Publishing Dissertations on the Internet

Anna Julia Cooper

The American Historical Association issued a “statement on policies regarding best practices for embargoing completed history PhD dissertations:” Snippets below:

“The American Historical Association strongly encourages graduate programs and university libraries to adopt a policy that allows the embargoing of completed history PhD dissertations in digital form for as many as six years. 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. 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. As a result, students who must post their dissertations online immediately after they receive their degree can find themselves at a serious disadvantage in their effort to get their first book published; it is not unusual for an early-career historian to spend five or six years revising a dissertation and preparing the manuscript for submission to a press for consideration. During that period, the scholar typically builds on the raw material presented in the dissertation, refines the argument, and improves the presentation itself. 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…

…History has been and remains a book-based discipline, and the requirement that dissertations be published online poses a tangible threat to the interests and careers of junior scholars in particular. Many universities award tenure only to those junior faculty who have published a monograph within six years of receiving the PhD. With the online publication of dissertations, historians will find it increasingly difficult to persuade publishers to make the considerable capital investments necessary to the production of scholarly monographs….”

Jacqueline Jones, AHA Vice President (Professional Division) and Professor of History at University of Texas-Austin expanded on questions raised about the statement in a blog post at AHAToday.

The statement is part of a long, long conversation about the relationship between open access scholarship, dissertations, book publishing, and tenure. Barbara Fister, writing for Inside Higher Ed, reviews the issues at hand from a library’s perspective by revisiting a blog post by Doug Armato of the University of Minnesota Press (reshared by Mark Sample on Twitter in the wake of the statement). Fister writes:

“…The AHA believes that opening access to dissertations puts young historians at risk. They should be allowed to keep their dissertations under wraps for a period of time matching the traditional tenure clock. Dissertations are the rough draft of first books, and since the worth of historians is measured in books, not dissertation downloads, their ideas must not be squandered on the open internet but reserved for proper recognition and career rewards….

…Well, there are a lot of problems with this solution. Libraries have been buying fewer books no matter whether they are based on dissertations or not; they won’t buy more books because dissertations go offline. Academic publishers no longer earn enough from libraries to base their decisions on what libraries might do. Quality publishers never did (so far as I can tell) assume dissertations were all-but ready to be revised, put between boards and sold. Following the rules in the traditional way no longer leads to tenure….”

This, if reality, is not a reality the AHA seems prepared to grapple with* and as a result….

“There’s something weirdly helpless in this statement. Books are what matters to historians and that will never change. Publishers are an immutable force of nature, as are tenure and promotion committees. Librarians and program heads, however, can be told what to do. If they don’t change their ways “young historians” will lose the “unfettered ability . . . to revise their dissertations and obtain a publishing contract from a press” because those pesky online dissertations are standing between a scholar and a fetter-free book contract.”

Read the rest at Inside Higher Ed. (H/T to Dan Cohen for sharing the Fister article on Twitter)

Harvard University Press also issued a statement:

“…In this whole discussion, academic publishers tend to be characterized as a strangely passive lot, sitting back, keeping the gate, waiting for scholars to come to us and meet our terms for entry. If that was ever the case, it certainly is no longer. An enormous part of a university press acquisitions editor’s job is to be out scouting for new voices, new ideas, and new inquiries. And as Distelberg notes, much of that scouting takes place online, where these conversations are happening. If you can’t find it, you can’t sign it….”

Read the rest here.

Adeline Koh recently published her dissertation online and shared the logic behind her decision in a post for Profhacker:

“….Let me state up front that I do not disagree with the AHA statement. I have heard of a number of cases where people have been denied book contracts because their dissertation is available online, which can be potentially disastrous if one requires a book for tenure at their institution. Whether or not a book is the best marker of tenure and promotion in humanities fields is an important and needed conversation to have. However, I cannot determine standards for advancement at all institutions, and so I would advise anyone who is considering making their dissertation available online to consider what they might need from their dissertation in their professional future. Through the many interviews I have conducted with presses and libraries in my “Digital Challenges to Academic Publishing” series here at ProfHacker, I have learned that there is no single industry standard or singular point of view for what makes things publishable or profitable. For example, while one acquisitions editor might look at a highly downloaded dissertation as a good indication of a market for a book, another editor look at the exact same dissertation and and decide that the availability of an online dissertation will compete with–and hurt sales of–any book that grows out of it.

To me, all of this means that whether or not you choose to publish your dissertation online is a decision that you should be free to make on an individual basis….”

Read the rest here.

For my part, the AHA’s statement appears to have been written as though the digital humanities doesn’t exist and open-access publishing (including peer review) has never been discussed. The statement also says more about the book-length monograph as a system of many moving parts (made up of authors, archivists, university presses, libraries, student and others) whose purpose, in the humanities, is to confer or deny tenure, than it does about the book as an intellectual work of art.

Image Credit: [“Yours Sincerely, A. J. Cooper”] Frontispiece Image from Anna Julia Cooper, A Voice From the South, Xenia, OH: The Aldine Printing House, 1892 via DocSouth (

*Sidenote: Once upon a time, a blog post circulated describing the history of the monograph-as-tenure model and arguing it is really a very recent phenomenon, even in the historical profession. If you have a link, please pass it along, and I will add it to this post.


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