Academic historians are grappling with a very modern dilemma: how to balance the benefits of making research findings widely accessible online with the need to protect the career prospects of young scholars for whom that research represents years of hard work and sacrifice.
The American Historical Association is calling on universities to adopt new policies giving students the option of embargoing their dissertations for up to six years. In a recent statement, the AHA described the Catch-22 created by the current system.
"Because many universities no longer keep hard copies of dissertations deposited in their libraries, more and more institutions are requiring that all successfully defended dissertations be posted online, so that they are free and accessible to anyone who wants to read them. At the same time, however, an increasing number of university presses are reluctant to offer a publishing contract to newly minted PhDs whose dissertations have been freely available via online sources."
And, the AHA points out, "the book is the measure of scholarly competence used by tenure committees."
Open access advocates counter that the real problem isn't the availability of information but university practices that penalize scholars who have their work shared online. A New York Times story quoted the head of a leading open access organization:
“The idea of locking up ideas for six years is not right,” said Heather Joseph, the executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, which favors open research. “The thing that bothered us the most is that it was a one-dimensional response to a multidimensional issue, and a missed opportunity.”
The Times piece told the story of Yale graduate student Michael Hattem, who supports letting students embargo their dissertations. In a blog post, Hattem elaborated on what's at stake for him and his other peers.
An embargo is not about keeping research, dissertations, or knowledge permanently unavailable; it is about giving students the ability to protect their own professional interests in a situation that did not exist for previous generations of academic historians. And that need only increases as the job market continues its downward spiral.
There's no consensus on just how much putting information online devalues it in the eyes of publishers. In 2011, College & Research Libraries conducted a survey of academic journals and university presses to put hard numbers behind the anecdotal concerns expressed by students and their advisors.
Among university presses, while only 7.3% of respondents would not consider a manuscript derived from a dissertation openly available online, 26.8 % said they would only consider the manuscript if it had been substantially revised from what was posted and 43.9% said it operated on a case-by-case basis. The percentage who said such manuscripts are always welcome: 9.8%.
Scholars who've put their dissertations online have better odds submitting to academic journals; 65.7% of journal editors said such manuscripts are always welcome.
Highlighting another pitfall of putting dissertations out there for anyone to see, UC Berkley history professor Maureen Miller wrote in a letter to the Times about the threat of plagiarism locally and oversees.
"History dissertations include citations to archival discoveries. These finds are an original contribution to knowledge and are not only what academic publishers seek, but also the “commodity” that allows a young historian a career in the field...If their universities put their dissertations online, what’s to stop someone who lives closer to those archives from taking those hard-won citations, adding a few more and publishing the ideas under his or her name?
"What’s to stop a scholar in Asia or Europe, under pressure now to publish in English, from copying a chapter and publishing it under his own name?"
With the 2013-14 academic year set to begin in less than three weeks, the controversy over forcing scholars to post their work online is poised to heat up.