On Embargoing Dissertations

There has been quite a bit of discussion over the last couple weeks about graduate students’ ability to embargo their dissertations.  For those unaware of the process (although, if you’re reading this, I’m going to guess you are in the loop), when a graduate student completes their M.A. thesis or Ph.D. dissertation, it is published by default for public access.  They retain copyright, but can’t prevent it from going public.  The one wrinkle in this process is that they used to have the option of putting an “embargo” on the text, which delayed its public release for a few years.  This gave the young scholar the chance to revise the text and shop it around to presses for official monograph publication without said commercial or academic presses having to be concerned about the alternate (sometimes free) dissertation version of the manuscript floating around.  In recent years, as many institutions have ceased keeping a print copy in their stacks for check-out or interlibrary loan, they have begun requiring students to publish it digitally.  The American Historical Association revised its policies to request that institutions give students a full 6 year embargo option.

Here is a rundown of some of the back-and-forth discussion on the matter.

http://blog.historians.org/2013/07/american-historical-association-statement-on-policies-regarding-the-embargoing-of-completed-history-phd-dissertations/

http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/publishing-dissertation-online/51361

http://crl.acrl.org/content/74/4/368.full.pdf+html

http://blog.historians.org/2013/07/why-put-at-risk-the-publishing-options-of-our-most-vulnerable-colleagues/

http://blog.historians.org/2013/07/qa-on-the-ahas-statement-on-embargoing-of-history-dissertations/

http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/07/24/historians-association-faces-criticism-proposal-embargo-dissertations

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/29/business/media/historians-seek-a-delay-in-posting-dissertations.html

I bring this up because a couple colleagues have asked my thoughts on the matter, knowing that I posted my entire dissertation as a pdf online.  (My M.A. Thesis, out of which I later carved a book chapter and journal article are also posted – along with other publications). So, here are my thoughts.

I think that making scholarship available is very important, but strongly disagree with any policy that forces young scholars to relinquish control over their (often still evolving) work.  Young scholars need time to digest their work and prepare it for full public consumption.  In a previous generation, it was a foregone conclusion that very few people would read your dissertation before the full-length monograph treatment was published.  Heck, few may read the book either!  Via microfilm or interlibrary loan, your dissertation was technically available to the public, but few would actually access it.  Thus, young scholars could comfortably revise, submit to presses for publication, work with editors, and so forth.

This is not the case anymore.  Your publicly available dissertation is now google-able and highly accessible.  This is why the temporary embargo is more important now than ever.  Fresh Ph.D.s must have the option to make their work less accessible for a few years – as the previous generation of microfilmed dissertations had almost by default due to the hassle of ordering and paying for microfilm.

Why did I put mine up as a PDF?  First of all, I had a book contract (Texas A&M Press) before the dissertation was even completed – so I wasn’t concerned about presses balking at my proposal knowing that the dissertation had been made so readily available.  Why then, isn’t TAMU Press requesting that I take it down?  This is perhaps more particular to my project than most.  In short, the book MSS is such a drastic rewrite/revision from the dissertation, that we are not overly concerned about the PDF having any negative impact on book sales.  If anything, I hope, it will whet the appetites of those who are googling it and raise awareness for the forthcoming book.

Time will tell…

In the meantime, new Ph.D.’s, their degree-granting institutions, and the faculty who have more institutional weight to throw around than the graduate students, need to carefully consider all options.  More pressing to the current debate – interested parties need to ensure that all options – including the embargo – are available.

 

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