The Distributional Politics of Dissertation Embargoes

The American Historical Association has recently recommended that history dissertations not be made available online for six years. Here is the official statement, with my emphasis added.

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.

Not surprisingly, this policy has been widely criticized. But the argument is like this: publishers will not publish books if their content is available online for free, because potential buyers will have no incentive to purchase them. If you believe this story, graduates are putting their dissertations online, and then finding that publishers are no longer interested.

Who benefits from dissertation embargoes like this? I interpret this as a simple case of distributional politics. The book publishers win, and everyone else loses, including the AHA.

  1. The book publishers win here because they are using the AHA’s policy to entrench themselves as middlemen. Readers cannot access new research easily unless they buy books themselves or visit libraries that have themselves bought books. Scholars must rely on book publishers for their career advancement.
  2. New history PhDs lose because there is an additional barrier between their research and its potential audience.
  3. The discipline of history loses because it becomes that much harder to share the best new scholarship that can help to establish the value of historical research.
  4. The public at large loses too, because of limited access to the most relevant and engaged historical research.
  5. The AHA loses because it has surrendered its position as an advocate for the value and relevance of historical scholarship today, and it has sided with the middlemen against its very own constituency: historians.

There is a simple alternative. Here is Steve Saideman:

The argument is so simple. If the AHA insists that all dissertations must be published online, then publishers will have to decide that either they are not going to publish revised dissertations—which honestly might not be a bad thing, and could free up new PhDs to pursue new projects—or they decide that online dissertations are not competing with their product. This alternative, in other words, does not even mean that book publishers have to go out of business! It just aligns their function more closely with the academic enterprise. A win for everyone.