages and disadvantages” when it comes to dissertation embargoes. This unwillingness is what leads to outrage in the blogosphere and Twitterverse whenever an organization like the AHA or the OAH publicly suggests that students should have the right to choose how and when their work will be publicly distributed.
The deeper issue, however, is a longstanding one that this repeating cycle of debate may finally force academia to confront and resolve: it is the question of who owns the intellectual work created on campus.
In most contexts, intellectual work created during the normal course of one’s employment is considered a “work for hire” under copyright law, and it remains the property of the employer. This will usually be the case for such intellectual products as internal policy documents, memos, instruction manuals, white papers written on behalf of a company, etc. On most college campuses, however, faculty members who write articles and books as part of their employment retain the copyright in their work. This makes academia quite unusual: in very few employment situations does the employee retain copyright in work created in the course of performing his or her job duties.
Some campuses, however, are moving in the direction of asserting ownership over their faculty’s work. Often, this move takes the form of the institution asserting copyright over the faculty’s work, then automatically assigning it back to the faculty member. The functional result is the same—the faculty member may do as she wishes with her work—but it gives the institution the option (in theory at least) of deciding to retain copyright and therefore control.
The growing debate surrounding control over dissertations brings a new dimension (and new urgency) to this long-simmering issue, because dissertation authors are students, not faculty members. On the one hand, one might see a move to take control of dissertations as even less reasonable than a move to take control of faculty members’ work, since students are not employees—except that, in reality, graduate students almost always are employees of the university in addition to being students. An argument can be made (and a respected colleague recently made it in conversation with me) that theses and dissertations are always produced as the result of significant institutional investment: the student may have written the document, but he did so with significant support from the university. A dissertation, therefore, is not the same thing as a book written by an amateur or unaffiliated professional at home. It is, in some meaningful ways, a product of the institution.
This is not a bad argument. A college or university that wishes to assert control over the theses and dissertations produced on its campus can probably do so with some justification. But the question of whether such a move could be logically, morally, and legally justified is very different from the more pressing and relevant question, which is whether such a move would be wise.
Why might it not be? The most obvious reason, I think, is that any college or university that does assert real control over its faculty and students’ intellectual work is going to put itself at a competitive disadvantage with those institutions that allow their students and faculty to keep control over their work. Institutions looking to attract top faculty and students will find a liberal intellectual-property policy to be a very low-cost way of increasing their advantage—certainly cheaper than hiring a trailing spouse, building a lab, or boosting a salary offer.
“Now wait,” I can hear some readers responding. “Sure, giving faculty the right to publish wherever they want and giving students the right to embargo their dissertations may be cheap in the short run, but it’s expensive in the long run because it perpetuates the current, unsustainably expensive scholarly communication system.”
That may be true. But short-term gains are very easy to see, and long-term risks are harder to see. It’s also true that every long-term risk scenario is only one possible scenario among many. In my experience, colleges and university administrators are much more concerned—for better or for worse—with attracting top faculty and students in the short run than they are with changing the world of scholarly communication in the long run. To the degree that that’s truly the case, defusing that competitive dynamic would require a universal commitment on the part of colleges and universities to the principle of asserting ownership over faculty and student work. And the likelihood that 100% of colleges and universities will agree to forego a very real competitive advantage in the name of changing the scholarly communication system strikes me as very, very low. Nor does there seem to be widespread enthusiasm for such a move on the part of faculty themselves. It’s faculty members, after all, who wrote and unanimously supported the statement issued by the OAH.