Of Dissertation ‘Embargos’ and Academic Publishing

The American Historical Association’s Council has issued a statement advocating “embargos” on Ph.D. dissertations. The idea is to avoid having Ph.D. dissertations diffused freely on the internet as soon as they are deposited. Instead, dissertations would be available through limited access formats (hard copies or electronic) through interlibrary loan.

The issue that this statement is addressing is the threat to publication that the electronic distribution of dissertations has created. Academic presses have long been loath to publish dissertations unless they are considerably revised, but many acquisition editors have stated publicly that dissertations that are disseminated electronically are simply unpublishable because the dissertation’s availability destroys even a library market for the ensuing monograph.

The AHA’s statement has already produced intense debate on Twitter and blogs. Interestingly, much of the criticism of the AHA’s position that has been posted comes from graduate students who have no experience publishing. Articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed summarize the criticism in the blogosphere.

Despite some critics’ dismissive statements that the AHA is somehow retrograde, the AHA has actually been in the vanguard of digital humanities publishing. Beginning in 1999, the AHA sponsored the Gutenberg-e dissertation prize as an experiment in e-publishing.

The AHA is trying to formulate policies that will help protect fledgling Ph.D. recipients in need of publishing their revised dissertations as monographs. In doing so, the AHA Council is highlighting an problem that has already been identified by professors and researchers in other disciplines. Here are just a few of the articles and blog posts on this issue: The Professor is In blog, Leonard Cassuto in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Some universities already have dissertation embargos (and not just for Ph.D.s in the humanities Ph.D.).  See this policy from the University of Minnesota:

“Students may need to delay the release of the dissertation. Considerations that are likely to be deemed reasonable for granting permission to restrict dissemination include:

  • Patentable rights in the work or other issues in which disclosure may be detrimental to the rights or interests of the author.
  • The ethical need to prevent disclosure of sensitive or classified information about persons, institutions, technologies, etc.
  • The interest of an academic or commercial press in acquiring the rights to publish your dissertation or thesis as a book.
  • Content that is likely to be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal.

“ProQuest has assembled information that may assist in deciding if a hold is needed.”

The full University of Minnesota policy may be viewed online.

My own dissertation, completed in 2001 was deposited with UMI Dissertation service (as required by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign at the time) and is now available online. ProQuest has now purchased UMI Dissertation service and is charging $37.00 for a .pdf download of my dissertation. Meanwhile, Amazon.com is charging a mere $36.00 for a Kindle edition of my heavily revised book, Warrior Pursuits (Johns Hopkins University Press), and only $50.18 for a beautiful hardcover edition. Why would anyone go back to purchase the dissertation now? Check out your own dissertation’s status on the ProQuest website.

Yet, the electronic versions of more recently completed dissertations may prevent their authors from ever landing a book contract with a press.

I have personally heard conference and workshop presentations given by acquisition editors and directors of academic presses at University of Wisconsin Press and Northern Illinois University Press that have described electronically available dissertations as unpublishable. My own contacts with editors at Johns Hopkins University Press backs up this position. Many university press editors seem to believe that book manuscripts now have to be not only revised, but substantially different from dissertations in order to be publishable. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on acquisitions editors and book series editors who are reticent to publish book manuscripts that come out of dissertations that are available online.

For useful publishing advice from acquisitions editors, see an article by Susan Ferber (Oxford University Press) that provides publishing tips in Passport. More advice comes from Marcia Yudkin and Janice Moulton, available online.

William Germano’s Getting It Published: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else Serious about Serious Books (University of Chicago Press) is still a valuable resource on publishing strategies. A chapter of Germano’s book is available online.

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This entry was posted in Academic Publishing, Digital Humanities, Education Policy, Graduate Work in History, History of the Book, Humanities Education, Information Management. Bookmark the permalink.

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