Historical Association Promotes Policy to Protect Ph.D.’s

Open access to dissertations on the internet is stifling publication opportunities for some Ph.D.’s, says the American Historical Association, which is asking universities and libraries to allow authors to embargo their work.

To assist scholars in the publication process, the American Historical Association is strongly encouraging graduate programs and university libraries to allow freshly minted Ph.D.’s to embargo digital editions of their dissertations.

Many universities award tenure only to those junior faculty who have published a monograph within six years of receiving the Ph.D.

In a statement published on AHA’s website this week, the association argues that digitizing dissertations makes them readily available to the public for free and subsequently decreases the value publishers might find in publishing the content in book form.

Here’s an excerpt from AHA’s statement:

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 Ph.D.’s whose dissertations have been freely available via online sources. Presumably, online readers will become familiar with an author’s particular argument, methodology, and archival sources, and will feel no need to buy the book once it is available. 

The association proposes that authors be allowed to embargo their completed and defended dissertations for up to six years—the amount of time, AHA notes, that it often takes a junior scholar to prepare the work for publication. “Many universities award tenure only to those junior faculty who have published a monograph within six years of receiving the Ph.D.,” the statement adds.

Comments on the association’s website show a divided view of the policy, with one commenter calling it “foolish” and some stating that students should have the right to do what they wish with their intellectual property.

An article in The Atlantic argues that AHA is missing the mark, supporting potentially outdated hiring practices and keeping information out of the hands of the public.

“What is so frustrating about the AHA’s stance is that it seems to view the purpose of historical scholarship narrowly, as a means to securing employment,” The Atlantic’s Rebecca Rosen wrote. “But the value of history is a public one.”

Rosen cites a 2011 survey of academic publishers that found only about 3 percent would not consider publishing work that was already available online.


Katie Bascuas

By Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. MORE

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