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?)
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publish articles based on working papers, nor of evidence that the American Economic Association is seeking to embargo unpublished work in economics.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.