Don’t Keep Your Head Down: Digital Dissertations and Graduate Training

I recently received an email from the AHA forwarded by my department chair. In it, the AHA asked for feedback from departments regarding their institutions’ policies on the online publication of dissertations. This request from the AHA’s Professional Division was prompted by an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education from April that “raised alarms about the growing number of universities that require digital publication of theses and dissertations despite evidence that some publishers will not accept such works as manuscripts” (AHA Email). A recent graduate responded to the email, sharing their reasons for restricting access to their dissertation. This student was more concerned about the theft of their research than publisher’s attitudes towards online dissertations. We were presented with two troubling scenarios: your dissertation may lose its appeal to publishers by being online and your work might be stolen. In the email exchange, it was suggested that graduate students think about opting for restricted access to their dissertation.

These concerns are valid, but their framing is at best incomplete and at worst detrimental to the scholarly training of graduate students. This is also an opportunity to address a more pressing concern in our profession: the current system of publishing and promotion. As many graduate students envision a tenured position at a research institution as a top goal, this end often governs their relationship to their research. While we should certainly guard our intellectual property and aim for promotion in the field, I argue that restricting access to our scholarship contradicts core values in the historical profession. Furthermore, encouraging graduate students to hoard their research until they can holdout for the traditional monograph at a prestigious press denies them the opportunity to build authorship – a vital tool in safeguarding their research and building an academic identity.  The decision to restrict access to a dissertation should ultimately lie with its author, yet this decision should not be based on fear. Instead, graduate students should be encouraged to build authorship around their scholarship so that their dissertation’s impact will not depend solely on the publication of a monograph in an academic press.

Security does not lie in anonymity. The theft of ideas, data, and sources does occur in academia. The contours of these risks are highly dependent on the field and institutions; graduate students should familiarize themselves with these dangers. However, a dissertation is a published document that carries the full weight of copyright protection. A scenario in which an online dissertation was pilfered for its ideas and sources would not differ drastically from one with a printed monograph. Intellectual property disputes can be difficult and involved affairs, but my point is that scholars are not left naked by making their dissertation available online. A more sensible source of safety lies in authorship, or having people associate your ideas with, well… you. Taking ownership of your ideas means developing an academic identity, a scholarly persona that students often mistakenly believe is reserved for the most senior of faculty. Besides the growing examples many academics are providing in building an online presence, developing an academic identity can also be accomplished by being present and active within your field’s conferences, journals, and networks of communication. Most importantly, this means sharing your ideas and research early in your career so that you control their entry into the academic community.

Restricting access to your dissertation has real costs. Keeping the thieves out means keeping everyone else out too. An open access dissertation can represent your largest contribution to the body of scholarship at the end of a long journey to the PhD, but people must read it for it to be a contribution. Ah, but what of the monograph and publishers’ unease? The AHA framed the article as being primarily about publishers’ misgivings, yet the subtitle reads: “Libraries’ digital open-access rules make some editors wary of buying graduate students’ work, although others see a marketing boost.” Others see a marketing boost. In fact, the article cites two presses with concerns and three that see great opportunity in digital dissertations. Penn State, Iowa, and West Virgina’s presses all support open access dissertations, reminding readers that “books and dissertations are two distinct species” (Chronicle 2011). Obviously not all publishers agree, but the framing of the Chronicle article as simply negative is disingenuous and obscures a complex issue for graduate students. A digital dissertation aids scholarly communication, makes our research available to a public audience, and promotes collegiality between disciplines.

This message inhibits the very sort of scholarship we call for. The AHA’s professional standards read: “Historians favor free, open, equal, and nondiscriminatory access… As much as possible [historians] should also strive to serve the historical profession’s preference for open access to, and public discussion of, the historical record.” The standards also note that restricting access is appropriate when protecting the confidentiality of sources like oral histories. A dissertation with restricted access contradicts this ‘preference for open access’ and privileges a system of publication and promotion at the cost of the profession’s core values. Furthermore, at many conferences I have heard calls for scholarship that is transnational, collaborative, interdisciplinary, and comparative, yet we are being sent a message to keep our heads down until (someday) we can publish at the right opportunity. This type of work can only be done by sharing our research, not placing it in a silo. Are these lofty research aims to be reserved for senior faculty?

Many of my views are informed by the vigorous calls for open-access scholarship emerging from the field of Digital Humanities. Many of these debates are still fresh in my own mind, and I would reiterate my point that authors should be free to opt-out. However, I am troubled by how the AHA framed this article and strongly believe that open-access dissertations represent the opportunity to transform graduate training and scholarly communication in service of the core values we hold.

I plan on writing a more detailed response directly to the AHA, your feedback in improving the above article and expanding its scope would be much appreciated.

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