In what way is the American Historical Association’s notion of a six-year embargo on digital open-access distribution of dissertations even remotely sustainable in the current publishing and media environment surrounding academia?
On one side, you have disciplinary associations like the Modern Language Association and the American Anthropological Association that have somewhat similar traditions of tying assessment and promotion to the publication of a monograph that are to varying degrees embracing open-access publishing and digital dissemination and trying to work out new practices and standards.
On the other side, you have disciplines that have no particular obsession with the idea of the published monograph as the standard.
Whether or not the published monograph is or ever was a good standard for judging the worth of a historian’s scholarship, how long does the AHA think that historians can stand alone in academia as a special case? “Oh, we don’t do open-access or digital distribution until we’ve got a real book in hand and are fully tenured, those few of us remaining who are in tenure-track positions, because that’s a fundamental part of history’s particular disciplinary structure.”
“Because history dissertations take a long time to write and thus need protection?” Right, unlike anthropology or literary criticism or other fields in the humanities. FAIL.
“Because many publishers won’t publish an open-source dissertation?” Right, so this assumes: a) the dissertation will be so little revised that the two texts would be essentially identical and b) but the magic fairy-dust of a book makes it the real benchmark of a properly tenurable person. E.g., “Oh noes, we couldn’t decide if someone’s scholarship was tenurable from a dissertation that is nearly identical to a book”. Here’s where the real fail comes in because it reveals how much the disciplinary association is accepting the clotted, antiquated attachment of a small handful of tenured historians to their established practices even when those practices have had any semblance of reason or accommodation to reality stripped from them.
Let’s suppose that university presses do stop publishing essentially unrevised dissertations. I can’t blame them: they need to publish manuscripts that have some hope of course adoption and wider readership, sold at a reasonable price, or they need to price up library editions high enough that the remaining handful of “buy ’em all” libraries will make up for the loss of libraries that buy in a more discretionary fashion.
You can understand why the publishers who are largely following option #B would not want to publish monographs that were marginally revised versions of open-access dissertations, because even the richest libraries might well decide that buying a $150 physical copy is unnecessary. But by the same token, again, why should a tenure and promotion process value the physical copy over the digital one if they’re the same? Because the physical copy has been peer-reviewed? Meaning, if two scholars who do not work for the same institution as the candidate have reviewed the manuscript and deemed it publishable, that alone makes a candidate tenurable? Why not just send out the URL of a digital copy to three or four reviewers for the tenure and promotions process to get the same result? Or rely more heavily upon the careful, sophisticated reading of the manuscript (in whatever form) by the faculty of the tenuring department and institution?
What the AHA’s embargo embarrassingly underscores is the extent to which many tenured faculty have long since outsourced the critical evaluation of their junior colleagues’ scholarship to those two or three anonymous peer reviewers of a manuscript, essentially creating small closed-shop pools of specialists who authenticated each other with little risk of interruption or intervention from specialists in other fields within history.
Thirty years ago, when university presses would publish most dissertations, you could plausibly argue that the dissertation which persistently failed review and was not published by anyone had some sort of issue. Today you can’t assume the same. Maybe we never should have given over the work of sensitive, careful engagement with the entire range of work in the discipline as embodied in our own departments, but whether that was ever a good idea, it isn’t now and can’t be kept going regardless.
Suppose we’re talking about option #A instead, the publishers who are being more selective and only doing a print run of manuscripts with potential for course adoptions or wider readership. Suppose you use that as the gold standard for tenurability?
That’s not the way that graduate students are being trained, not the way that their dissertations are being shaped, advised and evaluated. So you would be expecting, with no real guidance and few sources of mentorship, that junior faculty would have the clock ticking on their first day of work towards adapting their dissertations towards wider readability and usefulness. That’s a dramatic migration of the goalposts in an already sadistic process. You could of course change the way that dissertations are advised and evaluated and therefore change the basic nature of disciplinary scholarship, which might be a good thing in many ways.
But this would also accelerate the gap between the elite institutions and every other university and college in even more dramatic fashion: writing scholarship that had market value would qualify you for an elite tenure-track position, writing scholarship that made an important if highly specialized contribution to knowledge in a particular field of historical study would qualify you for more casualized positions or tenure-track employment in underfunded institutions that would in every other respect be unable and unwilling to value highly specialized scholarship. (E.g., have libraries that could not acquire such materials, curricula where courses based on more specialized fields and questions could not be offered, and have little ability to train graduate students in fields requiring research skills necessary for such inquiry.) In terms of the resources and needs of institutions of higher learning, it arguably ought to be the reverse: the richest research universities should be the institutions which most strongly support and privilege the most specialized fields and therefore use tenure and promotion standards which are indifferent to whether or not a scholar’s work has been published in physical form.
Yes, it’s not easy to move individual departments, disciplines or entire institutions towards these kinds of resolutions. But it is not the job of a professional association to advocate for clumsy Rube Goldberg attempts to defend the status quo of thirty years ago. If individual faculty or whole departments want to stick their heads in the sand, let that be on them. An organization that aspires to speak for an entire discipline’s future has to do better than that. The AHA’s position should be as follows:
1) Open-access, digitally distributed dissertations and revised manuscripts should be regarded as a perfectly suitable standard by which to judge the scholarly abilities of a job candidate and a candidate for tenure in the discipline of history. A hiring or tenuring committee of historians is expected to do the work of sensitive and critical reading and assessment of such manuscripts instead of relying largely on the judgment of outside specialists. The peer assessment of outside specialists should be added to such evaluation as a normal part of the tenure and promotion process within any university or college.
2) The ability of a historian to reach wider audiences and larger markets through publication should not become the de facto criteria for hiring and tenure unless the department and institution in question comprehensively embraces an expectation that all its faculty in all its disciplines should move in the course of their career towards more public, generalized and accessible modes of producing and disseminating knowledge. If so, that institution should also adopt a far wider and more imaginative vision of what constitutes engagement and accessibility than simply the physical publication of a manuscript.