Troubling the AHA’s Embargo Waters

By July 26, 2013

There’s a naval and mercantile metaphor in there somewhere, even if my post title doesn’t quite capture it. This is a short post just to call attention to the squall on today’s horizon about open access, digital dissertation publishing, and the tough choices facing history grad students navigating the internet’s rough seas. A perfunctory glance at my Twitter feed this morning shows that although the AHA issued a policy statement way back on the 22nd against timely open access digital publication of dissertations, today was the day it surfaced big-time. Breached the waters, you might say. It’s perhaps a tempest in a disciplinary teapot, but still: young scholars, best to take note.

Most of the folks I follow on Twitter reacted with dismay, sarcasm, and eye-rolling. They castigated the AHA’s policy as half-baked, “regressive and reactive” (@ianmilligan1), narrow-minded, “ill-considered” (@jtheibault), and lacking in creativity. The sputtering academics created academicdave_AHA26Jul13 a Twitter buzz, which got Storify’d and the digital humanities/open access heavies weighed in for comment. That’s how it rolls these days, life moves pretty fast.

As universities and graduate programs increasingly archive dissertations in digital format (often with immediate open access), the issue is whether this practice routinely jeopardizes potential book contracts, thus hurting job and advancement chances at places with traditional monograph expectations for tenure. I recognize not only the sentiment, but the voice of one of its primary authors: VP of the AHA’s professional division and my own grad advisor, Jacqueline Jones (then at Brandeis, now at University of Texas Austin). I can attest she has always taken a highly pragmatic approach to the dissertation-to-book transition and is herself a prolific author savvy to the realities of both trade and academic publishing. I believe she is utterly sincere in trying to represent the interests of emerging and junior scholars here (this seems to be Cronon’s position, too), and not just parroting the AHA’s own recalcitrance (or hamhandness) about technology and new publishing paradigms or taking the publisher’s profits as the main thing worth saving. But I will say that the AHA lining itself up this way has indeed left it looking defensive and irrelevant. Those of us who study/belong to the LDS Church know a thing or two about institutions that see themselves as staunch defenders of traditionalism and gatekeepers of content (online and otherwise), so – I’ll just leave the analogy at that.

Much of the hand-wringing is about what business historians are in, anyway. The monograph & tenure racket, which is all about scarcity and competition? Or the business of making and sharing historical knowledge, which is limitless but doesn’t necessarily pay the bills? And grad students may find themselves pinned between the change that’s coming and the old ways that refuse to make room for that change. The AHA’s statement insists: “History has been and remains a book-based discipline” – but methinks they do protest too much; how can anyone even still say this without qualification in 2013?

So what’s a PhD candidate to do? You may not have options, depending on your institution. Keep in mind that the AHA’s statement was meant for institutions, anyway, not for individuals. But if you do have some flexibility in where/when your dissertation goes online, what then? Adeline Koh (U Michigan Comp Lit ’08) argues over at ProfHacker: publish it anyway, but only if your local weather is right (in her case, chapters were already sent out for publication and the proposed book revision would be substantively different; she charged a little bit for access and CC licensed the whole enchilada). Would you do the same? Have you?

I know we have lots of JI contributors & readers at various stages of the dissertation, revision, job search and publication process and I’d love to hear what your thought calculus looks like. Do weigh in.

Article filed under Digital Humanities JIers in Print Scholarly Inquiry State of the Discipline


  1. Update: Harvard University press adds its two cents this afternoon on their blog with a post titled: “Can’t Find It, Can’t Sign It.” Quoting in part:

    prior availability doesn’t have a clear relationship to market viability

    Interesting. The plot thickens.

    Comment by Tona H — July 26, 2013 @ 3:39 pm

  2. Thanks, Tona. Former AHA president and top historian William Cronon weighs in:

    Comment by David G. — July 26, 2013 @ 4:26 pm

  3. Thank you for your thoughts and contextualizing this for us Tona. I’m not on the track to seek tenure nor deal with post-dissertation life but can definitely sympathize with those who are in such a situation.

    Here are some of my recent readings on this topic, all across the board. Some are reactionary some productive, but all have taken some time to chew on the topic:

    Comment by Tod Robbins — July 26, 2013 @ 6:29 pm

  4. Are posted dissertations available to everyone or only through university-library websites?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 27, 2013 @ 2:59 pm

  5. Stephen,

    It depends on the university policy, the choice of the author (sometimes), and the functionality of a library/repository website (ha!).

    Comment by Tod Robbins — July 27, 2013 @ 10:57 pm


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