To Embargo or Not to Embargo: ...What Was The Question? (An #AHAgate Link Round-Up)

Cara Burnidge

As many readers already know, this has been a week full of excitement for members of the American Historical Association, especially its #twitterstorians. It has already been dubbed #AHAgate. On Monday, the AHA posted its "Statement on Policies Regarding the Embargoing of Completed History PhD Dissertations." Adopted at the June 2013 AHA Council meeting, the Statement begins with the clear recommendation:
"The American Historical Association strongly encourages graduate programs and university libraries to adopt a policy that allows the embargoing of completed history PhD dissertations in digital form for as many as six years."
With more universities making digital copies of dissertations available and easy accessible beyond the university, the AHA contends, publishers will be increasingly reluctant to turn revised dissertations into books. The statement goes on to explain that "History has been and remains a book-based discipline, and the requirement that dissertations be published online poses a tangible threat to the interests and careers of junior scholars in particular." The AHA sums up its policy decision by stating:
"the AHA seeks to balance two central though at times competing ideals in our profession--on the one hand, the full and timely dissemination of new historical knowledge; and, on the other, the unfettered ability of young historians to revise their dissertations and obtain a publishing contract from a press. We believe that the policy recommended here honors both of these ideals by withholding the dissertation from online public access, but only for a clearly stated, limited amount of time..."

The online challenges to the Statement came almost immediately with the first comment to the AHA blog post reading "Stupid and stunning." Twitterstorians were not far behind with their own, varied comments and analyses. (AHA storified many of them, which can be read here. Michael Hattem's version can be found here.) While the Statement is straightforward, it should come as no surprise that it erupted into controversy, because it touches on a number of topics central to the academy, namely individual control over research and intellectual property, the expectations and purpose of graduate school, expectations for job placement, the requirements for promotion and tenure, the nature of the university, the function of the humanities in society (the specter of STEM), and the role of publishing, publishing, publishing. [I probably left some things out, but you get the idea--this issue of embargoing dissertations seems to be the keystone for several debates.]

While the ongoing conversation is more complicated, I will do my best to summarize some key issues (feel free to weigh in): The sharpest critiques of the statement come from supporters of open access who first challenge the AHA's assumptions that publishers aren't willing to work with historians who make their work available online, often using this survey as evidence. There is also anecdotal evidence, like Shelia Brennan, Jennifer Guiliano, and Adeline Koh at ProfHacker, who made their dissertations available yet also received book contracts for books based on their open access work. The frustration is that the AHA is contributing to a culture that remains afraid of open access because it is relatively new and unknown. As the Harvard University Press blog explained "when we at HUP take on a young scholar's first book, whether in history or other disciplines, we expect that the final product will be so broadened, deepened, reconsidered, and restructured that the availability of the dissertation is irrelevant." (They also note that their size as a publisher is a major factor in that position) In fact, HUP wonders why the AHA isn't considering how open access can help young scholars, and why it is assuming it only hurts them. This leads to the second concern of open access supporters (and what I consider to be the more important one because it relates broadly to all academics), that the AHA doesn't seem to be considering the changing nature of the academy (particularly the trend toward MOOCs and open access generally--not just with dissertations) and the business of publishing (also trending away from traditional printed books), that it remains overly focused on books, books, books.

The AHA followed-up their original statement with a Q&A meant to clarify several points. Namely, that students should be able to decide for themselves whether or not to embargo; that this policy is one in a series of policies aimed at changing the academy; that this policy is not a reflection of the interests of publishers alone; and that choosing to embargo does not stifle scholarship because scholarship should be a matter of individual control. William Cronon buttressed the Q&A with his own statement "Why Put at Risk the Publishing Options of Our Most Vulnerable Colleagues?" stating more directly
"This isn't about dissing online scholarship or defending the book-length monograph as the only legitimate form of historical scholarship. It quite emphatically is not about refusing to share the fruits of historical scholarship for all time to come. It's about preserving the full range of publishing options for early-career historians and giving them some measure of control over when and how they release their work to the world."
Noting that he is concerned with "the long-term survival of books" (and, he notes, not its "hegemonic dominance") and insisting that this is not about tenure, Cronon critiques "open-access enthusiasts" for denying young scholars the opportunity to turn their dissertation into a book, particularly "before their careers are properly launched." [It deserves noting that Cronon here equates open access supporters with university policies that require students to make their dissertations available to open online access, which for Mills Kelly and many others, are not synonymous positions.]

Not to speak for him, but Cronon's concern for the proper timing of students' work seems to be the same reason Michael Altman decided to embargo his dissertation. I embargoed mine too and, not surprisingly, it was one of the questions I was asked when meeting with editors. Even though I did embargo--and I am grateful to have made the choice myself--I am sympathetic to critiques of the AHA's statement, particularly Brian Sarnacki's "The Ivoriest Tower," when he writes,
 "I understand the impulse of Cronon and those who wrote the AHA's statement. They want to protect their students from a broken system. The problem is they didn't actually seek to reform the system. To them it was crafted out of compassion, but for their AHA members who do not live in the Ivoriest portions of the Ivory tower it looks like leaders who are out of touch with the most pressing issues facing the discipline."
This is a complex issue that involves many "pressing issues" and controversial topics that cannot be resolved with one statement alone. Nevertheless, I'm interested in the conversation. Feel free to join in....

*Most links for this post were found via Open History, vol. 1 #AHAgate. There are more at the site.

The American Historical Association strongly encourages graduate programs and university libraries to adopt a policy that allows the embargoing of completed history PhD dissertations in digital form for as many as six years.  - See more at:
Statement on Policies Regarding the Embargoing of Completed History PhD Dissertations - See more at:
Statement on Policies Regarding the Embargoing of Completed History PhD Dissertations - See more at:


Tom Van Dyke at: July 27, 2013 at 1:09 PM said...

"History has been and remains a book-based discipline..."

Hah. And music remains a vinyl-based medium. What a ridiculous statement--the revolution has already been digitized.

That said, I'm all in favor of people making a buck off a year or ten of painstakingly hard work. OTOH, embargoes on historical finds resemble Big Pharma trying to patent genes. Just because you found it doesn't mean you own it.

Tough one.

Micah Vandegrift at: July 29, 2013 at 11:47 AM said...

This is a great overview, and a thoughtful one. As a librarian, I just wanted to make sure that the libraries position is clarified. One of the AHA's concerns is that libraries, the primary market for academic monographs, are no longer buying books based on open access dissertations. The best evidence I can give that this claim is absolutely false is to point to this post by Kevin Smith, Duke University's scholarly communication officer and a leader in our field.

To the points about tenure requirements and the state of history as a field - I'll leave that to you all. Just know, librarians are invested in your success, especially in getting you the broadest dissemination of your work and staking a claim to your research early in your career. Releasing your dissertation has the potential to make that possible.

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