Some of you may have read about the recent call from the American Historical Association to Ph.D.-granting universities to permit their recently credentialed historians to leave their dissertations off-line for six years in order to give the junior scholar time to revise the dissertation for publication. The AHA’s reasoning?
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. Many universities award tenure only to those junior faculty who have published a monograph within six years of receiving the PhD. With the online publication of dissertations, historians will find it increasingly difficult to persuade publishers to make the considerable capital investments necessary to the production of scholarly monographs.
I read through the AHA statement, the New York Times article on the subject, and a blog post by Berkeley biologist and open access advocate Michael Eisen (courtesy of Comradde PhysioProffe). I agree entirely with Eisen. The AHA position is wrongheaded, although I’ve got some different reasons to disagree with the call to embargo disseratations than Eisen has. Let me explain:
First of all, when I heard about this controversy, it sounded to me like some of the more paranoid fantasies from graduate school that circulate among young scholars masquerading as advice: did you hear about the grad student whose brilliant research was totally scooped by a senior scholar sitting in the audience when ze gave a paper and innocently shared a copy of it with the senior scholar, who then went on to steal hir research and publish it to great acclaim? Didn’t you know that you need to worry about this at every conference you attend? No? These are stories of scholarly skullduggery that are famous as grad school urban legends, but I’ve never actually seen or heard of anything like this happening to any specific person in 23 years. All variations on this story have the same implied moral, which is that scholarly generosity and engagement is foolish, and secrecy and aggressive self-interest is prudent or even virtuous. And that seems to me to be the exact opposite of how to succeed as a professional historian.
So to my ears, the fear that university presses will see an electronic copy of a dissertation as a reason to decline publishing a quality monograph seems equally paranoid, for at least few reasons:
- There is no evidence that this is even a real problem. The Times article makes this very clear, which makes me wonder why they published the story in the first place: “Peter M. Berkery Jr., the executive director of the Association of American University Presses, said he spent a day quickly learning about the issue, which had not been on his radar, and came away confused by the stir. He said he spoke to 15 heads of university presses, and “I haven’t found one person who has said if it is available open access, we won’t publish it.” Citing his own experience at Oxford University Press, he said that a book was necessarily an entirely different work from the dissertation that laid its groundwork, and is judged on its own terms.”
- Even university presses these days like to pretend that they’re not publishing revised dissertations. This is a weird newish fetish. I was specifically warned against using the word “dissertation” at all in the acknowledgements of my book,even though my book was a totally new project and not based at all on my dissertation,because (as I was told by the copyeditor) “we don’t want readers to think this project was originally a dissertation.” Because. . . ? Because it’s not, but I didn’t see why I needed to pretend that I hadn’t been to graduate school.
- If you’ve written a dissertation, it’s already available in hard copy to anyone with access to interlibrary loan or a credit card and the University Microfilms International website or phone number, even if it’s not (yet) downloadable on WorldCat, which it probably is if it was completed in this century. I’m amazed that no one has yet pointed this out, but the point of the dissertation is that it’s an original piece of research that’s meant to be shared. Dissertations are published research, albeit they have traditionally not circulated as widely as books or journal articles. That’s why back in the twentieth century, I had to show up with two hard copies of my dissertation printed on high-quality cotton rag paper to have the Margin Lady measure my margins and approve the dissertation for 1) shelving a copy in the university’s own library, and 2) sending a copy to University Microfilms International in Ann Arbor, Michigan so it could be microfilmed and printed on-demand for anyone who wanted to buy a copy. To me, the availability of dissertations digitally is merely a convenience. It’s much easier to download whatever dissertation I want to look at, but I can use these twentieth-century technologies to get my hands on it.
- If your concern is plagiarism (per the aforementioned urban legend), get over yourself. If you’ve written a dissertation based on archival research and creative analysis, and you’ve gone to the trouble of finding new documents or unearthing long-neglected sources, it will be nearly impossible to steal or otherwise plagiarize your work. In other words, if you’ve been a good graduate student–put the time in in the archives, given a few conference papers, or even published an article or two–your work is more than likely perfectly safe, because stealing or plagiarizing it will be so obviously traceable to you. Alternatively, if you’ve not been very good at your job so far–you’ve chosen a well-trod-upon subject, using the same boring (and usually published) sources like The Papers of (Your Favorite U.S. President Here), especially if you’re writing about the so-called Founding Fathers or something that every trade press and journalist-”historian” has already published a thousand books on in the twenty-first century alone: well then, I suppose you’re entitled to your paranoia. (But how can you claim that your analysis is truly original anyway? To me, it seems both easier and more prudent to find a new subject and do some aggressive archival research.)
- Finally, how much time and effort do you think other people put into thinking about you and/or your dissertation? Srsly. If you’re lucky, your dissertation advisor read every page and gave you substantial comments on the whole thing, but honestly: she’s probably the only one, and if she was that faithful and conscientious, count yourself lucky, because not all advisors are like this. There are peer-reviewed books that have been out for more than a decade that I haven’t read yet. (This means that I can continue to think of them as “new books.” It’s a coping strategy.) I can barely keep my own career together–do you really think your colleagues in the profession have either the time or energy to do you in, even if they truly wanted to?
This whole issue calls to mind something Jonathan Rees has written on his blog about MOOCs and online ed to the effect that “if you can be replaced by a computer, then you should be.” If someone can plagiarize your dissertation, then you haven’t written a very original dissertation. But even if I’m wrong, don’t you want your dissertation to be widely available so that you can make your case more effectively to your colleagues or potential publishers?
Why hide your light under a bushel? Like I said: openness and generosity are the hallmarks of the successful scholar. In both my professional and my personal life, I have never regretted generosity towards others. To the contrary, I am haunted by the times I had the opportunity to be generous, and I chose to be ungenerous instead. We’re talking a Crack Up-style “real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning” kind of regret. friends. Don’t let it happen to you.
Instead, cast your seed widely. Be flattered if someone downloads your dissertation–they might just like it enough to cite it, promote it, and even agree to serve as your press reviewer one day. She might even ask you to apply for a job. She might be asked to review your tenure file and agree to do it because she liked your dissertation so much. You never know.