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.
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).
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):
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.