To embargo or not to embargo, that is the question

Interesting discussion going on about a recent American Historical Association policy calling on History departments and libraries to allow PhD holders to keep their online dissertations closed to public access for up to six years, instead of the now-standard 1-3 years.

Two overviews: Chronicle of Higher Ed and Inside Higher Ed. Be sure to check out the comments as well. There’s also a Q&A on the AHA website defending the policy, with a few comments.

On the one hand we have the AHA, combined with increasingly-nervous PhD graduates facing a horrible academic job market. Their argument essentially boils down to protecting the potential future job prospects of said grads. Without a book (i.e. a revised dissertation), it’s said PhD grads won’t be able to get academic jobs and acquire tenure. And, according to some university press editors, an openly-available online dissertation discourages them from offering a publishing contract. They only want to publish fresh original arguments that will blow your mind. The argument is pretty simple: No book, no tenure. So make it easier to get a book contract.

On the other hand, just about every point and assumption above is contested by critics: that university presses won’t publish work derived from online theses; that scholars won’t buy works derived from online theses; that most dissertations will even get published as a monograph; that History should remain focused on the published monograph. In contrast with the AHA’s professional (read: job) concerns, critics of the new policy tend to gravitate around several related philosophical beliefs: in timely open access to publicly-funded research; that historical knowledge is about disseminating information rather than hiding it; that the profession needs to squarely face up to the reality that an increasing number of History PhDs won’t ever get an academic teaching position (even if they want one) regardless of whether they publish or not – hence the rise of (short-term?) jobs in the Digital Humanities; and a general desire to drag History into the digital age, which means lessening the totemic status of the monograph. As the joke goes: “monograph (noun): a book written by one person and read by one person.”

I’m a bit conflict on the question, so I thought I’d look back at my own experience (“write what you know,” they always say).

My Experience

Untangling all these arguments would require a lot of empirical evidence that we probably don’t have. I have no idea whether anyone will be denied a job or tenure if they don’t embargo their dissertations. But I can speak to how my online dissertation spread, who used it, and where I am now as a result. My main conclusion is primarily descriptive: if anybody cares (and you want people to care), your dissertation will get released into the wild regardless of what you do.

I successfully defended my dissertation in October 2002, on the anniversary of Lepanto in fact. Fortunately I played the role of Don Juan of Austria, and made only a few minor changes to the manuscript before it was “presented in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy in the Graduate School of The Ohio State University.” I chose to forego an embargo although I had the option of up to three years. Don’t really know why I refused – maybe I was lazy, or freaking out over the impending job search, or maybe there was already a glimmer of the open-access proponent bubbling up inside me. I wasn’t particularly embarrassed with the product, although I’m very glad I was able to delete a chapter or two for the book and add a few new chapters. The dissertation was thus immediately placed online (full PDF) on Ohiolink for the world to download – still there in fact.

I don’t know how often the dissertation has been downloaded over the past 11 years – there’s a Download count on the webpage, but since that only says ‘2’, which includes my download just now, I’m thinking it’s either a new site design, or it doesn’t include views, or something. It certainly doesn’t include other people sharing the PDF file, and it probably doesn’t include the various database services subscribed to by many Research I university libraries (e.g. Electronic Theses and Dissertations).

Why do I think more than two people looked at my dissertation? First, my ego won’t allow me to consider the alternative. But second, because I know others have referenced the dissertation. The one thing I can say for certain is that your dissertation will get out there, assuming anyone is interested in the subject.

A simple Google search of “Vauban’s Siege Legacy” (a silly title I realize) results in 411 hits. Don’t worry, I won’t cite them all, but here’s a flavoring of the venues in which your dissertation will likely appear if it’s online. Whether this publicity is enough to risk the chance of having your manuscript refused by a publisher is up to you.

At the beginning, the basics of your dissertation will appear in the various online catalogs. That meant, in my case, OhioLink and the Ohio State Library catalog, which include the abstract. So when crafting your abstract you need to balance your paranoia about getting scooped with your desire to entice those reading the abstract into checking out the whole thing. Or maybe you want a really boring diss abstract to keep the vultures away? Hopefully a milquetoast abstract won’t reflect poorly on you.

In the pre-digital days, dissertations still managed to find their way to scholars who cared – you could order a copy from UMI or the degree-granting university; some foreign dissertations were passed around like so many trading cards. Such dissemination was largely invisible to the author, unless you happened to get a royalty statement listing the number of copies sold.

Online dissertations have brought all this out into the open. Your dissertation will get much more attention if it’s easily available: online = on the mind. If my example is any indication, your dissertation will make its way into Google Books – perhaps surprisingly as No Preview, without the ability to search the full text (with an uncertain “20??” year to boot). It will also appear in WorldCat, where I discovered that my diss apparently floated over the ocean currents to the University of Wollongong (Australia). In this flat-earth age, your dissertation download link might be brought to the attention of Chinese web surfers, or your abstract even translated into Vietnamese (2011). The flotsam and jetsam of academic history I guess.

If you wrote on a subject that has a broader historiography (and if you didn’t, why bother?), your dissertation will likely come to the attention of bibliographers. In my case, the diss and an annotation were included in Bill Young’s International Politics and Warfare bibliography,  published a mere two years after the dissertation was finished. The timing was rather fortuitous (or not, if you’re paranoid) in this case, since such bibliographies see very sporadic publication.

A relevant dissertation is a cited dissertation, which means that your dissertation will likely get cited before you are able to see the book in print. This depends in part on how long it takes to convert the diss into a monograph – mine took four years (October 2002 to November 2006), and the conventional wisdom suggests a shelf life of six years, depending on the overall activity of your subfield’s historiography. But whether your dissertation gets cited before it becomes a book also depends on your dissertation committee. I was fortunate to have two prolific authors on mine who are kind enough to highlight the work of their students, but this also guaranteed that my diss would be cited by them before I could finish my revisions (John Lynn in 2004 and Geoffrey Parker in 2004 and 2005). In that case, you hope they don’t divulge all of your trade secrets, but you’re not normally in a position to tell them what to publish, nor do you want to refuse their imprimatur on your scholarship. Networking with productive scholars in your field is a requirement for academic advancement, yet the only thing most newly-minted PhDs have to network with is the dissertation.

If you’re trying to get an academic job, you’ll have to decide for yourself how much to lift the secret veil surrounding your conclusions. Here’s where job hunting dovetails with concerns about plagiarism: beyond the intellectual theft, will your ideas be publication-worthy if somebody already published them? How far will you go to prevent such premature release? Will you present your results at a conference, to your peers, to those most likely to steal your ideas? In this situation the paranoid person is damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t: don’t present and nobody will know when someone else steals your ideas; present and you’re letting the would-be thief know the combination to your safe. Or perhaps you’ll reason that getting some articles or book chapters into print quickly will provide a broader audience for your ideas, whet their whistle for the full book, and maybe even forestall any potential plagiarists. After all, it takes a long time to convert the average dissertation into a book. So maybe you publish a few small pieces before the book, or even a summary of the main findings (pink rectangle):

Pre-monograph publications

Publications relating to my dissertation in pink

Of course a lot of this is beyond your control: if you chose a crowded subfield back in grad school, you’ll have more competition, you’ll need to publish more quickly in order to keep up with the historiography, the pressure to plagiarize will likely be greater, as will the likelihood that “your” ideas will be published under someone else’s name.

Now that social media are all the rage, you can also expect all sorts of other sites to mention your dissertation. My own ad on my website (without mentioning the full version online) let the cat peek out of the bag. Posts on your blog might also steal the future book’s thunder. You can also expect word-of-mouth to spread your online dissertation to the winds. Sites like GoodReads mention my dissertation. More and more websites simply automate the inclusion of materials that mention a term, for example here. The more accessible your dissertation is online, the wider it will spread. Does that lead to greater (eventual) book sales? To more opportunities to present your work? To an inability to get it published at all? Who knows.

If your topic is something which non-academics are interested in reading, you can expect your dissertation to appear in all sorts of other places, especially if the dissertation is free while your book costs just south of $200. (That would be an interesting argument for open-access dissertations – nobody will read your astronomically-expensive book, so you might as well offer the dissertation draft for free.) Amateur military historians (i.e. non-academics) are quite capable of using the Internets to find items of interest. This website on Military Architecture includes a paragraph from my diss as well as a link to the full PDF (April, year unclear). This wargamer message board includes a link to a wargaming review of the book (2009). Here’s a Napoleonic website forum reference (May 2013), and another in a wargamer online journal (Winter 2013). Heck, your dissertation might even get mentioned in the comments of a Russian military history blog (2011).

But, it being the Internet, vultures abound as well. For example, this site offers to sell you an iBook copy of my diss for less than 3 euros (“published” May 2013). What a bargain! I won’t mention that you can also download a pirated copy of the published book for that matter.

More seriously, you may very well find your online dissertation work plagiarized, or perhaps ‘copied without proper attribution’ is a more generous phrase. That happened with my dissertation, in a French book on Vauban that shall go unnamed. At least with my dissertation online (and cited in the bibliography in question), it’s easy for any curious reader to pull up the dissertation and see how closely the French text follows my own formulation, even quoting exactly the same examples that I did. But it doesn’t help that the very concept of plagiarism is itself nebulous: not only is its definition unclear here in the US (witness the AHA’s hesitancy to engage the issue), but it is even less clear once we look at graduate student research assistants, not to mention standard practices in other disciplines and the academic cultures of other countries. If you consider overseas markets critical to your work, probably better to err on the side of paranoia if you can.

In short (if you can call 2000 words ‘short’), the availability of my dissertation online hasn’t killed my career, such that it is. But there are plenty of possible rebuttals, beyond the impossibility of (dis)proving counterfactuals. I had a book contract soon after graduation. I was also somewhat protected against plagiarism in that my book was published around the same time as the French plagiarism came out, and a summary of my work was soon thereafter published in French. And to be honest, my career path may be less than ideal for those young, aspiring PhDs still hoping to get a job with a 1-0 teaching load: I’ve yet to be interviewed as an up-and-coming young historian after all.

My impressionistic takeaway on this whole debate: whether a dissertation is embargoed or not probably has little impact on whether most History PhDs get a tenure-track job, and whether most receive tenure. But I’m left with many larger questions about the state of the profession and publishing, and how they relate to jobs. To what extent does the current mandatory online publishing of dissertations explain the tough job market for History PhDs over the past five years? Have recent graduates published their works at lower rates than in the pre-digital age? How many tenure-track History jobs are there overall, compared to the number of applicants, compared to the number of History PhD graduates each year (this policy’s intended target)?  How many of those jobs are at research universities that require a prestigious university press monograph? How many History faculty are denied tenure for failing to publish a book? How much difficulty did those denied tenure have because their dissertation was already online? Is publishing a book enough for tenure at a research school, or do you need glowing reviews as well, which means you really don’t have six years anyway? If you need six years to complete your book, does that mean you’re not competitive for a position that requires a book for tenure in the first place? What is the relative harm when every new PhD has the same 1-3 year embargo – are publishers simply not publishing young PhDs without a longer embargo, and are schools refusing to hire new PhDs as a result? How many dissertations – as a percentage and in absolute numbers – will actually get published by academic presses these days compared to previous decades? To what extent should the AHA base its policies on what the History publishing industry says it wants? Who is this policy really for: the AHA, History departments, History publishers, or all those History PhDs madly scrambling for jobs and adjuncting in the meantime? Too many big questions for me to answer.

The AHA’s policy may assuage the field’s collective conscience, might protect the publishing prospects of a few PhDs, and could serve as a sop to History PhD students livid at their field for preparing them to graduate into un- or under-employment. But it doesn’t address the real crises in academic History: 1) helping the average History PhD land a tenure-track position, and 2) making History more relevant to the broader public. To me, the debate is about a First World problem in a world increasingly made up of Third Worlders.


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10 responses to “To embargo or not to embargo, that is the question”

  1. jostwald says :

    First! Actually, just read a really interesting response on the AHA policy from a librarian’s perspective. At the Inside Higher Ed Library Babel Fish blog.

  2. dpcereza says :

    When the publisher showed reluctance to accept my manuscript, I pointed to him that I had followed William Germanos’ advice in “From Dissertation to Book” (Spanish edition), and therefore the monograph was a new text. It worked.

  3. Erik Lund says :

    The reason that academic hiring is weak is demographics. Each year’s frosh cohort decade or more’s flattening of the incline of population growth than the new PhD cohort. Now that the proportion of the population taking bachelor’s degrees has peaked or even begun to decline, the only practical remedy for this is to drastically raise the cutoff for viable job candidate each year.

    What the gatekeeper function should be is another matter. It is clearly not acceptance into graduate school, and intra-departmental dynamics make it unlikely that it will happen through grading.

    That leaves the cv as presented to the hiring committee. If the hiring committee doesn’t want to read a million books* then it is not going to be a matter of monograph quality. I draw a veil of decency over the further logical steps that get us to the point where the process works more smoothly if there are no monographs or other objective criteria of research and writing ability to consider at all.

    *Ha ha, I said “if.”

  4. Erik Lund says :

    Oops. “Each years’ first year cohort is smaller in proportion to a decade or more of flattening of the incline of population growth compared with the new Ph.D. job candidate cohort.”

    The point is that, due to a general decline, both in the birth rate per thousand and of the population having children, the number of 18 year olds is declining year-to-year in some hiring polities, and in general declining with respect to the number of people coming out of the other end of the process.

    To make this more concrete, let’s take Canada and 2014 as a guide, looking exclusively at the incoming class of 18 year olds and an “ideal” 24-year-old job candidate. Canadian population (1990/1996/2014): 27.5/29.6/July 2012 est. 34.3; birth rate: 15 per thousand/12/11. Reconstructed birth cohorts: 412,500/355,200/377,300. Compare 1990, where we’re looking at 1966 and 1972, respectively: 19.97/22.22 millions, birth rates of 19.3 and 15.2, giving annual cohorts of 385,400 and 337,700. That’s a 12.4% decline in cohort size for the 1990 period, 14% decline for 2014. The numbers are off-the-cuff and beg a number of questions, but suggest why so many would-be academics (and lawyers, dentists, primary education teachers and game designers) are being disappointed these days.

    • jostwald says :

      I suppose one could argue that demography is destiny, but that leaves a lot of unstated assumptions that need to be spelled out. I’d argue the widespread and precipitous decline in state funding of public higher ed is the more proximate cause, due to 1) economic recession and 2) increasing political assaults on the very idea of public higher education, which erode the political will to earmark tax revenues for higher ed, siphon federal student aid to publicly-traded companies and generally privatize public goods, as well as undermine unions and tenure. State budget cuts mean far fewer tenure-track positions offered – make do with one-years and adjuncts, and try to cut entire departments (well-known examples from New York state and Florida). Given these financial pressures, faculty lines are increasingly no longer held by the department, but go back into the general pool, with each department bidding for that open line. For example, say a 20C diplomatic historian retires – the department doesn’t necessarily get to hire another 20C diplomatic historian (much less any type of historian), that line may in fact go to another department altogether, often a sexy one in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, medicine) fields. Budget cuts also mean fewer funds to be split between faculty, an increasing-number of administrators (some very-well paid), as well as building/maintaining increasingly-expensive campus facilities – compare the dorm rooms and facilities of today’s average college to those of 20 years ago. The result for public employees is furloughs, give-backs and increased health premiums, in addition to fewer positions. This is the new reality of higher ed, and we have to factor in how society chooses to mobilize the resources it does have.

      Budget cuts also relate to the dissertation embargo debate, not only in terms of fewer faculty jobs available, but also in terms of fewer budget dollars available for library acquisitions (which are already being stretched with astronomically-high journal subscription rates). According to librarian blogs, this budget crunch means academic libraries are buying far fewer academic books, such that university presses can’t rely on them anymore for a majority of their sales. Since university presses now have to support themselves far more than in the past (due to university budget cuts – see above), that also means they’re less able to publish focused, old-fashioned monographs at a reasonable price-point, which makes it harder for PhDs to get their work published.

      Even demographics are influenced by other factors. Even if the college-age population is decreasing, a higher percentage of kids in today’s college-age cohort is at least starting college. The “college-age” cohort is in fact expanding as well: students are also becoming older as jobs for ‘less-skilled’ workers disappear, i.e. the 15-19 year-old age cohort isn’t the only major contributor to college enrollment these days (in the US, see here for statistics on college enrollment) – colleges love those ‘non-traditional’ students and their tuition dollars. This impacts some disciplines more directly than others, which takes us back to the lack of history faculty positions. Regardless of age, college students are increasingly going ‘to get a job’ (even at Connecticut’s “public liberal arts university”). So that means while the number of history BAs has stayed at about the same level over the past several decades in absolute terms, as a percentage of the overall number of BAs, History’s share is slipping significantly. Add to that the fact that students feel they have to get a graduate degree to get a ‘good job’ – the BA now being equivalent to the High School degree of a few generations ago. The result is more people trying to go to grad school in History and every other field (I’d guess more graduate programs in History vs. 30 years ago, but I’m not positive).

      Lots of variables.

  5. jostwald says :

    I forgot to mention that I also included a link to the full diss on my profile.

  6. Brodie Waddell says :

    Thanks for walking us through your experience. An anecdote is still an anecdote, but I think it is useful to see it from specific person’s perspective. And the snazy timeline/table/map thing is rather interesting too.

    I’d just note that a similar sort of debate has come up in the UK due to the government’s recent decision to mandate all that all published articles be available open access (eventually). The details are complicated and I can certainly see the perspective of both sides, but it’s been interesting to see the reaction of the Royal Historical Society and other learned societies, which have been extremely sharp. Their most recent missive is here:

    • jostwald says :

      Interesting. Much more of this and a cynical proponent of open-access might start to think that there’s possibly a bit too much overlap between officers of the historical societies and those serving as series editors and those otherwise invested in the viability of the academic presses (even in a non-financial sense). We need the presses to serve as gatekeepers to keep the dross out – except of course when a journal’s book reviewer says a press failed to keep out the dross. But what about from the historical society’s perspective? Without a healthy academic publishing industry, who’ll help sponsor conference events, and pay for booths at the book exhibit? Who’ll publish the journal? Hell, who’ll advertise in the journal?
      But that would be paranoid. 😉

      • Brodie Waddell says :

        Yes, I think both the AHA and the RHS are genuinely trying to think about the best interests of the discipline as a whole and perhaps even early scholars in particular, but there’s probably a bit of unconscious ‘motivated reasoning’ going on too.

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