The historians’ proposed embargo on dissertations

by Eric on July 23, 2013

The American Historical Association encourages a 6-year “embargo” of completed history PhD dissertations in digital form, because making dissertations thus “free and immediately accessible.… poses a tangible threat to the interests and careers of junior scholars in particular” because “historians will find it increasingly difficult to persuade publishers to make the considerable capital investments necessary to the production of scholarly monographs.”

The AHA is in that last key sentence making a prediction, based on what evidence I don’t know. Have publishers made threats to publish fewer monographs because the underlying dissertations were available online? (As opposed to, because they lose money on publishing monographs, irrespective of where and how the underlying dissertation was available?)

Dan Drezner, a political scientist, and Brad DeLong, an economist, have expressed incredulity.

Economists certainly make working papers freely available online, and have a culture of sharing information. I know of no evidence that economic journals – including journals of economic history – are loath to publish articles based on working papers, nor of evidence that the American Economic Association is seeking to embargo unpublished work in economics.

There is something obviously wrong in a scholarly discipline seeking to limit the availability of knowledge. I don’t think it’s historically how historians have operated, either.

Hanging as inspiration or admonition over the researchers’ sign-in book at the FDR presidential library is a framed application for a reader’s card from Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. There’s a story that historians tell about Schlesinger at the FDR library – that he was there at the same time as some other early FDR biographers, and that he would, if he found something of note, type it up and give it to them.1

I’ve tried to emulate Schlesinger’s openness and generosity myself. There are four writers currently working on books related to my own, and I send them material when I think it apposite – in the hope they will share with me, and also that this sharing will make our respective books stronger, for having been the product of a community of inquiry rather than an individual quest.

When we find ourselves trying to make scholarship less readily available – however good our intentions – we should probably ask ourselves if we can solve our problems some other way.


1I’m nearly sure this story appears in print somewhere, but I don’t know where.

{ 113 comments }

1

David 07.23.13 at 5:39 pm

The article that’s floating about (http://crl.acrl.org/content/74/4/368.abstract ) suggests that 40-45% of university press book editors would NOT consider a dissertation that was open access.

2

Anderson 07.23.13 at 5:49 pm

because “historians will find it increasingly difficult to persuade publishers to make the considerable capital investments necessary to the production of scholarly monographs.”

Wow. I had no idea that the AHA was secretly owned by a publishing cartel.

3

Jerry Vinokurov 07.23.13 at 6:01 pm

Does this actually matter for historians? I ask because in the sciences, no one would expect your dissertation to be published in monograph form; as long as it exists somewhere and is verifiable, you’re good to go. Is the norm in history different, and if so, why?

4

Eric 07.23.13 at 6:06 pm

Yes. Historians are expected to publish a book to get tenure and in almost every case that book is the dissertation, revised.

5

pedant 07.23.13 at 6:11 pm

I don’t understand why people are suggesting that the AHA is somehow behaving badly here. (“cartel,” “protection racket,” “cruel initiation ritual,” etc.)

Dissertations require a lot of intellectual labor. They produce some intellectual property. The newly-minted PhDs want to be able to use their own intellectual property to advance their careers, which means “publishing it with a publishing house and using it to get tenure.”

You can’t do that if no publisher will publish it.

The AHA’s action here is no different from a group of composers and musicians getting together and asking universities not to sponsor pirate web-sites where people can download free music. Young musicians and composers want to make money from their music. If universities distribute it for free, then the young musicians won’t get recording contracts, and won’t sell songs.

I am not defending the current structure of academic publishing or tenuring procedures. But *given* those current structures, and given the responses of publishing houses, the AHA’s statement seems very reasonable. It is clearly oriented towards protecting the interests of junior scholars.

It is clearly *not* directed towards preventing the dissemination of scholarship. The point is to get it disseminated in a form–published books–that will allow its authors to receive credit for their work in the form of money and of career advancement.

Construing this as an attempt to make scholarship “less available” is like construing an attempt to reduce music piracy as an attempt to censor musicians. I.e., it gets things backwards.

(And no, I’m not part of the AHA, or even an historian).

6

StevenAttewell 07.23.13 at 6:18 pm

@ 3 – a lot of this has to do with the nature of historical research. Unlike in disciplines where you do a set period of field work, or run statistical analyses of public data sets, or run discrete experiments, historical research involves trekking to lots of archives to read through lots of documents. In part because the digitization of archives is really, really rudimentary and incomplete, this generally has to be done in person, and it’s extremely unusual to have research assistants doing this kind of work, because of the idiosyncratic nature of how historians assess significance.

All of this means that historical research takes a long time to do, and this discourages a model of research where scholars produce lots of research papers in a relatively short amount of time and are judged on the basis of those papers.

7

StevenAttewell 07.23.13 at 6:21 pm

@ 5 – to be fair, though, the AHA could instead agitate to change the disciplinary norm that tenure should be based on publication of a manuscript.

8

Eric Bakovic 07.23.13 at 6:30 pm

@pedant:

You say that “the current structure[s] of academic publishing [and] tenuring procedures” are “given”; I strongly disagree. The skyrocketing costs of closed-access publication, the internet, and the possibilities of open access are what is “given”
now — the structures of the past need to be changed, not accommodated. The problem with the AHA’s proposal is that it gets things exactly backwards: it is within the power of institutions like the AHA — and I’d consider it their duty — to work to change tenure and promotion procedures so that open access dissertations are given their due.

9

Satan Mayo 07.23.13 at 6:32 pm

Dissertations require a lot of intellectual labor. They produce some intellectual property. The newly-minted PhDs want to be able to use their own intellectual property to advance their careers, which means “publishing it with a publishing house and using it to get tenure.”

You can’t do that if no publisher will publish it.

The bizarre thing from the outside point of view, is why a dissertation which gets published and turned into a book (presumably a book that sells 300 copies, all to libraries), is more prestigious than a dissertation that does not get turned into a book. That sounds completely ludicrous. And changing the rules to make “published” status MORE crucial by preventing anyone from seeing the manuscript until “published” is achieved, is one of the best examples of a tail wagging a dog that I’ve ever seen.

10

Satan Mayo 07.23.13 at 6:33 pm

Second paragraph should have also been italicized, of course.

11

Barry 07.23.13 at 6:34 pm

“Dissertations require a lot of intellectual labor. They produce some intellectual property. The newly-minted PhDs want to be able to use their own intellectual property to advance their careers, which means “publishing it with a publishing house and using it to get tenure.””

Please note that that intellectual property was produced while being subsidized.

And I agree that the field of history should get with the times :)

Maybe they should just put things into the AHA wiki?

12

William Timberman 07.23.13 at 6:39 pm

I’m probably not familiar enough with what’s at stake to offer a useful comment, but being outside the academic pale, I hear this appeal as a defense of the privileges of a guild rather than a defense of scholarship from unpleasant economic imperatives. I do hope I’m mistaken….

13

Jerry Vinokurov 07.23.13 at 6:39 pm

The bizarre thing from the outside point of view, is why a dissertation which gets published and turned into a book (presumably a book that sells 300 copies, all to libraries), is more prestigious than a dissertation that does not get turned into a book. That sounds completely ludicrous. And changing the rules to make “published” status MORE crucial by preventing anyone from seeing the manuscript until “published” is achieved, is one of the best examples of a tail wagging a dog that I’ve ever seen.

Yeah, this was my question too. What added value does the publication process add that the writing and defense of the dissertation itself hasn’t already provided?

14

x.trapnel 07.23.13 at 6:40 pm

Yeah, StevenAttewell’s 7 seems so obviously right that I’m a little bit baffled. If *every* junior scholar’s dissertation is freely available, then no junior scholar is at a disadvantage compared to any other one. If the presses did, in fact, switch at the margins to publishing fewer revised-dissertations and more 2nd/3rd/nth books from senior scholars instead, maybe that’s a bad thing and maybe not, but I don’t see how it would affect the junior historians, since presumably that’s independent of the number of tenure-track positions; if only half the number of revised-dissertations were published as before, tenure committees would start to notice pretty fast.

Pedant gets things completely wrong in 5. The dilemma that digital distribution of music poses is that the potential enjoyment of music is no longer logically connected to rivalrous items, and so we need to rethink how we support musicians financially. But that’s not at all what’s going on here: revised-dissertation monographs are not money-makers, and they’re certainly not what produces the revenue that supports the research that junior historians do. There’s just *never been* a significant connection between producing the dissertation research and having “consumers” pay for it.

Instead, this is about an economy of esteem–to be blunt, with the adjunctification of the academy, it’s about deciding who gets the last few deck chairs on the titanic. But the real problem is the sinking, and the shrinking number of chairs, not the fact that who gets which chair will now be slightly more arbitrary, because fewer will have books to use for comparison with each other.

15

x.trapnel 07.23.13 at 6:48 pm

That said, I can actually totally see how this would get used as an excuse to accelerate the adjunctification process–only half as many dissertations become books, and those half are almost exclusively produced by junior profs with low teaching loads and sabbaticals at elite schools, for obvious reasons; lower-ranked schools start denying tenure to their non-book-having junior profs, citing the old standards, even though they know how irrational this is; within a decade, tenure at 2nd Tier State U. is effectively reserved for a few eminences grises and superstar lateral hires, and since no one expects the assistant profs to get tenure anymore, they’re increasingly treated like, and compensated in line with, the adjuncts.

But the key thing here is that the role that the lack of published-dissertation plays in this narrative is entirely a rationalization. It’s stupid to base discipline-wide policies and expectations around one particular transparent figleaf that administrators are going to reach for to gut your profession; they’ll just find another one. As Satan Mayo said, this is the tail wagging the dog, big-time.

16

Anderson 07.23.13 at 6:49 pm

You can’t do that if no publisher will publish it.

Few, surely, are the dissertations that would not profit from substantial revision before they are published as books. Wouldn’t that make a difference to the publisher?

As others have noted, the AHA should be using whatever clout it possesses to modify tenure criteria, not to perpetuate this bizarre system where book publishers (!) play a major role in the tenure process.

17

pedant 07.23.13 at 6:53 pm

Look, I do not intend to defend the institutions of academic publishing and tenuring. There are all kinds of irrationalities involved in both. They have evolved over centuries, and surely would look different if we just decided to invent new methods now a priori, maybe by putting it up for discussion on a blog.

But: however much the institutions ought to change over the next decades, and however much they will change, we still have to deal with them now, and ameliorate problems now. Young scholars are getting screwed over by a problem that needs to be addressed both by long-term remedies (e.g. changing tenure norms) and by short-term remedies (making sure that they can meet the current norms, until they are changed).

So go ahead and propose wonderful revolutionary changes to the academic tenuring system–I hope that they will be adopted! However, they won’t be adopted in time to help junior scholars coming out *now*. They need help *now*. That’s what the AHA is trying to do here.

“The bizarre thing from the outside point of view, is why a dissertation which gets published and turned into a book (presumably a book that sells 300 copies, all to libraries), is more prestigious than a dissertation that does not get turned into a book. That sounds completely ludicrous.”

Perhaps because you don’t understand academic publishing?

Thousands of dissertations are accepted every year by PhD granting institutions. Then the authors revise their dissertations and send them off to publishers. The publishers then send them to leading scholars in the field to act as outside referees and see if they are good enough to deserve the imprimatur of Oxford University Press (e.g.). Very few of the initial thousands will be printed by OUP. Many will never be printed at all. Those facts reflect–in imperfect and defeasible ways, of course–facts about the quality of the dissertations. Better dissertations get published by better houses, worse ones by worse houses, or not at all.

Better houses also employ better outside referees. That’s why it is not unreasonable for tenuring committees to take into consideration whether a dissertation was published by a good house. If I am on a tenure-committee at East Podunk State, trying to decide whether to tenure our young Medievalist, then my own expertise in the American Civil War may not permit me to make expert judgments about her work. The Medievalists who read her book for OUP actually know a hell of a lot more about her sub-field than I do. I am actually *right* to defer to their judgement–I am not abdicating my scholarly responsibility, I am simply respecting the limits of my expertise. Sure, I’m an historian, but history is a big field, and I don’t know all of it, and neither do my colleagues. What we would really like would be the opinions of the best experts, and that’s what the publishing house collected for us, before they decided to publish it.

Please distinguish the features of the academic humanities that really are ludicrous–and there are plenty of them!– from those that are simply unfamiliar to you because of your own personal ignorance.

18

x.trapnel 07.23.13 at 7:02 pm

But Pedant, you’re not dealing with what seems to be some sleight-of-hand going on in the description of the problem. 1- Is the crisis really that fewer monographs are being published, with standards remaining as high as ever, leading to more assistant profs not getting tenure? (Do you have data showing this, that an increasing % of junior history profs are getting denied tenure?) 2- If so, is there any reason to think that this is really about collective refusal to update standards in the face of changing conditions, rather than basically a sneaky way for administrators to do away with tenure by attrition?

19

pedant 07.23.13 at 7:07 pm

X.trapnel @17–

I honestly don’t know the answers to your questions. As I said, I am not an historian, so I don’t know how bad the situation is for junior historians. I suspect the AHA knows better than I do, and possibly better than anyone else on this thread–collecting that sort of discipline-wide data is part of what these disciplinary groups are supposed to do.

I certainly share the suspicion that administrators will do anything they can to get rid of tenure any way they can, and perhaps this ties in with one of their stratagems. I certainly don’t want to do anything to make it easier for the administrators to gut the faculties and convert them to casual labor.

20

pedant 07.23.13 at 7:18 pm

This post at LGM at least gets the conversation off on the right foot, by starting from a basis of familiarity with the issues:

http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2013/07/embargoing-dissertations

There’s a real problem; the AHA’s response may be short-sighted and futile but it is not pernicious or underhanded; deeper structural changes will be needed in the future; in the meantime it’s hard to say what we should do.

21

Eric 07.23.13 at 7:34 pm

I don’t think that Loomis’s post is substantially different from mine.

I suspect the AHA knows better than I do, and possibly better than anyone else on this thread–collecting that sort of discipline-wide data is part of what these disciplinary groups are supposed to do.

I welcome evidence that the AHA has such data.

The situation is obviously bad. But restricting access to knowledge is a bad response.

22

Jerry Vinokurov 07.23.13 at 7:38 pm

So the answer seems to be that publishing houses serve the same function in academic history that peer-reviewed journals serve in other disciplines. This seems to generate the same perverse incentives for university presses that exist for scientific journals.

23

Marc 07.23.13 at 7:39 pm

There are related problems in the scientific literature as well. Peer-reviewed publications are submitted to journals that aren’t publicly accessible. The solution in many cases is to post the accepted papers on the internet (in physics and astronomy, for example, the LANL preprint server). This has been deadly to subscription rates for the journals, leading to escalating charges for libraries – which are, of course, cutting off the subscriptions.

For the journals the endgame is probably that they end up being supported by professional society membership fees and page charges to authors (and thus, by extension, grants from NSF, etc.) The dynamics for monographs are harder to see, but is a similar solution plausible? In effect, substitute the status quo with “write a grant application to support publishing”?

24

Bruce Wilder 07.23.13 at 7:44 pm

This is a general problem in the economics of our time, though I don’t know what label to put on it. In all kinds of publishing and distribution, we depended on a “business model”, which supported a certain amount of overhead, which could be dedicated to various quality-sorting, editorial refinement and signaling activities. And, those structures were tied to paper and ink and nice bindings and library stacks.

And, now we’re having to rethink how to get those jobs done, in a world without the paper, ink, nice bindings and library stacks. As is often the case in economics, the problem is paradoxical: with fewer resources needed to do the paper, ink, bindings, and library stacks, one would think it would be easier, not harder, to marshal the resources to accomplish the “overhead” tasks.

If you’ve been following computing and communications, you know that this has happened, and continues to happen with increasing acceleration. I live in Hollywood, and I see it happening all around me. The music industry was once an army of people, manufacturing and distributing CDs, in stores and getting them played on the radio — a whole vast scheme, which, somehow, depended on vinyl discs and then was re-created with shiny digital plastic discs — and then, the discs went away, and there was the iMusic store, and that was it. The movie studios made vast sums in the 1980s and 1990s, first from selling lousy videotapes to rental shops, and then from selling DVDs, and now the DVD market is going away, and there’s Netflix and Amazon and Hulu, and the movie studios compete to make total crap sequels, and nothing else, all in 3D, which excites almost no one, truth be told, all with scripts that lack dialogue, because the 34 films a year, which will rake in the big bucks, are the visual extravaganzas that are allowed into China.

There was a time, when writing 1500 words for the Encyclopedia Brittanica on some topic was actually a prestige gig, redolent of the Oxbridge scholars, who wrote the famous 11th edition. The Encyclopedia Britannica was a major operation, powered on the ground by travelling salesman, hawking the multivolume set, in competition with World Book and several others. The editorial overhead was only a fraction of the economic resources involved, and was slow-moving and didn’t cover all that much, but it was stable and reliable, as a source of meaningful editorial imprimatur. Now, it’s all gone, and we have Wikipedia, which supports a paid staff of what? a 100 or so? And, it is vast and up-to-date and barely survives on charity.

Dell and H-P and Sony and the other PC makers, backed by Microsoft and Intel, had a good gig going for a long time. The cost of PCs plunged, but the price drifted down only slowly, and stable businesses were maintained, selling an appliance that cost $500 to $2500, with the upper ranges enjoying the kind of margins, which could finance a lot overhead devoted to designing the new and the wonderful, support organizations, distribution organizations, etc. Now, it is on the verge of collapse, because we’re very close to the point, where you can buy the hardware of a PC — quad-core processor, etc. — on a USB stick (like a flash drive), costing less than $100. (Really, I’m not kidding; there are such things — google it.) There’s no overhead in that for a company structured like Dell.

Somewhere, I saw Clay Shirky say some very smart things about this, in his off-hand way, but, of course, I can’t find them now. Damn Google!

The best the neoliberal economists seem to be able to come up with is loose talk about “intellectual property” and cruelly extractive policies. No one seems to wonder why the price of a song on the iMusic store should be going up, let alone why it should be roughly equivalent to what it was, when the money was supporting hundreds of stores and vast manufacturing and distribution networks.

I understand what is being said, here, about the ideals of academic inquiry, but I see it in economic terms, in terms, in other words, of economic rents. Economic rents, for better or worse, finance the overhead of gatekeeping and quality-sorting, and the production and distribution of public goods. I doubt that there’s an obvious, ideal solution, but there were be, to some, obvious opportunities to extract value without producing any, and that will muddy the analysis. It’s a general problem, affecting vast swathes of the economy, with implications for structuring a lot of the economy.

It’s scary to think that it favors the fictive skills of brand management, but that may be part of the truth: that the way to secure a stable base of economic rents is to market a good story about a “cheap” product: fancy coffee served by overeducated “baristas” or the iUniverse of Apple.

25

x.trapnel 07.23.13 at 7:59 pm

Part of the problem is that university libraries have far too little authority. They’re forced to serve the demands of departments that care nothing about costs, and that’s a huge part of why journal prices escalate (and why, anticipating a captive market, for-profit publishers buy journals from non-profit societies). If university presses everywhere were subordinate to their universities’ libraries, one suspects a more sensible arrangement could be worked out. (Which is to say: the libraries would directly finance the open-access publication of the various materials, instead of indirectly financing them through subscriptions and purchases.)

26

Eric 07.23.13 at 8:07 pm

The actual gate-keeping function of a university press – that is to say, submitting it to referees and an editorial board – is done as near to free as can be. (Sometimes, in a most generous arrangement, one might be offered $75 in cash or $150 in books from the UP’s catalogue.)

It seems to me the logic points towards preserving the custom of monograph-for-tenure by counting manuscripts that pass a process of referring and are then distributed online, rather than printed. A database of monographs thus qualified could then be sold by subscription, rather like JSTOR.

It would not be totally open, but it would be pretty open. It would retain gatekeeping. It would reduce the imperative to justify printing, distribution, and storage of a physical book.

27

Rich Puchalsky 07.23.13 at 8:14 pm

I’ve very occasionally bought one of these kinds of monographs-as-books (used, or low-priced, or something) andI think that there is a tiny non-academic audience for them. I used to see them at the history section in Borders, back when Borders existed. I don’t think that this is a factor in any significant economic sense, since the number of total readers is probably still tiny, but there was certainly significant work done to change them from dissertations into books. Not just re-writing for a more general audience but also the work of making it into a printed object. I’m not surprised that there’s increased esteem associated with getting a dissertation into this form.

28

Satan Mayo 07.23.13 at 8:17 pm

So the answer seems to be that publishing houses serve the same function in academic history that peer-reviewed journals serve in other disciplines. This seems to generate the same perverse incentives for university presses that exist for scientific journals.

That looks right. But I don’t see scientific journals using “This was already part of a dissertation” as a reason for considering something to be not significant. A lot of people don’t get their primary thesis work published until after they’ve gotten the PhD — and their thesis committee doesn’t say “Wait, you won’t be able to publish this if you write it up as a dissertation first!”

29

MPAVictoria 07.23.13 at 8:17 pm

“It seems to me the logic points towards preserving the custom of monograph-for-tenure by counting manuscripts that pass a process of referring and are then distributed online, rather than printed. A database of monographs thus qualified could then be sold by subscription, rather like JSTOR.

It would not be totally open, but it would be pretty open. It would retain gatekeeping. It would reduce the imperative to justify printing, distribution, and storage of a physical book.”

I like it!

30

Marc 07.23.13 at 8:24 pm

@26: editing of the manuscripts does cost money, however, even if the physical production process can be replaced with an electronic equivalent.

31

Eric 07.23.13 at 8:31 pm

The desire to embargo the dissertation so as not to preempt the book implies that there is no significant editing.

32

alkali 07.23.13 at 8:32 pm

Isn’t a dissertation supposed to be an original contribution to the field of study? If so, it seems bizarre to withhold it from actually being contributed to the field of study.

I’m sure that’s oversimplifying, but I concur that this feels like the tail wagging the dog.

33

LFC 07.23.13 at 8:48 pm

From the opening of the linked AHA statement:

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.

I’m aware that some universities require online posting of defended dissertations, but not all of them do. The univ. library with which I’m most familiar doesn’t require or allow, afaik, online posting of dissertations. Rather, it keeps a microform copy of the diss. in the library and sends the hard copy offsite to a storage facility. Someone without full borrowing privileges who can’t order the hard copy from storage and wants to see or is curious about the diss. basically has three choices: (1) go to the lib. and read the microform there, (2) go to the lib. and read the opening pp. of the diss. (but only the opening pp.) online via the library’s site license w ProQuest, or else (3) buy the diss. from ProQuest.

Actually I would think ProQuest would have been putting up a bit of a fight against the trend toward online posting of dissertations, as orders of electronic/pdf or hard-copy dissertations from ProQuest must be a source of some revenue (though maybe not a huge amt of revenue) for the company.

34

LFC 07.23.13 at 9:06 pm

I think what pedant says in comments above is basically right.
Eric’s suggestion @26 makes some sense. The only problem with it is that some people like a hard copy; I wouldn’t want to read a whole monograph online or have to download a pdf and print it out. Getting the book publishers out of this business entirely would have that drawback.

35

pedant 07.23.13 at 9:09 pm

Eric:

“I don’t think that Loomis’s post is substantially different from mine.”

Yeah, agreed. And you both know the situation from the inside.

“It seems to me the logic points towards preserving the custom of monograph-for-tenure by counting manuscripts that pass a process of referring and are then distributed online, rather than printed. “

Might work, might even be better than the status quo. How long do you think it will take to change over the norms, all across the country? Keeping in mind (as you know, but some of the commenters seem not to) that tenuring standards are not entirely in the control of the discipline, but are also second-guessed and vetoed by committees composed of people from other disciplines, as well as deans, provosts, and administrators.

So everyone has to get on board with the new system. And it’s going to be a tricky thing for the most vulnerable members of the profession–kids up for tenure–to be the first-movers adopting the new system. What advice are you going to give to your students going out on the market? Try out the new system, or stick with the old one? Esp. given that the new system will be more quickly adopted at the elite universities, and less quickly adopted at the small backwater schools?

“Sometimes, in a most generous arrangement, one might be offered $75 in cash or $150 in books from the UP’s catalogue.”

Thanks for noting this–people frequently cannot believe how often I give up my labor, for free or for a pittance, to complete strangers, whether journals or publishers who ask me to referee, simply because I am trying to keep the system running. Vetting manuscripts, advising on tenure cases, helping with departmental reviews and outside audits, it’s all incredibly laborious. (At least departmental reviews usually include something more like real payment). “Professional service” is a real thing, and it takes up a lot of time. But we owe it to the next generation, who have enough troubles already.

About the status of current open-access, I offer an anecdote–not really pro or con any of the earlier discussion, just a point of interest. Last December I saw a reference to an Oxford DPhil dissertation that looked interesting. I went to our own library (US) and asked them to order it for me, which they did. Oxford finally sent it to me at the end of March. It came as a roll of micro-form, and luckily our library still had some micro-form readers around. So, in a sense this dissertation was archived and “open access”; it was catalogued in World Cat, and anyone can see it just for asking. But it takes months to get it, and comes in a highly unfriendly form. That’s what digital archiving is changing.

36

js. 07.23.13 at 9:13 pm

This has been deadly to subscription rates for the journals, leading to escalating charges for libraries – which are, of course, cutting off the subscriptions.

Is there good evidence that these two facts are causally related in the way you suggest—i.e., that falling subscription rates are what’s causing the price hikes in the first place?

Also, what x.trapnel said @25.

37

LFC 07.23.13 at 9:23 pm

So, in a sense this dissertation was archived and “open access”; it was catalogued in World Cat, and anyone can see it just for asking.

I’m not sure about the last phrase. Someone in the U.S. wanting to see a British diss., but without an affiliation with a university library, would not be able just to ask a librarian to order it; it might still be possible to get, perhaps eg through Library of Congress or NYPubLib, but likely not that easy. Of course, the comeback, I suppose, is that anyone wanting to see a British diss. would likely have an affiliation w a university library, but I can think of circumstances where that might not be true.

38

caldwell 07.23.13 at 9:32 pm

As in history departments, so with my field, English: tenured faculty vetting junior colleagues want and sometimes demand a peer-reviewed book (usually but not always a revised dissertation) published, at the far end of the finical, by a university—as opposed to a trade—press.

The rationale for this, as several commenters have pointed out here, is gatekeeping: the assumption that an editor for a well-regarded academic press and reviewers with serious credentials will winnow out the weak and give an imprimatur to the strong.

But. The process is subject to the bloody-mindedness of things in general, particularly when the reviewers are anonymous, as they usually are. A well-placed phone call from a rock star mentor to a university press can do wonders. An editor who likes (or dislikes) a manuscript can direct it to reviewers s/he suspects will love or hate it. A reviewer, eminent in the field, has an incentive to reject any MS that challenges his or her contribution, and accept whatever praises, backs, or perpetuates it. The possibilities for log-rolling and self service are endless, and I think most academics who’ve been involved in peer reviewing—from either end—are aware of this.

One more point: university presses are no longer what they once maybe were. A number have shuttered; others are being starved to death by their universities. There’s more than one example of a mediocre press taking a free ride on the prestige of the university that harbors it. Many presses, including most of the august names, now publish trade or contract books that dilute or even sidestep the traditional academic peer review. The imprint is no longer a guarantee of quality, if it ever was.

If the goal is really to secure a fair evaluation of a manuscript, I think the method of choice should be to disseminate it online, universally, at no charge, and invite commentary from everyone, specialist or not. As with Wikipedia, most people with special knowledge of a subject can distinguish broadly between the substantive (whether it comes from a specialist or not) and dreck (whether it comes for a specialist or not). This should be particularly true if a group of qualified people were conscientiously evaluating the manuscript and its critics, which is what’s supposed to happen in a tenure decision.

I love the printed word, the page, the book as both object and talisman, but it seems to me it’s no longer useful in academic publication (at least the kind mainly under discussion here). We now have a forum for making work instantly and universally available at low or no cost, and exposing it to the broadest possible range of commentary.

So let’s just do it.

39

pedant 07.23.13 at 9:34 pm

LFC–
yeah, fair point. I don’t know whether my ability to ask the library to order it for me was a mere convenience for me or a condition of access. I suppose you need a library card from somewhere. But then again, you also need web-access from somewhere to get access to digital archives.

“I think what pedant says in comments above is basically right.”

Jeebus–I’d like to get *that* digitally archived, given how rare the sentiment is.

40

ezra abrams 07.23.13 at 9:54 pm

what is the *real* problem ?
surely, that a historian publishes a book by a university press, in this day and age, is moot.
So, the problem seems to be that Tenure Committes can’t or are unwilling to make a decision about who is or is not suited for tenure, without the stamp of approval of a Univ Press.
Perhaps they can’t decide for themselves who is good, and have outsourced this to the UPs
Or perhaps there are so many lawsuits about tenure that the “objective” outside approval of a UP is needed
Or perhaps, as Tevye says, TRADITION !!

PS: I know of someone in the field of molecular biology, who got a PhD without a peer reviewed publication.
He got a top postdoc; again, no PRP
He got a top job at a top university
why?
his mentors, nobel prize level guys, said he was good.
The moral of hte story is that in academia “they” will bend any rule if you are percieved to be good, and conversely, erect any barrier if you are bad

41

Chaz 07.23.13 at 10:07 pm

Eric’s suggestion at 26 seems wise. Perhaps we could take it a step further. The American Historical Association could start a reviewer service, in which members submit and review each other’s monographs. The AHA could then select the best 100 monographs per year and send the author a gold star, along with a notice that the monograph will be published online by the prestigious AHA Elite service (slogan: the Harvard of Monograph Publishing Houses). Authors get their recognition, and the only costs are some administrative staff to process reviews and the cost of hosting the AHA Elite website. That can be covered by AHA dues.

I see a slight flaw in Eric’s statement at 31, that “The desire to embargo the dissertation so as not to preempt the book implies that there is no significant editing.”

I don’t know personally, but I’m getting the impression that there is a lot of editing required. If there were not, then these folks should have time to write a brand new book and submit that to the tenure lords (perhaps long publication delays are a factor, but all they need is a letter indicating acceptance from a publisher, not a book in hand). Anyway, there is apparently a long delay between publication of the dissertations online and publication of the book. Even if they would prefer the nice book, scholars who are really interested will go and read the dissertation rather than wait years for the book. There’s not much reason for them to then go get the book even if it’s better written and edited. And since no one reads these things except for those scholars, that’s the market.

But of course, no one actually cares about publishing these books except the publishers themselves (and LFC). The authors just care about getting accepted for publishing. Those who also care about sharing knowledge already did it in the dissertation, and those who want to write it up more nicely can post their monograph on their blog.

As for LFC, the market of people who want what you want (obscure hard copy monographs) seems to be very small. So unless you’re willing to pay a few thou per book you may be out of luck. Maybe subscribe to Eric’s repository and buy a nice printer?

42

js. 07.23.13 at 10:24 pm

The desire to embargo the dissertation so as not to preempt the book implies that there is no significant editing.

This is the super-weird thing to me. Because there obviously is going to be significant revision, isn’t there? (Excepting super rare cases, maybe.) I am not a historian but certainly in philosophy, if one turned one’s dissertation into a book, the two would be significantly different. But given the fact of revision, the argument doesn’t make any sense at all.

43

Walt 07.23.13 at 11:05 pm

If you are on a tenure committee, and you are unable to comprehend the fact that the world is changing because of the Internet and take it into account when making a decision, then you are an incompetent buffoon. Apparently the people who sit on tenure committees for historians are incompetent buffoons, and it’s beyond the ability of the AHA to do anything about that.

44

mpowell 07.23.13 at 11:08 pm

The crazy thing about the whole peer reviewed publication process is that the real value add in the process, the peer review, is uncompensated. Basically the publishers/journals are being paid to do this expensive and stupid publication thing to get access to the privilege of their list of peer reviewers. That is the crux of the problem.

45

ben wolfson 07.23.13 at 11:14 pm

The desire to embargo the dissertation so as not to preempt the book implies that there is no significant editing.

Which, in turn, implies (to me) that all the work being done by the thing’s being published in book form comes with the imprimatur granted by the (referees used by) the particular publisher.

As I understand it, a tenure application already includes outside assessments (from scholars at “peer institutions”) of the work of the tenure candidate. Such an application could, then, be eked out by a review of the lightly-revised dissertation, if that’s what departments actually care about; since a tenure review involves hopefully giving the candidate a more or less permanent job, the reviewing department could even sweeten the deal for the outside assessors to the tune of $75—or more!

(It seems separately odd that a lightly revised dissertation would be so important for getting one tenure, when—presumably—testimony regarding the dissertation in the form of letters from one’s committee, and, who knows, work from the dissertation, will likely have been important in getting one the tenure-track job in the first place.)

46

ben wolfson 07.23.13 at 11:15 pm

Shit, that first parenthetical should’ve been extended to include one of the “the”s.

47

David Carlton 07.23.13 at 11:21 pm

“So, the problem seems to be that Tenure Committes can’t or are unwilling to make a decision about who is or is not suited for tenure, without the stamp of approval of a Univ Press. Perhaps they can’t decide for themselves who is good, and have outsourced this to the UPs. Or perhaps there are so many lawsuits about tenure that the “objective” outside approval of a UP is needed. Or perhaps, as Tevye says, TRADITION !!”

These points have already been addressed, but in a field like history, spanning enormous reaches of time and space, it would be really difficult for me, a historian of the American South, to evaluate the work of a scholar of the Mughal Empire. And that’s only the first hurdle; at my institution, the file then goes to the Dean; if she approves, it goes to the University Committee on Promotion and Tenure (which may or may not have a historian on it), then to the Provost and finally the Chancellor (our top guy)(These latter two are usually rubber stamps, but not always). To be sure, a decent tenure file will not only have peer reviews from a press, but will also have a collection of assessments of the candidate from leading people in the field. These will typically carry more weight with the Department, since we’re likely to know or know of these people (the press reviews are anonymous), and we’ll be able sometimes to flag reviewers who are clearly grinding personal axes at the candidate’s expense. But the press–and its relative prestige–will matter greatly at higher levels. And, yes, lawsuits are an issue, especially at higher levels, where they like the process to be as free from challenge as possible. Finally, administrators are understandably nervous about departments maintaining standards, since the reputation of the institution (those all-important rankings) depends on it; typically we actually like the person we’re assessing, and this will inevitably affect our recommendations. It also doesn’t look good for a Dean to be overturned at higher levels. Yes, there are gobs of political considerations in the process; changing it to everyone’s satisfaction will be a huge task.

48

pedant 07.23.13 at 11:25 pm

Walt, I resent the charge that my buffoonery is any less than competent. I was taught by master buffoons, took over what they gave me, and buffed it to an even higher polish.

But what exactly is it that I should do differently on a tenure committee, now that you have told me that the world is changing because of the internet? What I have in front of me is a promising kid with good recommendations and a good teaching portfolio. Her colleagues speak well of her. She got a degree from a good place, some years ago, and she has published a few articles and notes.

But she doesn’t have a book, and in her field that is generally considered a floor for tenure. Why doesn’t she have a book? I don’t know. She revised her dissertation, and submitted it to several places–it’s not entirely clear how many, and she does not have to tell me. I have read the typescript, because I take my job seriously. It seems competent and professional, but it’s not in my sub-specialty, so I cannot tell whether it is great or merely okay or absolutely hackneyed. That depends on a lot of fine-grained facts about how it stands in relation to the specialty literature that she is trying to contribute to.

Why hasn’t it been accepted for publication? I don’t know. I really would like to know. Is she a promising scholar, deserving of tenure, or someone whose career is not going to pan out? Or perhaps she’ll have a terrific career as a teacher, but not at my R1 university?

I don’t know. It keeps me up at night. I hate having someone’s life in my hands this way.

And now you come along and tell me that “the world is changing because of the Internet,” and I should take account of that fact. Absolutely content-free slogan-slinging.

Crikey, Walt: I don’t normally think of you sounding like Tom Friedman, but on this occasion, you managed it.

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ben wolfson 07.23.13 at 11:29 pm

“And that’s only the first hurdle; at my institution, the file then goes to the Dean; if she approves, it goes to the University Committee on Promotion and Tenure (which may or may not have a historian on it), then to the Provost and finally the Chancellor (our top guy)(These latter two are usually rubber stamps, but not always).”

I will reveal even more of my naïveté here and say that I don’t understand why they aren’t all rubber stamps for approvals. I once overheard [eminent and extremely opinionated scholar, name omitted] say that in his opinion, if the higher-ups at a university didn’t think a department capable of making tenure decisions, the department should be put into receivership. Some such conclusion seems reasonable: if a historian of the American South can’t adequately assess the work of a historian of the Mughal Empire, vis-a-vis tenurability, why would a dean, drawn from a completely different department, have a hope of being able to do so? If such a dean or a yet-higher-up administrative person has to rely on such visible signs of an invisible order as prestigious publishing houses, that just means that they have no business making the call.

50

Peter T 07.23.13 at 11:34 pm

I suggest people look at Bruce Wilder’s comment again. I read a lot of history, and some of what I read is theses made available on line by the British Library in cooperation with British universities. There’s a lot of difference between a good monograph and a thesis – greater length, usually greater depth, professional maps, more consideration of counter-arguments and so on. All this quality is put in by referees, editors and other publishing support staff, mostly at at university presses. How do we continue to support this? The internet is wonderful, but it’s not reliable, and leaving it to the reader to sort out the heap is not a recipe for intellectual progress: the rubbish multiplies faster than the good stuff.

The AHA’s reference to monographs as a form of test is misplaced, but there is a genuine concern.

One could link this to John Quiggin’s remarks on tariffs and secession. In Australia (and I think elsewhere) this was the product of a genuine debate about what kind of economy we wanted to have. We seem to have drifted to a position where this debate cannot be had – we just have to accept whatever the market, the oligarchs or the net hand us.

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Alex K. 07.23.13 at 11:41 pm

“–people frequently cannot believe how often I give up my labor, for free or for a pittance, to complete strangers, whether journals or publishers who ask me to referee, simply because I am trying to keep the system running.”

I still don’t understand why there is no effort put into leveraging this most important part of the process into more control for the academics and less control for the publishers.

What exactly would be the downside for Harvard if it imposes an embargo on its employees for refereeing, except refereeing for publishers that follow a strict code (e.g. no monopolistic pricing)?

What would be the downside for East Podunk State if it imposes a similar embargo?

52

dr ngo 07.24.13 at 12:14 am

@46: it was only one incident, and it happened thirty years ago, but it happened to me, so I remember. I was recommended for tenure by my (history) department, but the head of the department, who didn’t like me or agree with the departmental decision, apparently – this was all theoretically confidential, but leaky – submitted a minority report to the faculty committee next up the hierarchy, and since this was a time of budget-cutting and belt-tightening the faculty committee used this as a reason to deny me tenure.

So after a great deal of angst I wound up halfway around the world and making twice as much money as I could ever have earned at the U of M ——

Make of this what you will.

53

Consumatopia 07.24.13 at 1:17 am

In Australia (and I think elsewhere) this was the product of a genuine debate about what kind of economy we wanted to have. We seem to have drifted to a position where this debate cannot be had – we just have to accept whatever the market, the oligarchs or the net hand us.

A genuine debate wouldn’t be a choice between blind tradition and laissez-faire. Whether we’re talking about music, movies or monographs, there’s no reason that zero-marginal costs should mean that fewer resources go to content creators. In the case of popular entertainment, collect taxes from everyone and distribute money to creators by the number of downloads. For academic book publishing, adopt Eric’s system @26.

If you think it’s too hard to create that new system, then it’s probably also too hard to resist markets/oligarchs/the net.

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StevenAttewell 07.24.13 at 1:17 am

Chas at 41 – sounds like an idea that might make paying AHA dues actually worthwhile.

pedant at 48 – it’s true, the phrase “the world is changing because of the Internet” is usually a vacuous nullity. But this is one case in which it’s true. We can see this in a bunch of disciplines – the old gatekeeping/fisking mechanisms of peer review aren’t functioning, because academic journals and publishers are shrinking and the number of manuscripts to be reviewed is growing, and you can get more, faster, and more collaborative and widely discussed peer review by throwing a paper up online than you can in the old system.

Given that the peer reviewing is basically uncompensated labor, and academia in general is experiencing a stretch-out/speed-up as more and more tenured jobs with the kind of low teaching loads that allow for such uncompensated labor as replaced by adjunct positions where you have to work flat-out to earn anything close to a minimum wage, I don’t think trying to rescue the old system makes sense.

Honestly, what would be best is to change our expectations from “book published by X academic press” to “e-book that received X positive reviews from the following professional blogs.”

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pedant 07.24.13 at 1:34 am

ben w. @ 49–

Myself, I think that higher-ups, whether administrators or academics from other disciplines, ought to show a lot of deference to the communal expertise of the department in question.

But the rationale for having further hurdles and levels of scrutiny is not predicated on the idea that the Provost knows more about history than the historians do.

Rather, the motivating thought is analogous to the idea that appellate courts should investigate matters of procedure and not re-try matters of fact. And that they should overturn the verdict of lower courts only if they find an error of law or an error in the application of the law, rather than overturning it because it reconsiders all of the evidence and disagrees with the jury.

So, the sensible administrator (or faculty ad hoc committee), in reviewing a department’s decision, will not ask “is this candidate doing groundbreaking work on the Carolingian Empire?”. That is the job of the experts in the department, and of the outside reviewers. The sensible administrator will ask, “did the department conduct this tenure review in an honest, scrupulous fashion? Did they give the candidate a fair chance to assemble the materials for the review, with no more or less advantage than other candidates for tenure at our institution? Did they consult a wide array of outside experts from peer institutions? Did they consult experts who represent a range of approaches and competing outlooks? Did they, instead, cherry-pick outside referees to make the candidate look good, or bad? Did they rail-road a vote through their department, over the cogent objections of a minority? Do the materials that they submitted substantiate the department’s decision?” and so on.

Sometimes the department will present a case to the administration and say that the candidate received glowing letters from all of their external reviewers. The administrator should certainly read those letters and see whether they glow or not.

The view of your eminent and extremely opinionated scholar has some merit to it if the question is about areas of narrow expertise. But your eminent scholar forgets that communities of experts, i.e. departments, can be prey to self-deception, biases, and cognitive errors just as individuals can. (Oddly enough, eminent scholars are sometimes the most prone to forget that they too are prone to cognitive biases!) They can even be prey to outright fraud or jiggering by some or all members of the department.

So the job of the reviewers is to guard the department from making a decision that is influenced by things *other than* its own corporate expertise, e.g. the fact that the candidate was trained by their friends, the fact that the candidate is a champion schmoozer and plays golf with the chair, the fact that the candidate agrees with the house dogma, and so on.

If an ad hoc committee or dean comes to believe that a tenure decision should be sent back to the department for reconsideration, does that mean that the department should be put into receivership? Surely not; no more than when your friends point out that you are succumbing to some common cognitive bias it means that you should be committed to a mental hospital. Even experts can have blind-spots, and they are sometimes evident to non-experts.

Where do publishing houses fit into this? They are another part of the story that can either look consistent or raise flags. The department says the candidate is brilliant and his work is cutting edge. But it was published in an undistinguished venue, and over half of the reviewers seem never to have read it. Something doesn’t add up in this picture–if he’s so good, how come his book is not making a splash? Or the department turns her down and says they have no confidence in the scholar’s work, but she has published with a top press. Her reviewers all attack her work savagely, and decry the fact that it has gained so many adherents and is exercising a pernicious influence on the profession. Something doesn’t add up in this picture: if she is so inferior, why does she seem to be having such a wide impact in the field? Did the department cherry-pick a lot of letter-writers who hate her, or her methodology? In both cases, it is possible that the department is in the right, and has made the right decision. But a conscientious administrator is going to raise a lot of questions.

So the relation between the department’s review and the higher hurdles is not as simple as a contest of expertise between experts (in the department) and non-experts (in the dean’s office). The two reviews are focused on different, and to some extent orthogonal, kinds of evidence and issues.

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Daniel Tompkins 07.24.13 at 2:05 am

Arthur Schlesinger seems to have been a complex person, and had many virtues. However, his “openness and generosity” had distinct limits. Working through his papers in the NYPL I was struck by the assured cruelty of his comments on Owen Lattimore, and the Hoover Institution houses his 1955 letter to Sidney Hook about what appears to be their combined effort to prevent the ancient historian Moses Finley, who had been jobless for two years after Rutgers fired him for a leftwing past shared with many other Americans, and rendered jobless previously at City in ’42, from gaining employment IN ANOTHER COUNTRY: England. Fortunately, Cambridge and Oxford were both undeterred (Trevor-Roper led a “huge fight” against “the right wing” — T-R’s own words
— to extend an offer to Finley.

Finley chose Cambridge, rose to Professor, helped to reshape the study of economic and social history, and was knighted in 1979: “Sir Moe,” his old mates called him. There may be other accounts of Schlesinger’s efforts to deny employment to scholars whose politics differed from his, but this is one of the most noteworthy. “Generosity” is distinctly lacking in the papers I have reviewed.

Dan Tompkins, Temple University

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pedant 07.24.13 at 2:14 am

And by the way–all of that was just a paraphrase from memory of what the official university policies say about the review of tenure cases, at my not especially unusual university. So I’m a bit surprised that your eminent scholar wasn’t familiar with this understanding of the relation between the department’s decision and the administrative review of it. Makes me think that eminent scholar has somehow skived off from doing this sort of work for the administration. Could it be?

58

ben w 07.24.13 at 4:19 am

Makes me think that eminent scholar has somehow skived off from doing this sort of work for the administration. Could it be?

It would actually surprise me a great deal to learn that of the person in question, but it is, of course, not impossible. (The context was a discussion of tenuring policies at Barnard, which AIUI is somewhat unusual in that the formally distinct administration (and perhaps also analogous department?) of Columbia also has to sign off on it.)

59

ben w 07.24.13 at 4:22 am

It’s also possible that he simply meant that if the administration thinks that the department can’t or won’t get the procedural matters right, then &c. Comment on the administration’s ability to assess work on the Mughal Empire was mine (I never having attained a tenure-track position never received instruction on the niceties of how all the various players play it out).

60

gavinf 07.24.13 at 5:23 am

As a mature aged Humanities PhD student with a penchant for policy and economics, I find it unfathomable that these history scholars don’t appear to grasp that the long run benefits from knowledge spillovers. The more I come to learn about the academy the more I find many in it narrowly interested in self-preservation as any other occupation, but even nastier because they are smarter.

61

Gene O'Grady 07.24.13 at 6:47 am

I know absolutely nothing about history dissertations, and very little about monographs in history, but in classical studies, while there are quite mediocre and usually quickly dated monographs rushed out for tenure committees, there are also quite valuable commentaries (the improvement in the available commentaries on almost all classical authors in my lifetime is astounding) which began life as a dissertation covering a limited part of the text, and then over a period of years became a much fuller and more valuable piece of work. I checked this with Gaertner’s recent commentary on Ovid’s Epistulae ex Ponto where he gives a pretty detailed description of the progress from a thesis and a dissertation through research at the TLL through editing and revision to what will be a standard work — standard if you want to explore the text in detail; if you just want to read the book you can go to George Goold’s revision of the Loeb.

Odium philologicum is notorious, but the cynicism of most of the comments about scholarly motivation is a little shocking. I remember that many years ago one of my fellow graduate students who was beginning a career using statistical methods in classical metrics published an article which showed how a variety of alleged metrical choices by Greek poets were statistically just what would be expected by random choice given the structure of the language, and a couple months later received out of the blue a letter from Jean Irrigoin, professor of Greek at the Sorbonne, thanking him for pointing out his mistake.

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John Quiggin 07.24.13 at 9:52 am

The solution seems simple – forget about monographs, and focus on journal articles, the same as everyone else. Journals (in all the fields I know about) have never worried about prior publication on the Internet – they mainly act as a disciplinary stamp of approval for papers that have been through the usual circuit of working papers and seminars. In addition, they are at least partly open to publishing the work of outsiders, even those located in the wrong half of the planet.

The idea that a new PhD graduate ought, as a matter of course, to produce a book is just silly (I did, but it made almost no difference to my career). The time to produce a book is when you have tenure, and time to take a broad view.

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Neville Morley 07.24.13 at 12:20 pm

I’ve slightly lost track of which problem JQ’s proposal offers a solution to. If it is just a matter of trying to reconcile the imperatives of making research open access and the conventional operations of the tenure process, then that seems to work, but I’m not sure that this is all we should be worrying about. There are certain sorts of project, at least within historical studies, where the monograph is the most appropriate form of dissemination – and these could certainly be produced by new postdocs as well as by experienced scholars able to offer the broad view he mentions. On the other hand, it certainly isn’t the case that all doctoral projects in history are of this nature – and we might worry about the influence on the development of projects of the expectation that they *should* in due course be publishable as monographs.

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pedant 07.24.13 at 12:57 pm

I’ve seen various comments, here and at Delong’s blog, that say that historians are crap for not being willing to pay for the published book, with whatever improvements it contains. (Bonus dilemmatic bashing: “…and if the published book is not improved, then historians are crap for allowing unrevised dissertations to be published. So in either case, historians are crap!”)

But the book-buying habits of historians are not the primary issue here. What the AHA is reacting to are the decisions of publishers. The publishers, in turn, are anticipating the decisions of library buyers. The buyers are dealing with severe budgetary constraints (typically brought on by Republican legislators).

So the library buyer says, “I only have $5. to spend on history books. Why get this new expensive monograph, when 80% of its value can be had for free on-line? Sure, it has improvements in it, and nicer graphics. But if I buy this one, then I cannot buy that other one, which is *not* the revised version of a freely available original. So that other one gives me a dollar of new content for every dollar I spend; the revision of the on-line dissertation only gives 20 cents of new content for every dollar I spend.”

And so the library does not buy it, and so the publisher does not publish it.

Do historians have *any* role in this story? Yes, a minimal one. They can lobby their library to buy a particular book, but then it’s some other book that isn’t bought, and to the publisher it all looks alike. They can lobby their administration to increase their acquisition budget, at the expense of the budget in French literature. They could even lobby their legislature, except that it is composed of Republicans who would respond to such expressions of distress from academics the way that sadists respond to the pain of their victims, i.e. by making it hurt more.

My point is simply: there are many layers of expectations and predictions that go into these decisions. There are many agents–publishers, librarians, buyers, administrators, etc., even before we get to the historians.

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DBW 07.24.13 at 1:54 pm

I, like pedant, think there’s a lot more going on here than the reactionary guild mentality of the AHA vs. the open world of knowledge and scholarly production. For one, when we say that history is a “book discipline,” we’re not saying that there’s some arbitrary preference for books that could just as easily be met by delivery of the same content in different form–e.g. more journal articles (BTW, many journals will not publish work that has appeared in other fora, or that is substantially similar to that work–meaning that the availability of dissertations on-line may also, in the future, preclude publication in journals). Rather, we are saying that the way in which historians conduct research, organize and present that research, is dependent upon the long form, which often involves extensive revision of its parts. Historical knowledge is not separable from the form in which it is organized. Asking historians to abandon the monograph, or the demonstration of the ability to produce a published monograph as the result of many years work as a criterion for tenure, is asking for a fundamental revision in what constitutes historical knowledge. I think the AHA should defend the autonomy of the discipline to make decisions based on its scholarly standards, rather than simply bow to the economics and institutional pressures of the publishing industry. I suspect that one of the unexpected consequences of stripping out the published monograph as the basis for tenure might well be an even greater extension of the time to degree of PhD students. I’m not sure about this, but the “common sense” of the discipline is that already that time to degree has grown, largely because you now have to demonstrate that you have something very close to a publishable manuscript in order to obtain a job. Might it not be the case that the very ubiquity of on-line dissertations will up the standard for what a dissertation must be, since there will be little opportunity to develop what is in the dissertation to the standard of a publishable monograph?

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Consumatopia 07.24.13 at 2:05 pm

They could even lobby their legislature, except that it is composed of Republicans who would respond to such expressions of distress from academics the way that sadists respond to the pain of their victims, i.e. by making it hurt more.

Yes, it would be quite a mistake to lobby hostile legislatures for remediation of a problem caused by one’s own internal bureaucracy and traditions.

Public support for university funding, especially for humanities, is not particularly strong right now. Researchers would be wise to look for ways to make research more effective and available. Spurning such improvements because they’re incompatible with current practice, rather than changing current practice (don’t abandon the monograph, find a different way to organize and compensate the referees) is foolish. Sure, changing institutions is hard. But sustaining political support will be harder.

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Farah 07.24.13 at 2:07 pm

Apologies if this has been said but there are too many comments above:
European universities *require* open access publishing: in Sweden there are presses that do this, in the UK, students are required to deposit their thesis in the British Library. It can be borrowed by anyone.
Publishers then publish the Book of the Thesis and it is rarely the same thing.

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Alex K. 07.24.13 at 2:22 pm

“Do historians have *any* role in this story? Yes, a minimal one.”

The role is major, as it has been pointed out in various comments.

Historians can use their power as the only competent reviewers to make the practices of professional evaluation compatible with open (or almost open) dissemination. There were several good proposals in this thread and I’m sure that better ones can be found once those affected start to think seriously about alternatives.

A coherent criticism of such alternative models is that implementing a new standard is hard because of collective action problems. But not all collective actions problems are hard to solve — in fact, AHA believes that it can solve this one. The problem is that it is trying to solve it in a way that satisfies publishers instead of trying to facilitate easier dissemination.

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SamChevre 07.24.13 at 3:57 pm

Timothy Burke has an excellent <post up on this same topic.

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Matt T. 07.24.13 at 5:00 pm

I suppose you need a library card from somewhere. But then again, you also need web-access from somewhere to get access to digital archives.

Just a friendly note: “able to access the internet” may be a higher bar in some places than others, but no matter where in the world you are, it is orders of magnitude lower than “is a member of a library that spends its limited resources on the sorts of programs that allow you to order in microfilms etc. from abroad”.

So let’s not pretend that policies like the one proposed by the AHA would only inconvenience lazy ne’er-do-wells who will just have to visit their library’s service desk instead. It would actively harm all kinds of people who for whatever reason don’t have access to a library that will do these things for them. It’s perfectly legitimate to criticize the AHA for a stance on people in this position which apparently lies somewhere between “Are there no prisons? No workhouses?” and “Let them eat cake.”

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Barry 07.24.13 at 5:32 pm

Alex K: “A coherent criticism of such alternative models is that implementing a new standard is hard because of collective action problems. But not all collective actions problems are hard to solve — in fact, AHA believes that it can solve this one. The problem is that it is trying to solve it in a way that satisfies publishers instead of trying to facilitate easier dissemination.”

That is a beautiful statement of the situation.

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Random Lurker 07.24.13 at 6:44 pm

Suppose that I’m a publisher of peer reviewed history monographs , given that the rewiewers are anonymous, how do you know that the reviewers aren ‘t me, my brother, and my cousin ?

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SusanC 07.24.13 at 6:56 pm

@71: Typically, the reviewers and the author aren’t told each other’s identities, but the editor/program chair knows who everyone is, in order to enforce conflict of interest rules.

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The Raven 07.25.13 at 2:54 am

Oh, for heaven’s sake. Hasn’t anyone read Jaron Lanier on what has become of music in a “free publication” model? A bit of cynicism about free digital publication of dissertations is called for here. Beyond that, print publication creates a lasting physical record of the work, and historians really like lasting physical records. So I think the AHA has a point, at least until the world changes.

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dr ngo 07.25.13 at 3:28 am

As a retired historian, I have no real (or virtual) dog in this fight, but there are a couple of observations I would like to make, based on some decades in the profession.

First, to JQ @ 62 (“The solution seems simple – forget about monographs, and focus on journal articles, the same as everyone else.”) I presume your mother said to you what all mothers do: “Just because everyone else is jumping off a bridge, doesn’t mean you have to do it.” The primary question, I would think, is a philosophical one – what is the optimum size in which historical knowledge is analyzed and communicated? DBW @ 65 has pointed out that the monograph is not arbitrary; it is what the historical profession has come to regard as a fitting amplitude for certain kinds of research and analysis. All disciplines are not the same; my son is a mathematician and his entire dissertation could fit comfortably inside a chapter of mine. I’m not insisting that the system be unchanged, but I am resistant to the idea that we should change just because “everyone else” does it. The solution, in other words, is not “simple.”

Second, some people seem to assume that the current position entails complete privacy of the dissertation, and that’s the only alternative to open access. (Cf. Farah @ 67: “European universities *require* open access publishing: in Sweden there are presses that do this, in the UK, students are required to deposit their thesis in the British Library. It can be borrowed by anyone.”)

On the contrary, for at least the last half-century (my personal memory of the field) there has always been access to American dissertations, albeit cumbersome. Back In The Day (1970s) most graduates were required to arrange for general access through University Microfilms, which would then sell copies of said microfilm (or even a printed and bound version thereof) to all who wanted it. I bought bound copies of several dissertations in my field, and I know a few people bought mine. Harvard somehow opted out of this system, so if you wanted to read a Harvard dissertation, you either had to go to Cambridge in person or get it on interlibrary loan. (I remember borrowing one particularly seminal work in my field – only published as a monograph 44 years later! – and recognizing the names of many of the scholars who had borrowed it before.) This sounds like the British Library, as described.

No one in his/her right mind would design an entire system this way, but the fact is that it worked after a fashion. People who really wanted to know what was in a dissertation could get at that with a bit of difficulty, expense, and/or delay; others, more marginally interested, could wait for the monograph. There was in effect a kind of tiered access to which we all adjusted.

But with current technology, and current practices, it appears that access will be virtually universal, free (?) and instantaneous. Moreover, my guess is that the text will be machine-searchable, so that in a matter of minutes anyone anywhere can not only access your dissertation, but find exactly what you said about a given event or issue in which they are interested, devoid of context if they so choose.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not arguing that this is bad. What I am saying is that it is different from the kind of “open access” that existed a generation or two ago, which is apparently the norm in Europe. (?) And we should stop and think about the implications of such differences – which I hope the AHA has done.

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LFC 07.25.13 at 4:55 am

dr ngo @75:
Back In The Day (1970s) most graduates were required to arrange for general access through University Microfilms [UMI], which would then sell copies of said microfilm (or even a printed and bound version thereof) to all who wanted it.

That’s still the case, except that UMI was bought or taken over by ProQuest. It will sell anyone either an electronic or hard copy of any diss. in the company’s database (it’s not 100 percent of U.S. [and some Canadian, I believe] dissertations but a very substantial percentage, I don’t know the exact figure), unless the author has opted for the diss. to be barred from sale for a period of time (which I gather is possible). But if you’re in the U.S. and want a diss. that is *not* from N. America and also not online somewhere, that is a bit more involved (see discussion on this point with pedant, above).

I’d repeat what I said in my comment upthread @33: not all university libraries require or allow online posting of the dissertations defended at that university. I’m aware of at least one library that does not, and doubtless there are others that do not. There’s apparently a trend in the direction of such open posting, but it’s not universal. The AHA statement refers to “more and more institutions” requiring it; “more and more” does not mean “all.”

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LFC 07.25.13 at 5:02 am

In other words, what dr ngo refers to as the system that existed for U.S. dissertations “a generation or two ago” is still, in its essentials, the system today. People are generally (perhaps not universally but generally) required to file copies of their dissertations with the successor company to UMI, and that company still sells them.

The difference now is that, as the AHA statement notes, a growing number of libraries are requiring dissertations at their univs. to be posted online. But before that trend began, and it’s a fairly recent trend I believe, the system was basically unchanged, afaik. So dr ngo’s reference to “a generation or two ago,” as if things now are totally and completely different, is misleading. Things are changing, but the old system still exists.

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dr ngo 07.25.13 at 5:54 am

Fair enough. I referred to a generation or two ago because that’s when I last had a regular appointment in a US history department, and did not wish to make assertions beyond my own knowledge. (I was then overseas for more than 20 years, and when I returned I taught part-time only, out of the loop as far as graduate supervision.) I’m not surprised that things are largely unchanged, but if there is a change in process or in the wind – as the AHA seems to believe – then it may be a significant one: not from “no access” to “access” but from “limited/difficult” access to “universal/easy”?

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Peter Erwin 07.25.13 at 8:27 am

dBW @ 65:
BTW , many journals will not publish work that has appeared in other fora, or that is substantially similar to that work–meaning that the availability of dissertations on-line may also, in the future, preclude publication in journals.

This has certainly not been a problem in the sciences. (And I’d point out that the microfilm-based system that dr ngo and LFC refer to could very easily be described as a form of publication, albeit an awkward and limited one.)

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Z 07.25.13 at 8:56 am

The solution seems simple – forget about monographs, and focus on journal articles, the same as everyone else.

Like Neville Morley and dr ngo, I am not convinced. Some fields of knowledge, and History seems to fit the description perfectly, do require long elaborate factual reviews of the evidence as well as long careful descriptions of the new factual material unearthed by the author, and that kind of work does not necessarily fit well within the journal article format.

On the other hand, when I’m looking for a dissertation, I usually just download it from its author’s website. Does the AHA also object to that?

Honestly, what would be best is to change our expectations from “book published by X academic press” to “e-book that received X positive reviews from the following professional blogs.”

This sentiment is sometimes expressed by academics, but I think it is ethically naïve in the extreme. The one virtue of X academic press is that it is bound to consider any manuscript it receives, whereas professional blogs read and review what they want. This one virtue is absolutely crucial for outsiders of any kind. To take a concrete example: one major math progress in pure mathematics in recent months was the proof of a significant part of the twin prime number conjecture (there has been articles in the NYT about it). This was achieved by a lowly adjunct professor with a grand total of one publication in all his previous 30 years career. Based on that, it is unlikely that any professional individual blog would have paid any attention to this work. If this lowly adjunct had been working in a non-core country in terms of math research, then I would say that the chances would have been nil. But the guy submitted it to Annals of Math, and there the editors have the duty to read it.

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Zora 07.25.13 at 9:11 am

Several years ago, I proofread a revised dissertation being published by a middle-rank university press. It was on a subject I had studied as a graduate student. The book was a mixture of some good research and some that was sloppy or pernicious (arguing that one should ignore archaeologists and mainstream historians, because 19th century Native Hawaiian fables about menehune outrank anything asserted by non-Hawaiians). I was sad that the press had chosen to print it. I was able to correct some of the smaller errors (egregious mistranslations from the Hawaiian) but the larger ones remained.

1) Publication by a university press is no guarantee of quality, but also …
2) Editing and proofreading can raise the quality of the text somewhat, if good help is hired and heeded.

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Neville Morley 07.25.13 at 9:11 am

@Z #80: on specific point about downloading dissertations from author’s website: AHA is not calling for blanket embargo, but for right of any student to have such an embargo if they decide it’s in their best interests.

I’m less optimistic, or more cynical, about the idea that any journal or publisher has an obligation to do more than glance in a cursory manner at a submission before deciding that it’s not suitable. Once you’re actually in the peer review process, the ideas can (and often do) speak for themselves, but academic status and connections can play a gatekeeper role in determining whose submissions get to that stage. Maybe not in maths (not my field), but in general I would have slightly more faith in the chances of a really interesting electronic publication getting the attention it deserved – albeit probably dependent on it catching the interest of someone with lots of Twitter followers – than if the same scholar followed a traditional route.

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John Quiggin 07.25.13 at 10:05 am

@Z I’d missed the twin prime result. And there was also substantial progress on a version of the Goldbach conjecture. The way things are going, every notable conjecture that can be stated in elementary terms will have been resolved before long.

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Estefania 07.25.13 at 10:48 am

Pedant imagines a buyer in a library’s workflow @ 64 So the library buyer says, “I only have $5. to spend on history books. Why get this new expensive monograph, when 80% of its value can be had for free on-line? Sure, it has improvements in it, and nicer graphics. But if I buy this one, then I cannot buy that other one, which is *not* the revised version of a freely available original. So that other one gives me a dollar of new content for every dollar I spend; the revision of the on-line dissertation only gives 20 cents of new content for every dollar I spend.”

And so the library does not buy it, and so the publisher does not publish it.

This never happens. Library buyers do not work this way. Heads of departments work with subject librarians to generate a list of books to buy, up to an agreed budgets. Library buyers then buy these books. We also subscribe to e-book packages in the relevant disciplines, over the specifics of which we have little control.The end.

We never over-ride HoD’s decisions. We never check online to see if an OA version is available (and I’m sure the HoD does not either). We never cut out something that the department has asked us to buy.

Authority: I am a buyer in a library (and also, in a previous life, an academic historian, fwiw).

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Z 07.25.13 at 11:39 am

@Neville Morley. My point is purely comparative: surely the existence of formal guidelines (stipulating that editors have to consider manuscript and send them to referees, perhaps without the author name) can only lessen the impact of status and connections. Or put more bluntly, what do you consider more likely: that an unknown scholar from an obscure institution in a country not known for its academic excellence in the relevant subfield gets to publish a paper in a top journal, or that said unknown scholar gets himself invited to a famous conference? In my field, the answer would be crystal clear (but I recognize that math might be privileged in that respect: as standards of proofs are more or less established, lack of status essentially plays no role in the evaluation of current research). Thanks for the clarification on the position of the AHA.

@John Quiggin The way things are going, every notable conjecture that can be stated in elementary terms will have been resolved before long. Yes, that was a terrible blow for cranks everywhere. Soon, all of us receiving elementary proofs of them by the dozen will at last be able to answer courteously “We have received your manuscript. Unfortunately, Fermat’s Last Theorem/The Twin Prime Conjecture/Goldbach’s Conjecture is a theorem of Wiles/Y/Z and our journal publishes only original research”.

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Timothy Burke 07.25.13 at 11:58 am

I’ve said my main piece on this on my own blog, but let me pick up one dangling thread in this conversation: that historians are unable to critically evaluate the tenure-worthiness or publishability of work in their own discipline which is too far from their own specialization.

As a historian, I find this one of the most peculiar and flawed aspects of history as a discipline. Cultural anthropologists, for example, seem perfectly capable of reading work by a fellow member of the discipline who writes about a very different place. Cultural anthropologists even sometimes dramatically change fieldsites in the course of their careers and learn languages, histories, sociologies and so on relevant to their new focus of study.

I may not be able to assess the highly specialized aspects of a historian colleague in their own terms–say, whether an Ottoman specialist’s translation of Turkish documents is accurate, or whether they have worked with all relevant archives. But I should be able to assess the cogency of that historian’s interpretation of the subject at hand and the ways in which he/she builds the case for that interpretation.And that’s what matters if I’m being asked, “Is this publishable” and “Is this tenurable”.

Historians have gotten used to the idea that they can’t read outside their field, and use that proposition as a labor-saving device and as a way to lock down who the people are that will be asked to critically evaluate your work at important professional junctures. This also lets some historians act like colossal assholes when they *do* read outside their fields because they know that no one really expects them to show the same critical acumen and care that they have inside their specialization.

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Neville Morley 07.25.13 at 12:37 pm

@Z #84: we may be at cross purposes here; I wasn’t thinking in terms of formal publication versus formal conference invitation, but formal publication versus ‘open access piece gets picked up and widely discussed, maybe then resulting in conference invitation’. My experience may be entirely atypical, or at least discipline-specific, but over the last four years I’ve built up a network of contacts and collaborators mainly through a combination of word-of-mouth, friend-of-friend and just-stumbled-across-by-chance-on-internet, plus people who’ve got in touch with me because they’ve heard about the project in the same way; and in some cases I’ve then been able to give colleagues’ work (including unpublished work in progress) more exposure than they might otherwise have received. Can’t imagine this happening without either the internet or a degree of openness on everyone’s part in talking about their research prior to publication.

@Timothy Burke #85: this is one of the times when I very much feel like ‘an ancient historian therefore more or less some sort of classicist’, rather than ‘a historian who just happens to study ancient stuff’ (which is how I’d generally think of myself). In my sub-discipline, a significant degree of generalism is simply expected. It’s even more noticeable when it comes to teaching, at least in the UK; I teach courses from the whole timespan of classical antiquity, on most topics besides military history (and that’s just because I don’t like military history), whereas, with all due respect to my many lovely colleagues in Historical Studies, they do seem to spend most of their time offering courses on incredibly specific themes directly related to their research interests. How far is this simply a kind of insecurity – establishing a patch of territory where one is the undisputed king, even if that involves a complete withdrawal from the rest of the historical field?

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Barry 07.25.13 at 12:59 pm

The Raven 07.25.13 at 2:54 am

” Oh, for heaven’s sake. Hasn’t anyone read Jaron Lanier on what has become of music in a “free publication” model? A bit of cynicism about free digital publication of dissertations is called for here. Beyond that, print publication creates a lasting physical record of the work, and historians really like lasting physical records. So I think the AHA has a point, at least until the world changes.”

First, nobody is calling for a ban on actual printing; people are still free to do that. Second, electronic publication creates a lasting record, as well.

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Barry 07.25.13 at 1:00 pm

dr ngo 07.25.13 at 3:28 am

“DBW @ 65 has pointed out that the monograph is not arbitrary; it is what the historical profession has come to regard as a fitting amplitude for certain kinds of research and analysis. “

It is what the historical profession agreed upon, in the days when everything was on paper, and dissemination meant ‘printing’.

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pedant 07.25.13 at 1:06 pm

Dr. Burke, you have advantage of me, since you are an historian and I am not. Perhaps you are right that there are “critical skills” that are sufficiently transferable across era and region and topic so as to allow any good historian to pronounce, unaided, on the tenurability of any other historian.

This question obviously touches on the broader question (indicated by my quotation marks above) of the extent to which there are content-neutral, universal skills that are applicable to all areas. Obviously there are canons of rationality that are universally applicable; if I see a scholar affirming the consequent in their thesis, then I will not let their greater knowledge of Indonesian trade routes prevent me from criticizing their argument. And it certainly was a dogma of an earlier era that any gentleman who had learned Greek grammar was thereby provided with the “formal” education that would allow him to act as a judge on any question, in any colonial outpost of the empire of learning.

But I myself am rather skeptical of how sweeping, or even how useful, such content-neutral critical skills are. To put it differently, I have a lot of respect for other people’s patient accumulation of local expertise. It does not always happen, but it sometimes happens, that people learn a lot about an area, in such a way that even a clever lad like myself cannot usefully say much by way of criticism, unless I do the work of learning the details to a greater depth than is possible during a tenure case.

The peril that I wish to avoid is perhaps best illustrated by the Larry Summers model, where someone who is undoubtedly very intelligent and good at what he does, sets himself up as an arbiter of tenurability in every field in the university. After all, if a smart historian can judge historical work about which he knows nothing, why should he not judge anthropological work about which he knows nothing? Why not work on French literature, too? And for that matter, why should not a smart historian with “critical acumen” also judge the merits of a new proposal about barrier-energies in the reaction-rate dynamics of non-Markovian solvents? Surely his “critical acumen” will simply allow him to spend a few hours reviewing the chemist’s tenure-file, and then over-ride the judgment of the chemistry department.

This is a caricature of your position, but it was actual policy at Harvard, i.e. that the President, from their own reading of a file, could override the judgment of every expert in any department. It strikes me as folly.

So on the one hand we have Ben Wolfson’s witness, who argues (and with some merit) that no one outside a discipline should be allowed to second guess those inside. To him I answered that there is a role for procedural scrutiny, if not substantive scrutiny, to act as a check on the department’s conduct.

Then we have your view, that anyone within a discipline may and ought to criticise everyone within the same discipline, no matter how distant the sub-discipline. That may work for disciplines within which the sub-disciplines stand at no great distance, and perhaps history is one of those, but it is not the case in other departments whose parts bear a looser affinity to each other.

My comments above about the wisdom of listening to experts in other sub-fields when considering the tenurability of colleagues are a reflection of the fact that some disciplines are very large and varied, and it would be intellectual hubris for one scholar to judge the work of another scholar without the advice of experts who have more specific knowledge.

I certainly said nothing that would license the bad behaviour of your fellow historians who arrogate to themselves the right to remain ignorant of work outside their own fields, and yet pronounce on it anyway, with lowered standards of care. That phenomenon surely combines the worst of both worlds.

But by the same token, our common condemnation of your “colossal assholes” who pontificate without doing their homework really says nothing about whether tenure committees are or are not wise to defer to specialist experts within narrower subfields.

That question, itself, may be one which varies from department to department, and so a question in which an outsider to History like myself is wise to defer to your more detailed knowledge.

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Timothy Burke 07.25.13 at 2:07 pm

The problem here, Pedant, is that this is a conversation about a single discipline, one which typically matches to a department (though historians do sometimes pop up in other programs or departments).

It’s one thing to say, “No one should imagine themselves such a generalist that they imagine they can engage and critically evaluate work in all academic disciplines, particularly if that evaluation is tied to tenure and promotion or to peer review of a possible publication.” Though I do think it’s possible to aspire to some knowledge or understanding across a wide span of intellectual work–but that’s a long ways from being able to make high-stakes judgments and a long ways from being able to actually *produce* specialized knowledge across that span.

It’s another thing to say, “There is work in *my own discipline* which I am incapable of understanding or evaluating in any high-stakes way because it is in a different specialty.” That casts doubt on whether your discipline really IS a discipline or is instead a kind of confederation of disciplines that simply pretend to be doing something similar. Of course as a historian you grant a lot of respect for local knowledge among specialists in an era or place, but that should be a basic part of your disciplinary training–a general understanding of the value of specificity and particularity. Equally, though, any given historian should worry a lot if they’re reading the work of a colleague who says, “I literally cannot explain this point to you unless you know what I know, and you cannot hope to evaluate whether my point is a good one or not for the same reason.”

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dr ngo 07.25.13 at 2:16 pm

” if I see a scholar affirming the consequent in their thesis, then I will not let their greater knowledge of Indonesian trade routes prevent me from criticizing their argument.”

Damn. There goes my secret edge.

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pedant 07.25.13 at 2:37 pm

“That casts doubt on whether your discipline really IS a discipline or is instead a kind of confederation of disciplines that simply pretend to be doing something similar.”

Agreed. Or to emend slightly, “…a confederation of disciplines that are doing things whose similarity is loose, partial, and overlapping, and grades off gradually into dissimilarity.”

And why should that not actually be the correct description of some departments in the university? Surely disciplinary unity of any more tight-knit kind is not guaranteed by the fact that we all share the same letter-head and coffee-pot.

You say it is otherwise in History, and I defer. And since the original questioned centered around History, that should be the end of it.

Since the role of micro-expertise arose as part of the defense of the added value provided by publication by a university press, may I conclude that your view is that tenure committees ought not to care whether a candidate has been able to publish their dissertation with a good house or not? I.e. that the committee ought simply to read it, whether it is bound in handsome boards or presented in a loose-leaf stack, and by dint of their own disciplinary competence render a judgement without the aid of more specialized experts? (We continue to restrict the question to the discipline of History.)

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pedant 07.25.13 at 2:39 pm

A first-rate scholar never affirms the consequent. Dr. Ngo never affirms the consequent. Therefore, Dr. Ngo is a first-rate scholar!

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Z 07.25.13 at 3:16 pm

I.e. that the committee ought simply to read it, whether it is bound in handsome boards or presented in a loose-leaf stack, and by dint of their own disciplinary competence render a judgement without the aid of more specialized experts? (We continue to restrict the question to the discipline of History.)

Deliberately ignoring the last recommendation, I’d note that this is typically how tenure is granted in my field in my country, but tenured in math in France is granted at a much younger age than is usual in the rest of the world and other disciplines. In the functional equivalent of a tenured position say in the US, the board will care about the existence of publication under a good name, usually not to evaluate the quality of the work per se (someone on the board should be able to vouch for that) but because all the departments meet from times to times and other departments will complain if one of them is showered with tenured positions which are then then filled by hires without stellar publication records. Same goes with grants, raises, bonuses and the like.

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The Raven 07.25.13 at 3:50 pm

Barry@87: “First, nobody is calling for a ban on actual printing; people are still free to do that. Second, electronic publication creates a lasting record, as well.”

Not, printing, publishing: huge difference between the two. Publishing includes editing, design, distribution, and (one hopes) archiving. And publishing funds printing.

The lifetime of an electronic publication is so far typically a decade, perhaps two. There’s so much produced; people can’t keep all of it, or even find most of what has been kept. Historians are not wrong to fear the loss.

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DBW 07.25.13 at 5:54 pm

Barry@88–My point was that historians should decide what constitutes historical knowledge in terms of a set of scholarly standards, and not simply change what constitutes such knowledge because of external changes in media. They can’t avoid the economics and institutional consequences of such changes, but they can and ought to assert the relative autonomy of the discipline with regard to the form its product takes. All of those on this thread who are essentially saying “it works for x discipline to publish in y form, therefore historians should publish in y form” don’t seem to recognize the professional autonomy of the discipline to decide for itself what form historical knowledge should take.

One other point: I really do think that most historians regard the dissertation as a work in progress and not principally as a self-contained end point, except for the purpose of having established a set of professional skills that make the student hirable in a tenure-track position. There is usually substantial work to be done beyond the dissertation to make it a publishable book. If we told any group of professionals that they should publish and make available their findings according to somebody else’s idea of when those findings should be available, I think they would rightly object, especially if we gave the power to institutions that lacked the specific capability to determine when that work had met the standards of the profession. What the AHA is recommending is that students control the publication of their work based on their understanding of its completion, not be forced to present it in an unfinished state.

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StevenAttewell 07.25.13 at 9:54 pm

This sentiment is sometimes expressed by academics, but I think it is ethically naïve in the extreme. The one virtue of X academic press is that it is bound to consider any manuscript it receives, whereas professional blogs read and review what they want. This one virtue is absolutely crucial for outsiders of any kind. To take a concrete example: one major math progress in pure mathematics in recent months was the proof of a significant part of the twin prime number conjecture (there has been articles in the NYT about it). This was achieved by a lowly adjunct professor with a grand total of one publication in all his previous 30 years career. Based on that, it is unlikely that any professional individual blog would have paid any attention to this work. If this lowly adjunct had been working in a non-core country in terms of math research, then I would say that the chances would have been nil. But the guy submitted it to Annals of Math, and there the editors have the duty to read it.

I disagree to the extreme. Firstly, while academic presses may have to consider every manuscript they receive, they’re certainly not bound to publish them; the virtue of professional blogs is that anyone can start one up, develop a presence and readership, and then publish their dissertation there – and many more people will read it than would normally be the case with hard copy dissertations. Secondly, as for the chances of getting picked up and reviewed, I think it greatly differs by discipline. In some fields, it’s incredibly difficult to get published or reviewed, given how few journals there are in one’s field or sub-field, and how often they publish.

86 – I don’t see that as a flaw in the discipline as much as it’s the reality of an archival discipline.

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The Raven 07.25.13 at 10:35 pm

DBW@97: “There is usually substantial work to be done beyond the dissertation to make it a publishable book.”

Bingo. And this is so in every field, so far as I know; there is no written or recorded work, in whatever medium, that does not need at least some finishing.

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L.D. Burnett 07.26.13 at 12:00 am

Since I am currently writing a history dissertation, this discussion (here and elsewhere) is something I have been following closely. So, a question for the hive mind:

Could someone offer some examples of history dissertations that became books 1) in a much shorter period of time than six years, 2) that were not substantially revised between the dissertation and the book, and 3) that were well-written and well-received.

I’m not saying such monographs don’t exist or can’t exist — I just want some examples, some models that I can look at within the field.

Wouldn’t turning out a dissertation that is “close” to a book take substantially more time? And if someone invests that time on the front end, in the dissertation writing stage, how does that help if publishers are in fact looking for historical monographs that are significantly different from the dissertations on which they may be based?

As for those who insist that grad students who embargo their dissertations are somehow doing a disservice to the academy — as if we’re to blame for the dysfunction plaguing the system, or as if it is in our power to fix it — I’d like to know what alternatives they imagine are open to us in the field at present. Or is the ProQuest cohort — which, perhaps not coincidentally, overlaps with the there-are-no-damn-jobs cohort — simply to be written off as an unfortunate casualty of the creative destruction of the new knowledge economy?

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Pierre Corneille 07.26.13 at 12:38 am

My reading of the AHA’s suggestion is that it advises departments “to allow” recent grads to embargo their dissertations for a limited number of years, not indefinately, and presumably at the discretion of the dissertation author.

If I read the suggestion correctly, I don’t see much wrong with it. Obviously, if a dissertation is supposed to be a unique contribution to the field, it needs to be public. And I think the more public and available, the better. But I like the idea that a dissertation author, for a limited period of time, can control how the public accesses.

I’d be open to the suggestion that six years is too long to permit embargoing, and like several people above, I think the historical profession is too monograph-centric. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to grant a limited amount of control to the author, for a limited time, over the work’s availability.

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Neville Morley 07.26.13 at 8:40 am

@ L.D. Burnett #100: this may not be a terribly helpful example, as it’s (a) ancient history and (b) UK-based, but my dissertation was examined (I believe you Americans would say, defended) in November 1994 and was published as Metropolis and Hinterland: the city of Rome and the Italian economy 200 BC – AD 200 two years later; it was revised, but not very extensively (the main change, as I recall, was to take out a section on the decline of rural sanctuaries in the immediate vicinity of Rome, that I always meant to write up as a separate article…). I tend to avoid reading reviews, but I don’t think it was too badly received; whether it was sufficiently scholarly to get tenure is something I’ve never tested.

From an early stage, it was written with the future book in mind (advice I received from the late Keith Hopkins, Prof of Ancient History in Cambridge at the time; I’ve rambled at greater length about this over on my blog, bristolclassics.wordpress.com). Not sure that doing this took longer than it might otherwise have done; pretty sure that it made for a better dissertation. I don’t advise all my doctoral students to write with the book in mind; I do advise them to write with publication in mind, whether book or articles.

Traditionally, publishers looked for books that were substantially different from the dissertations they were based on because those dissertations were written in a way that was very different from anything that would be publishable as a book (e.g. the inclusion of lengthy and tedious literature reviews) – so a dissertation written with publication in mind wouldn’t fall foul of this. Things may be different today.

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Barry 07.26.13 at 1:20 pm

DBW@97: “There is usually substantial work to be done beyond the dissertation to make it a publishable book.”

The Raven: “Bingo. And this is so in every field, so far as I know; there is no written or recorded work, in whatever medium, that does not need at least some finishing.”

In which case why embargo the dissertation?

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LFC 07.26.13 at 2:04 pm

Eric R., author of the OP, wrote @26:

It seems to me the logic points towards preserving the custom of monograph-for-tenure by counting manuscripts that pass a process of referring [“refereeing” I think was meant] and are then distributed online, rather than printed. A database of monographs thus qualified could then be sold by subscription, rather like JSTOR.

It would not be totally open, but it would be pretty open. It would retain gatekeeping. It would reduce the imperative to justify printing, distribution, and storage of a physical book.

On this I commented @34:

Eric’s suggestion @26 makes some sense. The only problem with it is that some people like a hard copy; I wouldn’t want to read a whole monograph online or have to download a pdf and print it out. Getting the book publishers out of this business entirely would have that drawback.

Chaz @41 takes exception to this:

But of course, no one actually cares about publishing these books except the publishers themselves (and LFC). The authors just care about getting accepted for publishing. Those who also care about sharing knowledge already did it in the dissertation, and those who want to write it up more nicely can post their monograph on their blog.

As for LFC, the market of people who want what you want (obscure hard copy monographs) seems to be very small. So unless you’re willing to pay a few thou per book you may be out of luck. Maybe subscribe to Eric’s repository and buy a nice printer?

Ok. My comment at 34 was a brief, off-the-cuff reaction, and I can see how Chaz might have thought that I was saying I want “obscure hard copy monographs.” The word “monograph” (which my dictionary has as “a book or long article, esp. a scholarly one, on a single subject or a limited aspect of a subject”) suggests something quite narrow, which I suppose most (though probably not all) history dissertations are. Actually I’m not much of a current consumer of historical monographs; but in the fairly rare event that I wanted to read someone’s history dissertation, I was trying to say that I wouldn’t want to read the whole thing online. I admit that’s not a decisive criticism of Eric’s suggestion, since if I wanted to read a diss. in hard copy I could, as Chaz notes, print it out, or I could get it from ProQuest if they had it. (And in fairness, Eric did not present his proposal as something that would necessarily completely eliminate the publishing-diss.-as-a-book possibility.)

Eric’s proposed refereed repository might indeed work quite well for most history dissertations, a substantial percentage of which are probably never published in book form as it is — because their authors don’t pursue conventional academic careers and/or they publish their work in journal-article form and/or they end up at colleges/univs. which don’t always require the diss.-published-as-book of their faculty members.

But there’s probably a small subset of history dissertations which actually *do* deserve to be published in book form because, despite their origin as dissertations, they either address broad questions and/or potentially appeal to a broader audience, meaning more than just historians (e.g., political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists etc. as well) and possibly also some ‘general readers’. W/r/t this presumably smallish fraction of history dissertations, one hopes that they would eventually find their way to publication, either by a university or trade press, rather than just existing in Eric’s repository. Anyone who has ever unexpectedly run across something interesting while browsing in a library or bookstore knows that it is still nice, in some cases, to have physical books. And it would be nice to think that at least a few dissertations, esp. those of potentially broader appeal than the average diss., could still wind up as hard-copy books.

One last point. Dissertation writers themselves are prob. going to have a harder time if hard-copy monographs go out of existence. A lot of (probably most) history dissertations are based on archival research, of course, but I think they very often also draw on (if only perhaps to criticize or amend) the existing historiography on their subject. That means, as things stand now, they draw on books. Moreover, if one is writing say a pol sci dissertation that addresses historical questions or makes use of historical material in some way (case studies, whatever), the existing secondary literature can be crucial. It would be considerably more difficult/cumbersome, I would think, to write that kind of diss. if most or all of the works you needed to consult only existed online.

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LFC 07.26.13 at 2:29 pm

P.s. to 104:
Eric emphasized that his proposed database/repository would be refereed and thus “retain gatekeeping.” It would have to in order to substitute for a published book as a tenure requirement. But I realize, on re-reading my comment above, that I was tending to assume that more dissertations would end up in this refereed database than are currently published as books. That may well not be a correct assumption (it’s hard to tell from Eric’s brief comment @26).

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DBW 07.26.13 at 2:32 pm

Barry@103: “In which case why embargo the dissertation?”

Because, as I said, it is a work-in-progress and not a final product. And if having the work-in-progress widely available preclude the possibility of publishing the final product, than we will not get work that is as good, or if we do, the standard for what constitutes a dissertation will rise in such a way to further extend time to degree. But the AHA proposal is not to embargo all dissertations automatically, but to give students the power to control the presentation of their research when it is completed to their satisfaction.

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L.D. Burnett 07.26.13 at 7:27 pm

Just saw this blog post by William Cronon at the AHA blog regarding their recommendation to offer grad students a choice about whether or not to embargo their dissertations:

Why Put at Risk the Publishing Options of Our Most Vulnerable Colleagues

Mark me down for “pro choice.”

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pedant 07.26.13 at 8:04 pm

Thanks, L.D. Burnett. That post is very much worth reading.

Fans of North American politics may also recall its author, William Cronon, as the victim of a scurrilous attack by Republicans in Wisconsin, led by the union-busting Gov. Scott Walker. Because Cronon published some op-eds that were critical of the Republicans, they launched a witch-hunt to persecute him using the same methods crafted by the “Climategate” denialists in order to attack academics.

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js. 07.26.13 at 9:04 pm

The Cronon post is indeed excellent — thanks. (Given that most people in my field don’t I think tend to conceive of their dissertations as works in progress that result in books, I wasn’t quite thinking of it that way, but that helps a good bit. Several people made this same point in this thread of course.)

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Dan Allosso 07.28.13 at 12:00 am

While this discussion (and Cronon’s article) is interesting, it applies to an ever-decreasing number of PhD candidates who are still hopeful of achieving junior faculty status and needing to publish a tenure book.

For the rest of us, a better question might be, what’s the best way of communicating our research, our discoveries, our insights or arguments to an appropriate audience? Is this audience the community of scholars? If it’s wider than that, does the community of scholars function in the same editorial/gatekeeper fashion without the funnel of academic publishing?

Or, put another way, why not write the book first and then append the necessary baggage to make it a dissertation?

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Pierre Corneille 07.28.13 at 3:46 pm

Dan Allosso:

Although the comment I wrote above was along the lines of “rah, rah, give power to embargo,” my own situation is like the one you describe: I don’t have much hope (or desire, for that matter) to gaining a tenure track job. I, personally, like the idea of my dissertation (just completed) being as widely available as possible. And although my college permits embargoing, I opted to make the dissertation available. (It’s only available through my university’s library system. I would have elected for it to be more widely available, but the process was a bit complicated, I was in a hurry, and I would’ve had to pay a fee.)

I do think I part company from Cronon when he states preserving the long-form narrative as one purpose (though not the only purpose) of permitting embargoes. I’ve nothing against long-from narratives (by which I think he means monographs) per se, but I think history is too monograph-centric as it is. My main reason for supporting embargoing in principle is that it gives more control to the dissertation author over how her or his work is made public and how soon.

This is a long-winded way of me saying I think I agree with you.

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Richard Blakemore 07.30.13 at 7:16 am

I’ve written my thoughts at my own blog (historywomble.wordpress.com) but I’ll repeat a few points here. I think the AHA is simply saying that it should be the young historian’s choice, and as a young historian I completely agree with that. An important part of the dissertation, to me – and others have already made this point – is as a learning-piece which equips you to then go on to write a book/artices/whatever. If all dissertations are published immediately, they could lose their role as a place for scholars to experiment and find a voice. There are other ways to disemminate knowledge – blogs, talks, podcasts – than just posting the thesis online. It is perniciously reductive to suggest that the AHA, or historians generally, don’t want to spread knowledge. We do. The debate is about what form is most appropriate, and fairest to young scholars dealing with – and unable to change, unless they become old scholars by first complying with – the current structures of academia.

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Barry 07.30.13 at 2:34 pm

“If all dissertations are published immediately, they could lose their role as a place for scholars to experiment and find a voice. “

That statement applies to all fields, not just history.

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