Why I Placed a Digital Embargo on My Dissertation, and Maybe You Should Too


By Ry Marcattilio-McCracken

Rarely will you find me on the side of the fence that argues against open-access. Who, after all, could argue against the free dissemination of knowledge without sounding like some gate-guarding, guillotine-worthy, supercilious elite who’s never deigned to breathe the dirty air hugging the base of his ivory tower?

Let’s start with a basic proposition. PhD students (and newly minted PhDs) in the humanities live a precarious existence. They are easily one of the most vulnerable populations to have gotten a four-year degree, for manymany reasons, despite the hard work they do.

In the good old days, before the interwebz, PhD and MA students finishing their theses and dissertations printed out a couple copies and physically plunked them on the desk of some graduate college librarian, where they were then filed away for eternity. You wanted to read it, you had to physically go to that university library, or request a photocopy. That required time and effort and maybe even money, and it effectively meant that even though anyone could theoretically put hands on anyone else’s work, in practice it was embargoed by geography and opportunity-cost. Today, the majority of graduate schools prefer (or require) the thesis or dissertation in digital form, and as part of the spirit of open-access, it has evolved to the point where as soon as you upload your work it gets sent off to UMI or someone and, shortly thereafter, made freely available to the rest of the world of scholars. If all this meant was that your brilliance and eloquence would be more easily discoverable by the walled garden of tenure-track academia to which you were trying to gain entry, there’d be no problem. But the reality is that, for those of us in the humanities (especially, though in other realms as well), the fact that your completed work sits out in the wild has increasingly meant that journal editors (less) and university press acquisitions editors (much more) have become increasingly unwilling to pick up contracts for monographs or accept articles for publication.

Why? Because as library costs become increasingly strained, library acquisitions folk themselves (the people who buy the books from the presses, and serve as the majority of the latter’s market base), already able to access your work via the subscription to the dissertation/thesis index they already pay for, have become increasingly unlikely to purchase the book unless it seems to deviate significantly from the original dissertation and/or appears highly original or significant to the discipline. Scholars (the other primary market for academic publishing) act the same way. Why pay twice for something when you can pay once?

The consequences of this process have become worrying enough that the American Historical Association stepped in last summer and strongly suggested all universities adopt a policy that allows graduate students to digitally embargo their work for a certain amount of time. Most TT (tenure-track) positions will require a new faculty member to publish a book within the first 6 years in order to go from Assistant to Associate Prof., and so the knowledge that while you go through the necessary process of revising, rewriting, and adding research your work is protected is not only crucial to a state of mind, but a job. How crucial?

Here’s a good piece from Bill Cronon, former president of the AHA, on the ramifications of mandated open-access of PhD dissertations the humanities:

My graduate students typically spend 5–8 years working on book-length manuscripts that will hopefully get them their first academic job (if that is their goal), and, when published, justify their getting tenure (assuming tenure survives all these changes—a whole different set of questions). My students’ work is very much their own. Unlike the sciences, they are not employed by me to work on grant-funded projects that I oversee as principal investigator. The vast majority never receive federal money, and most never even receive grant support beyond graduate fellowships (mainly for serving as TAs) that generally fall short of meeting basic living requirements. They support themselves mainly by teaching, which is one reason they take longer to complete their degrees than is typically true in the sciences . . . I can’t believe we would ever pass a law requiring nonacademic writers to post online the first draft of their book manuscripts; why would we demand this of newly minted PhDs even before their careers are properly launched?

The evidence is mounting that mandating open-access to dissertations is devastating to new PhDs leaving school with mountains of debt, and their job security is being further threatened by this trend in publishing. Some have argued, rather weakly as far as I’m concerned, that mandated open-access isn’t all that bad for book contract-seeking scholars. The majority, however, has engaged with the issue cognizant of the real-world ramifications that exist. Cronon, if I may go to him once more, offers the best summation of the range and depth of the problem and the squawks of the naysayers:

This isn’t remotely about dissing online scholarship or defending the book-length monograph as the only legitimate form of historical scholarship. It quite emphatically is not about refusing to share the fruits of historical scholarship for all time to come. It’s about preserving the full range of publishing options for early-career historians and giving them some measure of control over when and how they release their work to the world. As a practicing historian who has worked closely with a fair number of publishers for more than three decades, I can testify that concerns about online dissertations competing with books are very real. Indeed, I’ve had at least one former graduate student whose publisher refused to permit publication of an article in one of our discipline’s most prestigious journals for fear that it might undermine sales of his soon-to-be-published book. Since the publisher threatened to cancel the book contract if the article appeared, I can only imagine what it would have done had the entire dissertation been available online. In another instance, I had to intervene with a government agency to request the removal of an online version of one of my students’ dissertations that had been posted without the student’s permission and that the publisher said would likely jeopardize the book contract if it remained available for free download. I’ve had several editors from distinguished presses tell me (off the record, unsurprisingly) that although they would certainly consider publishing a revised version of a dissertation that had been posted online, the general effect of online posting would be to raise the bar for whether they would look at such a dissertation in the first place or eventually offer it a contract. And I’ve heard of university libraries that now save money by choosing systematically not to purchase university press books based on dissertations that are available online.

SIDE NOTE: There are also many who have taken this as an opportunity to decry the tenure assessment system and agitate for changes in that arena as a solution to the larger problem (of recently minted PhDs as the profession’s most vulnerable population), of which mandatory open-access is but one of many contributing symptoms (though no doubt a significant one). It’s true, the system generally sucks, and more every year. At the same time, while I’m generally for agitation of any kind at any time, in this case it misses the point at the same time it obfuscates the battlefield for those of us who have years of grinding work invested in our monograph. The reality of the matter is that History Departments, representative of others in the Humanities or not, are slow-moving beasts. Whine and complain all you want, but bucking the tenure system in pursuit of some altruistic desire to level the playing field for new PhDs is not how they were built,  nor how they are maintained. Further, experimentation (as any of the proposed plans I’ve seen to shifting to new criteria by which a department can grant tenure will require) requires imagination, flexibility, a willingness to be wrong, and a certain bold come-what-may insouciance that, while demonstrated with flair and joie de vivre in the writing of many, doesn’t really personally describe many historians I’ve ever met. So suggesting change to the tenure-granting process amounts, in the end (to me, at least) like a magnificently naive way to seem to be for our cause whilst at the same time remaining spectacularly and embarrassingly standing on the sidelines.

Ok, back on track. At Oklahoma State University (where I skulked the halls) I was told all theses and dissertations were required to be submitted electronically, after which they were usually released into the wild. A digital embargo is allowed, so I heard, but requires consent from one’s committee chair, and while the standard options allowed are 6 months to 2 years anecdotal evidence given to me said no requests up to 5 years had been denied. All of this is good news, except the last bit here. Awareness of this problem is so abysmal that the graduate college representative I spoke to said s/he saw only 2 requests this past spring out of 700 applications for graduation. A third of a percent. All of this I kept in mind as I finished writing, revising, and then defended my dissertation this semester, and prepared to upload it to ProQuest/UMI.


So what happened when I went to place an embargo on my dissertation? I called ProQuest/UMI to make sure I understood the process, as my graduate college website offered only a poorly worded form to fill out for a complete embargo (clearly meant for graduate work which could result in lucrative patents and classified information) and zero additional information. The courteous tech support gentleman told me there’d be a little box to check first thing and that I could specify a length of time. After getting through about half of the upload process and not encountering it, I called back, where (another) tech support worker told me it wasn’t at the beginning, but it would definitely be before the end. So I finished uploading my dissertation and, instead of heading to the bar (Just kidding. It was eleven in the morning) I was forced to call back again to tell the first tech guy I hadn’t ever run into it. “Hmm,” he said, and I heard a couple of clicks. “Oh, looks like your graduate college has disabled the option to embargo your dissertation.” “Thanks,” I said, and hung up. Cue call to the graduate college to see what they could possibly be thinking:

(The following is a barebones recreation of the 25-minute conversation I had with a poor, mostly clueless undergraduate work-study and at least one of the people around him):

“Hi. I’m a PhD student in the History Department. So it appears the Oklahoma State Graduate College has disabled the option at the ProQuest upload website to place an embargo on my dissertation, which I want to do.” I said.

“Really?” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “I want to make the title and abstract of my dissertation discoverable but the content of the work inaccessible for a period of 5 years, for a whole host of reasons that are tangential here. But OSU has, without any kind of placeholder text at the ProQuest website–pointing students, for instance, to your grad college website where there is an embargo request form of a kind–removed even the semblance of an option for students looking to protect their work. I’m a little miffed because it means that for students at the end of this long road who are simply looking to jump through a few final hoops and move on to the next stage, roadblocks with real and significant consequences for the rest of their careers exist. This seems negligent even in the most understanding light, and downright deceptive to the cynically minded.”

“Huh,” he said. “One sec.”

Ten minutes went by.

“One of my co-workers said there was some confusion about whether the total embargo form we have on our website superseded the ProQuest one,” he said. “I wasn’t in the room when they decided to uncheck the box, but that’s the reason they did it.”

“That’s dumb,” I said.

Uncomfortable noises. “If you want,” he said, “you can contact the Associate Dean of the Graduate College and ask her to review the policies and procedures for this.”

So I did, reiterated the above in an email (it was Thursday, the day before the upload deadline). I suggested this practice was far too complicated and while I now felt comfortable following this little trail of crumbs to its end to protect my dissertation, I hoped she could say something that could mitigate my frustration that this process would in the next twenty four hours have to be (as it had to have been from that point backwards) repeated for the hundreds of other graduate students who simply want to protect the fruits of their intellectual labor. The response I got merely said “You can contact us after graduation and just tell us to partially embargo it.” That’s it. Gee, thanks.


It’s beyond idiotic that this exchange had to take place, and indicative of far more than bureaucratic ineptitude. Clearly, the folks who should care most about this–the Graduate College–remain disturbingly laissez faire about the whole thing. It’s infuriating to me when such situations (as I will imagine this was, rather than dishonesty or fraud) takes options away from students, and in taking those options away put into effect lasting consequences. The academic job market right now, for history and many other disciplines, is not so great we can through negligence continue to hamstring our graduate students and still expect them to succeed in their next venture.

So check with both your graduate college and department, and see if they allow you to embargo your thesis or dissertation. If they do, great! (Then check how easy it is, and spread the word if you can.) If they don’t, get someone on the phone and ask why. And unless that reason is “Because we offer all graduating PhDs a tenured position at $100,000 a year, with your very own parking spot and rhesus monkey-butler to boot!”, it’s not good enough. Use the literature here to organize a petition in your department and challenge the prevailing ignorance behind the open-access policy for theses and dissertations. Do the same if the process to place a simple embargo is as byzantine as mine was.

Still wondering whether you should embargo your work? Speak with your committee chair and get her or his advice. If s/he doesn’t have a strong opinion, maybe that’s your signal right there to pick a new mentor. Because this is obviously not an issue that’s going to go away, and it’s having a significant enough impact to reverberate across the collective arenas where such issues get discussed on a regular basis. Consider carefully what it means for your job prospects over the next decade before you decide to digitally embargo your dissertation or not. I know I did.

About the Author

Ry Marcattilio-McCracken has a PhD in the history of science, technology, and medicine, and currently serves as Lecturer in the History Department at Oklahoma State University where he teaches the American history survey as well as courses on the Gilded Age and American Thought and Culture. He has in the past also taught courses on the history of evolutionary theory, magical realism in literature, and composition and rhetoric. His dissertation, titled “Through a Glass, Darkly: The Eugenic Impulse on the Southern Plains,” investigated the intellectual and institutional history of eugenics in the United States on the Southern Plains, 1910-1960, and was supported by four research fellowships. He has presented at regional and national conferences on the history of science, medicine, and ideas, and currently serves as the Editor of LATCH journal, an annual open-access and peer-reviewed publication which investigates the compelling role the literary artifact has played across any of the various registers (titularly, those of theory, culture, and history) of European or American society. He also writes at slowlorisblog.wordpress.com and tweets @slowlorisblog.


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8 thoughts on “Why I Placed a Digital Embargo on My Dissertation, and Maybe You Should Too”

  1. This is a complex situation, ‘fraught with pearls’, as the Little Prince might say, and the shame of it is that individual students are the cutting edge of the blade. Graduate study is not a national uniform process. Each institution has it’s own flavor. Nevertheless, the web of scholarship is international, and requires some uniformity to be sustainable. Many institutions have dropped UMI for in-house repositories. Graduate Schools are concerned about budgets, staffing, and whether the student has fulfilled all the PRE-graduation requirements. Basically, after that they could not care less. Libraries are concerned about protecting the legacy of work they house, ESPECIALLY the legacy of work done in association with their institution. BOTH groups are being pressed for more streamlined economy in operations, and lower costs. The technological changes to publishing are real, and they are rippling out over the academic landscape with real consequences. The business models of publishing, libraries, and universities are morphing rapidly. Precisely BECAUSE of the ineptness of local bureaucracies, vague and idiosyncratic ’embargo’ policies will guarantee the eventual loss of scholarship completely.
    This post, despite its sandbagging, basically says, I’m all for getting what I can free on the interwebz, but my case deserves special pleading. Given the vagaries and siloing of function, the only time to capture and secure for posterity a thesis or dissertation properly is at the time of its completion. If that handoff is tainted by ‘special’ restrictions, in 5 or 10 years the majority of work that is never published, despite good intentions, or partially published, without all the detailed supporting data, runs a substantial risk of being lost to the whims of local fumbling. That is just Murphy’s Law, and when you are dealing with a system as fractured as higher ed, that is exactly what you get.
    The outrage of the humanities folks DOES in fact stem from an irrational desire to double dip, and an antiquated business model that is being assaulted by change from all directions. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Graduate students need to understand that their work is work produced, in essence, for hire. It is the deliverable that qualifies them for the terminal degree, which then allows them to proceed to employment. There is no reason to believe that what pleases a committee of 5 or 7 soon-to-be peers will pass muster from an editor, or will make it in the marketplace. ‘Even’ hard science material is generally completely rewritten for publication, and in the sciences, there is a growing trend to publish first and graduate later, which allows the dissertation to be the place to put all the stuff that won’t fit in a suite of journal articles. There is no reason for an editor to reject a manuscript converted from a dissertation, unless that MS is so similar to the original as to be superfluous, in which case, why should it be good enough for tenure?
    What this proposal, and those of the AHA and others basically says is “Give us everything for free but exempt our work from these new developing worlds because it is too difficult for us to adapt and we prefer our work to be largely lost forever due to the very inconsistency that we cite in defense of our travail.” AND, to make it worse, this fundamentally lazy and cowardly attitude is multiplied by putting the onus on hapless individual students, instead of the aforementioned lazy and cowardly professionals working together to establish suitable national benchmarks that set a proper model for the present and recognize the complexities and unintended consequences of special pleading on scholarship in the decades to come.

  2. Macrocompassion,

    Thanks for your comment. There are two relevant things going on here. First, the question of whether knowledge produced in a publicly funded institution should be freely available to the public, and second, the realities of academia and publishing today for those of us trying to get a job.

    I’ll answer the second first. I don’t consider myself “greedy,” and I doubt many other PhDs in the humanities would either. Certainly I could have gone to get a BA in computer science and been guaranteed a job at twice the salary I would now command and already been working six or seven years. The reason I and others choose to embargo our dissertations is not because we’ll make money on publishing the book down the road–in fact, 99% of all academic books make very little money. A few thousand copies are printed, sold to libraries and others in our subdisciplines, and that’s it. Very rarely will an academic–writing for an academic audience–make substantial money on a book. So the reason we embargo it is solely as a way to combat this systemic problem I have outlined above, and get a chance at a job.

    Your second question is much more interesting, and requires, I’m afraid, a long answer. Stay with me here, because it requires some treatment of the nature of the institution itself. Universities were training grounds for the clergy until the beginning of the 19th c., essentially trade schools for particular careers. Almost all significant knowledge production in science was done outside the university. Then along came Wilhelm Humboldt, who wrested the notion of the university away from elites and, by proposing an integrated curriculum of the natural and social sciences and humanities which, crucially, melded teaching and research by the professors of the university, democratized learned and knowledge to a degree that remains criminally unknown to the vast majority of university graduates–and academics–today. He invented the modern liberal arts institution, and it was what catapulted Germany from the intellectual and cultural backwater it was into the powerhouse of the 19th c. in less than 75 years. It’s also what begot the career of “scientist,” which I think we all agree defines the modern era. The university as you know it came about precisely on the basis that knowledge is a public good, which I happen to agree with. The way we ensure vigorous research programs and societal progress is to require liberal arts educations of our citizens while marrying the acts of research and teaching in the university–what the researcher discovers gets translated into lay terms and given to the people in the classroom. That’s how you get knowledge beyond the walls of the university. Then, the investigator has to go out and learn something new to remain useful. So yes, ideally my research would be immediately and publicly available. But in reality there have always been obstacles on both sides of that transaction–from a society of inequality where access and literacy restrict the flow of knowledge, and from an academy that has chosen the publication process as its vetting animal, and thus forced individuals like me to make hard practical choices if we want to ever get a job in the field we spent a decade and tens of thousands of dollars investing in.

    Thanks for reading.

  3. Hi Padraic,

    There are lots of links in the article above. Check them out. I’m sure there are plenty more elsewhere as well.


  4. Charles,

    The TT process here has been out of whack for many years, for many reasons that are complicated and some of which have nothing to do with the university itself.

    Your question about just moving on from one’s PhD research and into a new realm to justify TT hiring leaves me breathless. The simple and quick answer is this: because it would be laughable to attempt to do anything else. Certainly, as you further develop your research interests and time passes you will start to move on to other inquiries and often completely new research. But in order to write a book about something, it takes years of thinking and writing and reading and failing and succeeding. Ideally, a PhD program supercharges this process, for one main reason: New academics need lots of feedback to teach them how to think about research and writing at the level they need to to join the population of scholars. Unfortunately, a “completed dissertation” accounts for very little academy-wise, because the standards of excellence vary widely from institution to institution (and advisor to advisor). So the first five years post-PhD go into cutting the crap away, refining one’s questions, and improving the quality of the writing. Thus, our dissertation becomes our first book because to do otherwise would be to throw two or three or four years of work down the drain and start again.

    Thanks for reading.


  5. I always thought that the whole idea (apart from the qualification itself) of writing MS theses and PHD documents was to draw attention to both the latest developments in the subject and to the authors. Now I notice that there is apparently so much potential interest in the document as to allow the publishers an income from limiting its accessibility.

    Not only will this result in the same subject being covered more than once, but the spread of the knowledge (always a scientists ideal) will be well contained by our (so called) humanities departments, so that you have to pay for what should be public knowledge. After all, the students, whose work produced the documents, are being paid by public funding from their universities. So it is my claim that these potential doctorates are being a bit too greedy in wanting to constrain their (doubtful) knowledge for cash.

    In my case I would only be too glad to share my discoveries and explanations with anyone interested in the hopeful belief that this i9nformastion will result in a better world.

  6. “The evidence is mounting that mandating open-access to dissertations is devastating to new PhDs leaving school”

    Hi Ry, can you point me to any evidence available online?

  7. There appears to be an out of date tenure track process in US Universities. Why doesn’t it include a completed PhD as one possible publication? But in any case, why base your tenure track publication on a completed PhD – shouldn’t the candidate be developing their research further post-PhD?

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