Open Access and Career Planning

My attention was recently called to something going on in the American Historical Association regarding open access for dissertations. The AHA just released a statement stating that they encourage universities to allow embargoes of up to 6 years on completed doctoral dissertations. Their suggestion is that “students who choose to embargo their dissertations should be required to deposit a hard copy of their dissertation in the university library” or, if the library no longer provides space for physical copies, that the digital version of the dissertation that is submitted should allow an embargo of up to six years, during which it would be accessible only on campus or with the student’s explicit permission off campus. The rationale is that in a discipline like history, where the monograph is still the standard for tenure, open access to the dissertation can hinder a scholar’s chances of finding a publisher who will take on the book that is largely based on that dissertation.

Unsurprisingly, this has caused quite a stir. The AHA has come out with a Q&A to answer some of the claims being made both about open access and publishing and about the AHA’s own position. There have been articles in both Inside Higher Ed and in the Chronicle of Higher Education (and here).

I’m lucky to be at an institution where this conversation had already started. Full disclosure: I’m on the committee where a large part of this conversation happened, as one of the student members. Our current system for doctoral dissertation submission, ProQuest, is apparently less flexible than ScholarWorks, which UMass uses for MA theses. I’d known this already, and had a chat with a ProQuest representative at last year’s MLA which resulted in an email from someone at the ProQuest Dissertations office, who said that extending embargoes was no problem; one simply had to contact the office to request an extension. I appreciated the time they took to let me know, but an option like that, where you have to seek out the program representative at a conference, and which the copyright and dissertation submission people at my library didn’t even seem to know about, isn’t much of an option. One article on the Chronicle says that it took one student a month to get access restricted through ProQuest.

[The email included a link to ProQuest’s white paper on the subject, which is partly a sales pitch, but does include the acknowledgment that “some academic journals are putting new policies in place to ensure the articles they publish are actually ‘new’ and not already seen on various Web sites. For authors with their sights set on publishing in important journals, ‘prior publication’ of a dissertation or thesis on the Web may spell disaster” (10). The paper goes on to say that authors can choose a “release restriction” with a deadline (an embargo) or an indefinite restriction that only ends when the author chooses to cancel it (full restriction). Again, the effort is worthy, but if one has to read through this white paper to find that these are possibilities, then it is largely for show rather than use.]

As I said, though, the conversation has begun at UMass, and the hope is to offer several options for access, involving periods from between 6 months and five years and a spectrum of access from open to campus-only to completely closed. I’m glad to have been a part of this discussion, and since I didn’t submit this past year, I might even be able to benefit from the results.

The larger question remains though, and is tied to a number of related questions. What lines can we draw (should we draw) between the dissemination of information and new knowledge (surely the goal of our enterprise) and the need to protect the intellectual “assets” of recent graduates and junior faculty? It is a question that many of us struggle with regarding unofficial sharing of materials: syllabi or unpublished conference papers, for example. In those cases, we can make our decisions individually, and even case by case. Regarding institutionally-mandated sharing, though, the issues shift slightly. Does the institution benefit more from broadcasting the new research that is being carried out, or from allowing doctoral students to “protect” their work?

I think that in some ways, the AHA has made a statement that reflects the only possible position: offering the student options that can be chosen based on all of the individual factors that come into play.

I attended a symposium a few years ago where one scholar (a white man from Australia who currently teaches in Spain) spoke feelingly about the need for openness and respect for the international humanist project whose goal is the sharing of ideas and knowledge. The speaker who came after him (an Indian woman who currently teaches in New York) pointed out that the only reason that he could talk like that is that he occupies a privileged position (as a white man with a Western passport).

The idea of open access is wonderful, like the idea of an international humanist community that has a free exchange of ideas. I’m not sure, though, that the current academic system means that it’s a good idea for all of us. Those of us who don’t yet have that passport of a job (and tenure) might see things differently from those who are already free to travel.


[The symposium I mention is partly available online in video form. The statements on “international liberal humanism” are available here (second video on the page, starting around minute 14:30 on). The topic of that section is a debate begun about 10 years ago about a boycott of Israeli scholars by a prominent Palestinian translation scholar. The response is available here (first video on the page, from minute 2:00).]

Leave a Reply