Historians Don’t Have to Live in the Past

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.”

Um, why?

“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.

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19 Responses to Historians Don’t Have to Live in the Past

  1. x.trapnel says:

    Well put. I think the SF Declaration on Research Assessment, though developed with natural scientists in mind, is on target here–it’s not enough simply to push for open access; the entire system of evaluation needs to be reworked to account for digital distribution.

  2. Jo VanEvery says:

    Isn’t the whole reason we look at publication in tenure and other processes because we care about the impact on the advancement of knowledge? In a pre-digital age, in order for other historians to have access to the knowledge produced, it needed to be published in paper form. The monograph represents a sustained piece of scholarly research that presumably makes a contribution.

    It seems particularly perverse that a scholarly association would be advocating that scholars not use methods of dissemination that have the potential to reach more scholars. Have they lost sight of what review processes are trying to evaluate?

    The questions of the similarity of the dissertation to the book, and the quality of the dissertation are separate issues.

    Is there that little confidence in the institutions that award PhDs that the quality of the dissertation itself is in question? If so, address that directly.

    A dissertation is a very particular type of document written for a particular purpose. In addition to the contribution to knowledge it must contain evidence of knowledge of the relevant disciplinary scholarship, and disciplinary ways of knowing. There is a lot of hoop jumping in a dissertation that is not required in a book.

    That fundamental difference between a dissertation and a monograph is also why scholars should be encourage to publish their dissertation research (in whatever form makes most sense) and not assume that anyone other than their examining committee read the dissertation no matter how widely available.

    The proposed embargo seems to sidestep all of these issues. Who are historians voting for in association elections?

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    The point about dissemination is especially crucial in relation to junior scholars, because they are the people who most need to circulate and connect with networks beyond their graduate-school network of peers and advisors. Demanding that they give up the possibility of putting their most important work in a format where it is readily discoverable in an age where knowledge production is increasingly driven by what can be discovered is especially perverse.

  4. andrew says:

    One thing to note is that this isn’t just about open access. The embargo statement also applies to dissertations in the very not open to the general public ProQuest dissertations and theses database. The argument being that a library that subscribes to the ProQuest database will be less likely to buy books based on dissertations in the database because patrons already have access.

    There seems to be some evidence – anecdotal – that this thinking is indeed influencing some libraries’ acquisitions policies. I suspect there’s some misunderstanding or even disagreement about what it means to revise a dissertation in history. My experience as a reader is that the book that started as a dissertation is usually different enough that you wouldn’t think of the dissertation as a “draft”, which is what I think of when I think of something to be “revised”. And most of the history books I’ve read came out when you were lucky to get the dissertation on microfilm. Substantial revision has always been the goal for the first book (if based on the dissertation) – or at least that’s what I understood to be the goal when I was in history graduate school.

  5. David says:

    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.

    You mean, something like this?

    “The principle underlying these guidelines is that when institutions seek work with digital media and faculty members express interest in it, the institution must give full regard to this work when faculty members are hired or considered for reappointment, tenure, and promotion.”


  6. David says:

    Or like this?

    “Current standards for evaluating historical scholarship for tenure and promotion do not reflect the great variety of historical practice undertaken by faculty members, including a growing body of publicly engaged and collaborative scholarship. The work of faculty members pursuing civically engaged and collaborative scholarship is too often overlooked in a tenure process that emphasizes single- authored monographs and articles at the expense of other types of scholarly production. At the same time, tenure guidelines fail to acknowledge the increasing numbers of historians hired by institutions specifically to direct public history programs or to teach as designated public history faculty.”


  7. Sean Takats says:

    “Demanding that they give up the possibility of putting their most important work in a format where it is readily discoverable in an age where knowledge production is increasingly driven by what can be discovered is especially perverse.”

    And it’s perverse because it channels junior scholars’ fear, uncertainty, and doubt about their professional standing into shying away from publicly asserting ownership over their own intellectual property and reaping the benefits of sharing it widely.

  8. LFC says:

    Re ProQuest (Andrew’s comment above):
    Patrons of libraries which subscribe to the ProQuest database only have access to the opening pages of a dissertation. You can’t sit down at the terminal, go to ProQuest, and read or download someone’s entire dissertation for free. You can only see the abstract, t.o.c., other front matter, and the opening 20 or 25 or so pages, at least for recent dissertations — unless ProQuest has changed its policies since the last time I used it.

  9. The way I read the AHA statement is that they are only advocating that departments permit graduates to embargo their dissertation, not that it is the default mandate imposed upon all graduates. (From the linked to statement, emphasis mine: “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.”)

    I don’t have much beef with the idea that history is too monograph-centric, and in principle I like the idea of open-access. But putting it in control of the graduate, which is how I view the AHA suggestion, is different from issuing a mandatory embargo.

  10. ArtsLib says:

    As a response to an earlier comment, I can assure you that no library would forgo purchasing a faculty publication because a some version of a pre-print was already in their institutional repository. In fact, libraries are already archiving and preserving faculty pre- and post-print publications while still subscribing to the journals that they ultimately appear in. We can’t subscribe to everything, but those archival decisions are not to substitute purchasing. While we are very concerned with staying on top of new technology and ensuring we’re providing the resources our faculty and students need, we still want to preserve the work of our faculty and students for the long term. In the realm of the humanities where, as we’ve already seen discussed, a dissertation should not resemble a journal article pre-print, there is something much bigger going on if we’re telling our students/faculty/scholars that they don’t need to consult a full body of scholarship when doing their research.

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    Re: David’s links to actual statements, my feeling is that AHA is having a much harder time than MLA in putting some real force or energy into these convictions. This is not the first time that the organization has appeared to carrying water for a very particular subset of existing academic publishers.

    Pierre: you’re right on the wording of the policy but I don’t think it’s wrong to think that the AHA is essentially offering soft advocacy of the practice of embargoing.

  12. Mr. Burke:

    Yeah, you’re probably right. I do think, however, that as long as it’s framed as putting more control by the dissertation writer over how and when their work becomes public, embargoing can be a good thing. Within limits, of course: after a certain point, any dissertation ought to be as public as possible, and I’d be willing to say that 6 years might be too long.

    I recently finished my dissertation (in history), and I had the opportunity to embargo it. I didn’t do it for a variety of reasons (I don’t plan on publishing a monograph, the process was too confusing for me, I think there is an additional fee, and frankly, my only hope for anyone reading it is for it to be online as soon as possible), but I appreciated the opportunity.

    By the way, I’ve been reading your archived posts at this blog for several months and I”m a big fan. I look forward to reading more.

  13. andrew says:


    In my experience, the ProQuest database has changed over time. When I was an undergrad in the late 90s, it was pretty much just abstracts. In grad school in the early 2000s, it was abstracts and previews plus full text of recent dissertations at my institution. When I went back to grad school again a few years ago, the subscription gave full text for many dissertations, but also previews and abstracts. I think it depends on the institution and even on the dissertation author’s choice. But you certainly can get full text of many dissertations if your library subscribes.


    I hope you’re right, but I’ve seen conflicting information on this. I don’t doubt what you say about libraries buying books written by faculty at their own institutions, but I’ve seen multiple librarians say that some libraries exclude the category of “revised dissertations” from their approval plans. Approval plans are not the only way libraries buy books, of course, but if that is indeed happening, I can see how people could interpret it as a sign that libraries are less inclined to purchase books that are revised dissertations. I would really like to see someone who is familiar with acquisitions weigh in on this because I also see people asserting that it is not happening.

  14. RobS says:

    This isn’t really my thing but I thought you might like the synchronicity of this: http://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=3059#comic

  15. David says:

    Re: David’s links to actual statements, my feeling is that AHA is having a much harder time than MLA in putting some real force or energy into these convictions.

    It’s possible, though I note the Gutenberg e-book program, which is a long standing attempt to figure out digital publishing. But I’m also struck by how much of the situation comes out of the reaction. The AHA posts policies about digital scholarship in tenure decisions and there’s nary a peep on Twitter (at least that I recall); the AHA posts on embargoing a dissertation and Twitter reacted like it was the zombie apocalypse.

  16. Withywindle says:

    I know you have a lot on your plate, but maybe you could work up a formal memorandum, perhaps with collective digital signatures, elaborating your preferred alternate policy, and submit it to some high-up at the AHA? I think you might be able to get a policy change through if you did that.

  17. LFC says:

    “I think it depends on the institution and even on the dissertation author’s choice. But you certainly can get full text of many dissertations if your library subscribes.”

    Ok, I’ll defer to this inasmuch as my experience w/ the database has been occasional use at one institution. (The company may well have a tiered system of institutional subscriptions, w/ the most expensive one giving full-text access (or more full-text access) than less expensive options. I’m just speculating.)

  18. ArtsLib says:

    In my experience, approval plans are being cut period. In fact, I just eliminated them for all of my departments – I think the movement is really towards user- and curriculum-driven collection. i do think there is a lot less approval purchasing over-all — it just doesn’t necessarily make sense with the volume of scholarship being produced and needing to support some fairly diverse scholar communities. definitely a loss less “just in case” purchasing.

  19. PQuincy says:

    I’ve listened to only too many tortured conversations about (a) “is the book under contract, accepted, forthcoming, or in press — because we couldn’t possibly vote favorably for tenure if it isn’t in press, but just accepted,” (b) “it’s all well and good that the candidate’s book has been accepted, but the editor’s e-mail arrived two days after the cutoff, so no review for her this year,” and (3) “well, in my subfield no one has heard of Press X, so we can’t possibly consider this book seriously.”

    History as a discipline is particularly bad in this way, I think. We suffer not only from the fetishism of “the monograph”, but even of the exact stage of the publishing process at which it currently stands. Even worse, the de facto delivery of our own judgment (not only by departments, n.b., but also by higher-ups) to ‘two readers’, an editor, and a board as interested in circulation estimates as intellectual quality (and who can blame them, even at university presses: they have to survive economically, but why, then rely on them almost exclusively for an intellectual judgement) is simply an abdication of turf, morally as well as practically. And the presses themselves vary wildly: I have dealt with colleagues who waited two years or more for a review from a “prestigious” press — not a yes, not a no, usually some encouragement but no promises — as well (in fairness) with others whose presses and editors were really were willing to go out of their way to responsibly carry out the duties that had been imposed on them by our weird system.

    Under this more-than-slightly perverse regime of intellectual authority, the AHA’s policy statement may not be more than a small worsening — but it doesn’t appear, really, to contribute much positively either to moving us forward. But then, who would expect historians to be forward-looking, after all?

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