A Poorly Reasoned Suicide Note

Whenever I encounter the research of newly minted PhDs (or the researchers themselves, often at conferences), invariably my first step is to retrieve the relevant dissertations on ProQuest or the researcher’s institutional repository. Over the past few years I’ve run across a handful of cases where I couldn’t locate the dissertation; in each case I’ve contacted the historian in question, who have all provided me with some variant of the same explanation: “I don’t want to be scooped by someone before I write my book.” To me this is insane reasoning: not only does it quite obviously harm the field’s state of knowledge by limiting access, it naively assumes that the researcher is protecting herself from theft by hiding her findings rather than by publicly and preemptively asserting ownership over them, which is precisely what we do with intellectual property.

And now the AHA has gone ahead and attempted to institutionalize this insanity.

In a statement released this week, the hidebound organization urged university programs and libraries to embargo history dissertations from digital release for up to six years. If you believe this to be an appalling proposal because it limits the circulation of all the exciting new research that’s happening in graduate programs, you’re thinking exactly like the AHA, so long as you substitute “awesome” for “appalling.” Reducing dissertation circulation to a trickle is precisely the AHA’s goal.

But even if you believe in this goal — I know that a few colleagues of mine are similarly paranoid about sharing research — the AHA’s logic is still fatally flawed:

  • “In the past, most dissertations were circulated through inter-library loan in the form of a hard copy or on microfilm for a fee.” Hmm, “in the past”? for an organization that’s supposed to be “historical” that’s a pretty vague statement. When I completed my dissertation eight years ago, it was deposited into UMI/ProQuest immediately. During the previous years when I researched and wrote my dissertation I accessed and cited new dissertations in digital form. If digital dissertations are not a new phenomenon, why is the AHA acting now?
  • “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.” How many presses? Which ones? Can the AHA point to a single book proposal that was rejected on this basis? The AHA isn’t even marshaling anecdotal evidence here. There’s simply no evidence at all.
  • “Presumably, 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.” “Presumably”? Seriously? But OK, who are the buyers of academic monographs? University libraries. The same institutions that are requiring open access digital dissertation deposit? It’s a conspiracy!
  • “It is not unusual for an early-career historian to spend five or six years revising a dissertation and preparing the manuscript for submission to a press for consideration. During that period, the scholar typically builds on the raw material presented in the dissertation, refines the argument, and improves the presentation itself.” If this is the case, then the book is not the same as the dissertation, so why would one compete with the other? Or is the AHA simply proposing that scholars no longer go through these steps, since the dissertation can now appear “fresh” six years later?

And the questions keep coming. How many history dissertations are published as monographs within six years of the PhD? Even if the book contract was signed before the embargo ended, wouldn’t the dissertation still likely appear before the book was on the shelves, or while the book was on the shelves? And wouldn’t that appearance then curtail book sales? Does the AHA think that acquisition editors are so stupid that they cannot count?

In the end this proposal will likely accomplish little. I suspect that libraries will ignore the AHA here, and history departments will be constrained by depository policies applied at the college or university level. So nice work, AHA, you’ve fully internalized Animal House: “I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part. And we’re just the guys to do it.”