#AHAGate: In Retrospect

NB: This is an introduction to a forthcoming collection of posts, articles and commentary on the AHA’s statement about ETDs, to be published by the folks behind Open History. I also wrote a letter to the AHA last year, when they issued a statement on open access and scholarly publishing. 

On July 22nd, a Monday, the American Historical Association (AHA) posted a short statement on their blog about early career historians’ dissertations being available to read online. As of Sunday, August 4th, that post has 121 comments, numerous response blog posts from faculty, graduate students and more, a Twitter hashtag (#AHAGate), and an article in the New York Times. The professional association, in the crux of the statement, calls for universities to adopt policies that allow PhD history students to embargo their dissertation research for up to six years, in which time they would be able to revise the manuscript and hopefully produce a scholarly book. This statement comes at a time when many academics, including professional associations, are working toward a more open scholarly culture, sharing research broadly and openly on the internet. The AHA, in their embargo recommendation and in a similar statement released last year, are essentially opposed to such movements, arguing that “open access” is not a feasible research strategy for a discipline like history that relies so heavily on books and academic monographs. This collection is meant to serve as a snapshot of the issues at hand; Is open access a possible/probable future of scholarly publishing? What role does the dissertation play in this space? How much control should scholars exercise over their research, especially at public universities? Which pieces of the current system of scholarly production are essential, and which need to adapt? The essays included herein are framed by the AHA’s statement on dissertation embargoes, but hint at these greater topics of the role of the academy in a globally, technologically-connected world.

The American Historical Association is right. The premise of their PRECHD (Policies Regarding the Embargoes of Completed History Dissertations) statement is sound; we must allow, nay, insist, that emerging scholars have control their scholarly products. Many of the graduate student responses follow this line of thought, including especially Adam Crymbal’s impassioned Students Should be Empowered, Not Bullied into Open Access. Developing sensibilities about how scholarship exists in a digital culture is foundational to the future of the academy. And kudos to AHA for stepping so boldly into the empty space and declaring loudly that they are invested in the system and haven’t forgotten those coming up after them. If newly minted PhD’s were released onto the job market with a firm grasp on the intricacies (and commercial interests) of scholarly publishing, we’d start to see the shifts that will ensure relevance of the scholarly venture to an interconnected world.

The publishing world is of two minds in terms of the scholar’s control over scholarship. Rick Anderson, a librarian, writing on the Society for Scholarly Publishing’s blog The Scholarly Kitchen, equates digital dissemination with a loss of control. He writes,

“The current information environment, one in which the vast majority of scholarly documents are born digital and can be distributed instantly and infinitely as soon as they are uploaded to the network, creates tremendous benefits and opportunities for scholarship, as well as challenges—one of them being that authors have far less control over their published work than they once did.”

This point of view misses a central mark of the potential for digitally-shared scholarship; that a knowledgeable, invested, digitally-informed scholar in fact would exercise much greater control over their digital scholarship, utilizing the available networks and systems to curate, track, manage, centralize, “own”, and maintain the representations of their work and persona online. On the flipside of the publishing coin, and more apropos to the AHA embargo debate, Harvard University Press offers clarity on their perspective. They write that a scholar in control of their digitally accessible dissertation has the potential of “being discovered” more easily, which is a favorable position to the end of a book contract. Tapering that with the qualification that “prior availability doesn’t have a clear relationship to market viability…”, Harvard University Press represents an important player in the game that seemed misunderstood in the AHA’s original statement.

The disconnect, it seems, is in the lack of good, sound information about all the pieces of the academic monograph process, especially those of production by university presses and acquisition by libraries. On the side of the library, Duke University’s Scholarly Communication Officer Kevin Smith twice addresses the misinformed claim that academic libraries, the primary market for academic monographs, are purchasing less books based on the open availability of dissertations. He points out the AHA’s lack of substantial evidence to support their claims, and argues that more likely, less books are being purchased due to shrinking budgets, and the need to support broad curricular resources not specific academic niches. Expanding on the library’s voice in this discussion, the anonymous Library Loon writes,

“…the academic library’s central mission with dissertations produced on its campus is the dissemination thereof.  (The records-management, cataloging, and preservation functions twine neatly into this mission, of course.) Open access to etds, and advocacy for open-access etd policies, clearly fulfill the library’s mission.”

The university library’s role, now more than ever, includes advocating for author’s rights and supporting the broad reach of scholarship to the benefit of faculty authors, emerging and senior. Its not our place to get in the middle of disciplinary modes of research, but to suggest that they have the opportunity to be reinvented, for the good of the discipline. In terms of the dissertation, the library serves not only as a preservation and access agent, but also the legal and ethical one, ensuring the evidence of the scholarly record at our particular institution.

The student response to the AHA perhaps holds the most weight, as it is in fact their work and future opportunities in the crosshairs. Several days after the original statement, William Cronin, a senior history professor and former president of the AHA, posted a defense titled “Why Put at Risk the Publishing Options of Our Most Vulnerable Colleagues?” In it, he argues that the issue at hand is respecting the academic rigor and potential professional development that a dissertation represents for a early career scholar. And, as many students have echoed, their primary concern is not necessarily in restricting access, but rather securing gainful employment. Any hinderance to that goal is chaff. Both Michael J. Altman and Michael D. Hattem present another point; that a dissertation, in a field like history, is for all intents and purposes thought of and regarded as a draft of the forthcoming monograph, and distributing that draft is not in the best interests of the scholar who will continue to refine their ideas and arguments.

The missing link, and a question brought up in Michael D. Hattem’s post A PhD Student’s Case for Embargoes and in Rick Anderson’s aforementioned piece, is who actually has the ability to “dictate the terms of distribution of graduate students’ work?” Well, Graduate Schools, of course. For example, the Graduate Handbook at my institution plainly states, “As a condition of undertaking a dissertation program, the student agrees that the completed dissertation will be archived in the University Libraries system. The student will make the electronic dissertation available for review by other scholars and the general public by selecting an access condition provided by the Graduate School” (Emphasis mine, and the access options here are open or 2 year embargo with permission from the Dean of the Graduate School). Mills Kelly, a history faculty member at George Mason University, goes so far to argue that,

“…dissertations written at state-funded universities can be considered public property, given that the university (i.e., the taxpayers) provides a venue, a faculty, a library, an Internet connection, and in many, many cases, multiple years of scholarship funding to doctoral students. With all of that financial investment in the dissertation, why should dissertation authors be able to lock their work away for some number of years?”

Whither the Graduate School’s voice in this conversation, since it is actually their policies that the AHA is decrying? Any further discussion on the topic of dissertations and embargoes is deaf and lame without a measured response from a Graduate School.

The underlying issue, as in open access to faculty work, is not if open access, but when – a question that has for too long been answered by those controlling the consumerization of scholarly literature. In the case of AHA vs. ETDs, the inherent miscommunications between acquisitions editors at university presses, faculty advisors in academic departments and subject-specialist librarians has led to a battle between them and the emerging scholar, over policies dictated by the administrative body of the Graduate School. Similar to the complexities in journal-based disciplines, authors are entering the fray unaware of their (copy)rights and responsibilities to the furtherance of how scholarship is done, not just what it is made of. After the tensions die away, we all (graduate students, librarians, faculty, publishers, university presses, graduate schools) should acknowledge that what we have here is an opportunity to appraise the system of how scholarly work is produced, judged and shared, especially that of our newest and “most vulnerable colleagues,” and to have a broad, productive conversation on the future of this area of scholarly communication. Too long the system has leaned in favor of the middlemen, rather than for the creators and consumers of knowledge.

Micah Vandegrift is the Scholarly Communications Librarian at Florida State University. In that capacity, he manages the institutional repository, which holds the theses and dissertations produced by students at FSU, including the history department. Micah also conducts workshops and outreach regularly on topics of copyright and fair use in graduate writing, open access for the new scholar, the (current) future of academic publishing and representing your digital scholarly self online. He  edits Open Access Now, is a writer/editor for In The Library with the Lead Pipe and (maybe) caused an entire journal’s editorial board to quit in protest of a publishers copyright policy.