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From the September 2013 issue of Perspectives on History

Statement on Online Dissertation Policies: Frequently Asked Questions

Jacqueline Jones, September 2013

The publication of the "Statement on Policies Regarding the Embargoing of Completed History PhD Dissertations" has generated wide discussion, including articles in the New York Times, Inside Higher Education, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, among others, as well as a number of questions from the readership. In the Q&A below, we've summarized some of the most common claims and questions about the statement that we've seen on Twitter, blogs, and the comment section of the AHA's announcement.

Is the AHA recommending that students embargo their dissertations?

No. The AHA is recommending that universities adopt flexible policies that will allow newly minted PhDs to decide for themselves whether or not to embargo their dissertations.

What evidence does the AHA have to support the claim 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"?

This statement is based on direct communications between some AHA members and the acquisitions editors of several presses. In those communications, certain editors expressed the strong conviction that junior scholars placed their chances for a publishing contract at risk if their dissertations had been posted online for any length of time. Since the AHA's statement was published, several more historians have come forward with accounts of editors recommending against immediate online publication.

Many critics of the AHA statement have cited a survey reported in a recent article in College & Research Libraries that, they claim, suggests the AHA's concern is overblown. However, and despite the fact that the survey's authors find encouragement in the finding that 43.9 percent of university press publishers would consider electronically published dissertations on a "case-by-case basis," only 9.8 percent of university press respondents considered these dissertations to be "always welcome." On the other hand, 14.6 percent would consider manuscripts only if they were not already published electronically (7.3 percent) or if they were limited to the campus where they were completed (7.3 percent). In addition, these authors admit, "our study does seem to indicate that the 'smaller' university presses and journals may view ETDs [electronic theses and dissertations] as a threat to their bottom line, and thus may not publish works derived from ETDs."

There still seems to be enough resistance to electronic publishing of dissertations to justify giving students the ability to opt out, if they choose.

Don't embargoes of dissertations primarily benefit book publishers?

No; embargoes, in certain circumstances, primarily benefit junior scholars. All historians should have the opportunity to revise their work before it is published. Some scholars might want to include additional archival material, shorten their historiographical analysis, or otherwise make their work suitable for publication. It does these scholars a disservice to insist that they must post online unrevised work that, in certain fundamental respects, is incomplete.

Why isn't the AHA fighting for recognition of other forms of scholarship in hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions?

The AHA has long supported flexible standards to determine scholarly distinction and achievement. Please see, for example, the AHA publications, "Redefining Historical Scholarship," "Suggested Guidelines for Evaluating Digital Media Activities in Tenure, Review, and Promotion," and "Tenure, Promotion, and the Publicly Engaged Academic Historian."

At the same time, we recognize that, like it or not, many junior faculty who want to achieve tenure today must produce a published monograph. This reality guides our statement on embargoes; we seek to protect the interests of historians who are junior scholars. Looking forward, the AHA is appointing a committee to revise the guidelines for evaluating digital scholarship for tenure and promotion, and has created a new position, director of scholarly communication and digital initiatives, to play a central role in these efforts.

Is this statement a recommendation against making dissertations open access?

Again, newly minted PhDs will have to make that decision for themselves. We do object to institutions requiring that all dissertations go online immediately. Preparing a book for publication can be an arduous and time-consuming process. Some junior faculty will want to revise and refine their arguments and supporting documentation before introducing their work to the larger world of scholars. We believe that they should have the option to do so.

Don't dissertation embargoes stifle innovation and open discussion of scholarship?

We believe that it is up to the historian to decide when and if his or her scholarship is distributed to the larger scholarly community. Presumably most dissertations will be posted online; even those embargoed dissertations would be available within six years. Most historians, regardless of the stage of their careers, want control over the dissemination of their scholarship. To insist that scholars, and especially junior scholars, distribute their work online before they believe it is finished does little to advance innovation and open discussion. And such an insistence might foreclose the possibility of a good dissertation someday becoming an excellent book.

—Jacqueline Jones is the AHA vice president, Professional Division, and holds the Walter Prescott Webb Chair in History and Ideas and the Mastin Gentry White Professorship of Southern History at the University of Texas at Austin.

Reaction to the Statement: A Brief Sample

The discussion of the AHA's statement, encouraging that students be given more control over their dissertations, took place on far too many blogs and news outlets to list here. Many reactions to the statement, including blog posts written on other sites, can be found in the comment section on the AHA Today blog where the statement first appeared.