The American Historical Association seems nuts to me

By Razib Khan | July 23, 2013 9:59 pm

Why the title? Read it for yourself: American Historical Association Statement on Policies Regarding the Embargoing of Completed History PhD Dissertations. Here’s the conclusion:

By endorsing a policy that allows embargos, the AHA seeks to balance two central though at times competing ideals in our profession–on the one hand, the full and timely dissemination of new historical knowledge; and, on the other, the unfettered ability of young historians to revise their dissertations and obtain a publishing contract from a press. We believe that the policy recommended here honors both of these ideals by withholding the dissertation from online public access, but only for a clearly stated, limited amount of time, and by encouraging other, more traditional forms of availability that would insure a hard copy of the dissertation remains accessible to scholars and all other interested parties.

I’m going to try hard not to go “Michael Eisen” on this: did the AHA just compare the dissemination of knowledge with careers? It strikes me that if you do scholarship of any sort the discovery and dissemination of knowledge is all, it is the summum bonum. All else is secondary and marginal. As it is the academic job market is brutally Darwinian in the most extreme sense, and more so for humanities scholars. Can you truly push this thread any further by open access requirements for dissertations? I doubt it. But let’s test this proposition.

Note: I am granting many of the premises of the argument in the statement for the purposes of this post. Even allowing for those premises, when a scholarly discipline goes too far down the careerist rabbit-hole, then it is time for people to start thinking about become actuaries to put bread on the table.


Comments (13)

  1. TheBrett

    It seems pretty perverse that they want to drastically slow down the dissemination of knowledge just to enhance the chance of their graduates getting book deals a couple of years down the line.

    • ryanwc

      Oh, please. Do you also support that pop historians should be forced to post their first drafts online for free when they submit them for publication? I mean, otherwise, it’s a bar to the free dissemination of knowledge. Completely unfair to the public that they’d wait to polish their work and then charge for it …

      What a load of blather here on this issue. Really not up to the normal standard.

      • razibkhan

        Do you also support that pop historians should be forced to post their first drafts online for free when they submit them for publication? I mean, otherwise, it’s a bar to the free dissemination of knowledge. Completely unfair to the public that they’d wait to polish their work and then charge for it …

        ironic that you consider your interlocutor as one engaged in a load of blather. it’s a weak strategy to set up an analogy which you are bound to win because you are a judge, jury, and executioner. academic production is at one end of the spectrum in comparison to journalistic popular non-fiction. the two are comparable, but the comparisons must be modulated. no one subsidies journalistic non-fiction for purposes which presumably have positive externalities. the reason that some scholars are militant about open access in the academy is that it notionally has public goods functions. that’s why it receives public funds.

        your comment was low quality.

        • ryanwc

          My sarcasm was of low quality.

          I’m still not sure anyone is grappling with my point. The question is not really open access, since the policy doesn’t ask universities not to publish them on the web, merely to allow a grace period for the author to pursue other avenues of publication. All these papers will come out.

          The question is whether the timing of access should be up to the college or the author.

          So to pursue a better analogy, there are many subsidized actors in academia who are allowed to hold onto their work until the timing suits them. My uncle is finally releasing volume 5 of his translation of a Chinese classic 15 years after retirement, and the university has provided him with an office the whole time. No one told him, “you have to have this out by 2008”, let alone “you have to put the latest version online for free by 2008.” I don’t begrudge him that.

          I’m just not sure why grad student dissertations are of so much more urgent importance. A dissertation has a deadline, since the expense of going to graduate school (even if subsidized, since there’s an opportunity cost) may push the writer to finish before figuring out the full implications of his or her research.

          I overspoke in saying there was a lot of blather, but there are a lot of posters in this thread and the other one who write as if the policy was blocking online publication, rather than merely giving some discretion over timing to the recently matriculated PhD.

          • razibkhan

            I’m just not sure why grad student dissertations are of so much more urgent importance.

            my understanding is that in history these are the most important publishable units. not as important in the sciences where you produce papers with components of your dissertation substance.

            obviously a time delay does have a de facto function of closing access. the question is whether 6 years is reasonable. i don’t think that it is. 1 year, i can perhaps see…i believe that’s the amount of time an NIH funded publication can be closed.

          • Patrick Wyman

            It’s blocking online publication of the dissertation altogether for that six-year period, not just giving the scholar the option of having the dissertation embargoed while seeking publication. It’s basically sacrificing the immediate relevance of the overwhelming chunk of history dissertations that don’t get book contracts at the expense of the few that do. Six years isn’t as long a period in the humanities as it is in the sciences, but it’s still long enough for the debates to which a dissertation is speaking to peter out. That’s also enough time for a senior scholar to write the same book, get a book contract, publish that book, and get lauded for it before the dissertation’s been seen by the audience.

  2. Charles Nydorf

    Not letting people know about your discoveries does not strike me as a shrewd career move.

  3. bjza

    Note that by publishing they mean small-run monographs. Not pop-history book deals. These monographs have been an important part of the tenure process in recent decades.

    Quoth the top of the statement:
    “Thus, although there is so close a relationship between the dissertation and the book that presses often consider them competitors, the book is the measure of scholarly competence used by tenure committees.”

  4. BobSykes

    Didn’t these guys ever hear of UMI Dissertation Express? Every PhD dissertation in every discipline going back many decades is available from them for a reasonable price, and the dissertation writer gets a royalty.

  5. Jeremy Berg

    “Note that by publishing they mean small-run monographs. Not pop-history book deals. These monographs have been an important part of the tenure process in recent decades.”

    That doesn’t really make it better. The fact that their tenure process is based upon requiring them to put their work in a place where others must pay to read is a fault in the tenure system, not with the open access ideal.

    • razibkhan

      yep. this is the basic response of 95% of people not in history from what i have seen around the web. so what are they not telling us??? has the AHA made a pact with the devil to keep this particular tenure system?? inquiring minds want to know….

      careers come & go, for better or worse. the credibility and integrity (or lack thereof) of a field of scholarship is more lasting.

  6. Patrick Wyman

    I’m a historian close to completing my dissertation, and this is pretty indicative of the general state of affairs in the discipline. Academic history, as a profession, has essentially abdicated any responsibility in educating the broader public about its research. There’s a reason most popular history is written by journalists and not professional historians: there’s absolutely zero positive incentive for historians to write for a broader audience, and in fact it’s actively discouraged by everyone from department chairs to AHA directors to academic publishers to advisors gleefully shooting down PhD students who had eventually hoped to do so.

    This is despite the voracious appetite of the reading public for historical fare. People want to know about the past, and if historians aren’t interested in providing it, they’ll read whatever’s available without evaluating the source. The end result is that professional historians have made themselves irrelevant in the public sphere. What’s really shocking about the whole thing is that most historians treat this as a net positive: now, you see, they can really focus on their research without wasting time catering to people who can’t speak the specialized cant of the discipline.

    Most dissertations don’t become books, and more importantly, most recipients of doctorates in history (anywhere from 85-95 percent) never even sniff the tenure-track job for which a tenure book is necessary. This statement is basically a paean to a time when the AHA could more effectively pretend (or if you want to be charitable, fool itself) into thinking that there’s really a future in academia for most of those who complete dissertations. It’s a cruel irony that the historians whom this policy hurts the most – everyone other than the students of the best-known historians at the top 5-10 institutions, who are massive favorites to get jobs anyway – would actually benefit professionally from the exposure that open dissertation access provides. If this policy becomes the norm, the vast majority of the research that’s conducted will never see the light of the day.

  7. ryanwc

    I read this very differently. They’re saying it should be allowable to embargo your own dissertation. In other words, there are universities that force dissertation-writers to immediately publish their work on-line for free, and the AHA says an author should have discretion for a time if they think they’ve got a shot at a book contract. The criticisms, particularly those talking about this as somehow protecting an old boy network, are utterly preposterous.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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