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 many, many 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.