ETDs, publishing & policy based on fear

The July 2013 issue of College & Research Libraries contains an important article on the question “Do Open Access Electronic Theses and Dissertations Diminish Publishing Opportunities in the Social Science and Humanities?”  The article reports on a 2011 survey of publishers, which follows up and refines several previous surveys done to see if publishers really do decline to publish revised dissertations when the original work is available in an open access repository.  All of these surveys found the same thing — a large majority of publishers DO NOT treat the existence of an open access ETD as prior publication that disqualifies the revised version from publication.  In fact, while early studies asked the question of whether or not ETDs were considered prior publication and found that about 15-25% said they did, when the 2013 authors phrased the question differently — how do you approach revised versions of manuscripts derived from OA ETDs — the percentage of publishers who said they would not consider those manuscripts was even lower, consistently less than 10%.

By far the majority of journal and university press publishers told the authors that such manuscripts were either always welcome or considered on a case-by-case basis.  It is naturally true that dissertations have to be significantly revised prior to publication, but that is the case regardless of whether or not the dissertation is online.  Consider these two quotations from survey respondents, one from a university press and one from a scholarly journal:

We normally consider theses or dissertations for publication only if the author is willing to significantly revise them for a broader audience; this is our practice regardless of the availability of an ETD.

Readers will consider our article to be the version of record, the version they should read and cite, because (a) it will have been vetted by out double-blind peer review process, (b) it will have been professionally edited, and (c) it will be the most up-to-date version of the material

This does not sound like publishers who are afraid of ETDs.  Indeed, even the very low numbers about publisher reluctance may need to be set in further context, since I think they still over-estimate the degree to which open access is the root cause of whatever difficulties there may be in getting a revised dissertation published.  More about that in a bit.

But first we need to address this farcical statement from the American Historical Association asking institutions that adopted ETDs to provide embargoes on OA of up to six years.  The AHA says it is afraid that ETDs may inhibit opportunities for students to publish their dissertations; they specifically claim that “an increasing number of university presses are reluctant to offer a publishing contract to newly minted PhDs whose dissertations have been freely available via online sources.”  But they offer no evidence for this claim, and the evidence that is out there, including this most recent survey, directly contradicts the assertion.  This is not the way a society of professional scholars should work; policy should be based on data, not merely fear and rumor.  And factual claims should be sourced.  Every scholar knows this, of course, but the AHA asserts an “increasing number” without citing any source, possibly because the available sources simply do not support the claim.  It is ironic that the AHA, in a statement purporting to defend the interests of graduate students, models such bad scholarly practice for those very students.

Speaking of inaccurate assertions, there is one quoted in the C&RL article from Texas A&M Press Director Charles Backus that needs to be addressed.  Mr. Backus is quoted as saying that his press is in that small minority that is more reluctant to consider a revised ETD “because most libraries and library vendors will not buy or recommend purchase of ensuing books that are based substantially on them.”  The authors of the article, themselves librarians, express surprise at this claim, and indicate that it needs further study.  They want to know how widespread this belief is in the publishing community, but we should also be doing research into whether or not the assertion has any foundation in fact.  Based on my experience, I do not believe that library selectors look at availability of an ETD when deciding whether or not to buy a monograph that is a revised dissertation; in fact, I doubt they usually know whether or not there even is such an ETD.  One librarian told me that she looked for “quality, coverage, currency and authority” when buying monographs and the claim that she might not buy a book because an earlier version was available as an ETD was “poppycock.”

If sales of monographs based on dissertations have declined, and I am prepared to believe that is the case, the reasons should be sought elsewhere than with ETDs.  This is really the other side of the publishers insistence that a dissertation must be substantially revised before it can be considered for publication.  Just as presses need to appeal to a broader audience to support sufficient sales, so libraries are looking at books with broad relevance to the curriculum they support when they allocate their shrinking monographs budget (that is the “coverage” criteria).  Even revised dissertations may be too focused on a specific niche, so they are quite likely to be the first things that get passed over.  But it is not open access that is the problem; the problem is that we have less and less money to spend on books because an ever-increasing share of our collection budgets is going to journal packages.  Your lunch, Mr. Backus, is being eaten by Elsevier and Wiley, not by ETDs.

Speaking of coverage and broad appeal gets me back to my suspicion that even the low numbers reported in this survey might over-report the degree to which ETDs inhibit publishing.  The question that was posed in the survey reported in C&RL was specifically about attitudes toward manuscripts that are revised ETDs.  But a larger question should be asked — are publishers accepting fewer revised dissertations overall, regardless of whether or not the original document is online.  I suspect the answer is that they are accepting fewer dissertations overall, and that is the context in which we should place any discussion about fear of ETDs.  In my own conversations with university presses, two criteria seem most important for them when deciding about any book manuscript — it must have “crossover” appeal, meaning that folks outside academia might want to buy it, and/or it must be suited for course adoption.  For many small academic presses, I think, the days of the purely academic monograph that will be read only be specialists are largely over, and they are over because of economic realities (like shrinking library budgets for books) that are independent of the movement toward ETDs.  It is this much more general set of conditions that spells bad news for revised dissertations.

Out of all of this, I hope for three next steps.  First, I hope that the next survey about ETDs will look at how librarians are actually making purchasing decisions, and thus rid us of the claim that libraries are reducing monograph purchases based on the availability of ETDs.  Second, broader research about the number of book manuscripts being accepted by academic press and the criteria that guide those decisions should be undertaken.  And finally, I hope that the AHA will look at this issue more responsibly and issue a statement that is guided by real evidence rather than by fear and nostalgia.

8 thoughts on “ETDs, publishing & policy based on fear”

  1. Amen. It seems like the AHA is scrambling to try and explain changes without doing enough research. The world of publishing is changing, and the AHA will have to change with it. It unfortunately sounds like they’re trying to hang on tooth and nail to an outdated model.

  2. OSU acquisitions librarian: “We do not have a policy that prohibits buying books that are based on open access ETDs. However, I would say it is a rational approach for libraries because budgets have generally been reduced or flat and libraries have to make their budgets go further with less.”

    You admit that 10% of presses will disqualify dissertations that have been made available online. What is the significant figure that would provoke you to return decision-making to dissertators? 15%? 30%? At what level of incentive, in your opinion, does it become the right of the author to determine the fate of their creation? And why is it you who decides such a thing?

    It’s easy to throw around words like ‘farcical’ and make ad hominem arguments about the AHA working out of ‘fear’ and ‘nostalgia’ when it’s not your career — a career, I might point out, broadly dependent on new media dissemination of university-sponsored work.

    I’d be more politic, but I’m reading the debate and I’m truly depressed by the snide tone that you and yours have adopted. If you believe immediate, obligatory open access will help the careers of young scholars, then prove it. What I see now is basically hand-waving.

    1. If the publishers were really so worried about ETDs, then not a single book would be published based on any scholar’s thesis or dissertation across all of Canada. In Canada, Theses Canada, a project of the National Library, has been digitizing and making freely available theses and dissertations from all Canadian institutions since the early 1990s. There are no embargos, and universities own the copyright and all participate in this, so everything becomes open, not just electronic. Needless to say, a massive drop in publishing of the work done at Canadian universities hasn’t happened. Nor have libraries cut purchasing of monographs based on whether the book was based on an available ETD. And I have worked at, run collections units at, and actually headed many libraries, in the US and Canada; I’ve been working in libraries for 30 years. However, the usage stats for the ETDs available through Theses Canada are much, much higher than the usage we used to see on print-only or fiche-only theses and dissertations. (I’m a Canadian originally, working in the US for the last 8 years.) They also turn up more frequently in citations. So “Student”, whatever the tone of various articles you have been reading – this and others – the facts remain. Open publishing of theses and dissertations helps scholarly research, and does not significantly hamper library purchasing decisions. Quite frankly, most dissertations are quite heavily revised in order to see publication at a press, so you’re not getting the same work.

  3. Brilliant, Kevin, as always. The AHA statement is irresponsible because poorly researched and unfounded in fact. This alone is cause for dismay about the role played by a professional organization that is supposed to represent the best in historical research practice, at least I would suppose that its members should expect that. Further, the AHA should actually be promoting public scholarship, and the statement has the completely opposite effect. Embargoing a dissertation for an extended period of time simply prevents the field from seeing original research that may be crucial in advancing that field. Is that what a professional organization representing an important research field should be promoting?

    1. In my experience thesis PDFs circulate quite freely amongst academics whether or not the thesis is publicly available; I suspect the ‘field’ can get hold of the research. The question is not just about the chances of publishing monographs but also whether a thesis is, or should be, a ‘public’ document, which is after all what ‘published’ means. In sympathy with Student and the AHA, I would argue that it should be the author’s choice; and that there are better, alternative ways to disemminate research and spread awareness than just sticking a thesis online.

      1. I disagree with the latter. In Canada, the author does not own copyright to his/her own dissertation. It remains with the university, and is submitted, electronically these days, to Theses Canada, a project of the National Library. (I’m Canadian, working in the US the last 8 years.) This has not hurt Canadian scholars publishing chances; I’ve yet to hear of one turned down because of the existence of Theses Canada. What hurts more is the budget cuts and the shrinkage of monograph budgets many libraries are undergoing. Monograph budgets are shrinking, but that’s because of the huge price increases for journal packages.

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