More on the AHA, ETDs and Libraries

I wanted to be done with the American Historical Association and their muddle-headed statement about embargoing theses and dissertations for up to six years from open access in order to protect publishing opportunities.  I had hoped that the statement would receive the scorn that it deserves and we could all move on to discussing more serious matters.  And it has received a good deal of that well-deserved incredulity and disparagement, but there is still a bit of a debate going on — evidenced by this story in the New York Times — so I want to make a couple of additional points.

First, there is an article in Inside Higher Ed about the debate that does a pretty good job of summarizing the discussion, although it still treats the AHA’s statement with more seriousness than it deserves, in my opinion.  But one really telling tidbit from that article is the comment by the director of the Association of American University Presses that its members, whose wishes are supposedly being catered to by the AHA, were surprised by the statement.  Apparently he called over a dozen press directors after the statement was issued and found that none of them shared the concern that the AHA is so afraid of.  So one wonders, as I did in my last post, where the evidence is for the claim the AHA is making that ETDs imperil publication.

The AHA attempts to address this very question in an FAQ that was released shortly after the statement.  There, AHA Vice-President Jacqueline Jones directly pooses the issue of evidence, and answers like this:

This statement is based on direct communications between some AHA members and the acquisitions editors of several presses. In those communications, certain editors expressed the strong conviction that junior scholars placed their chances for a publishing contract at risk if their dissertations had been posted online for any length of time.

“Several presses” and “certain editors.”  This reliance on vague rumors seem to contradict what the AAUP director says that he found by calling his colleagues.  How are we to decide who is right with such unsupported statements?  Does this reflect the standard of evidence that is acceptable to historians? Even worse is the fact that in the same answer, Ms. Jones disputes the much more quantified study recently published in College and Research Libraries, which also contradicts the AHA, by asserting that only a small number of presses said revised dissertations were “always welcome” while a much larger number said that such submissions were evaluated on a case-by-case basis.  Ms. Jones suggests that the article authors take too much comfort in this portion of the responses they received to their survey.  But this misunderstands what is being said; all publishers evaluate all submissions on a case-by-case basis.  This is good news; it means your work will be considered (and, therefore, that the ETD was not a problem).  What, after all, is the alternative?  Even “always welcome” does not mean that all submitted dissertations will be guaranteed publication.  Does the AHA hope to return to a dimly-remembered time when all dissertations from elite universities, at least, were published without question and without revision?  If so, their rose-tinted nostalgia has lapsed into delusion, and the result is bad advice for graduate students.  If, based on this commitment to a past that never existed, a student decides to avoid an online presence for her work for five or six years, her career will be destroyed in this age where if you cannot be found online you might as well not exist.

Throughout this debate, lots of folks are making assertions about libraries that display a lack of awareness of how those institutions work.  Over and over again we hear that this fear of an online presence is because libraries will not buy monographs that are based on a revised dissertation if the unrevised version is available online.  And no matter how often librarians remind folks that this is not true, it keeps resurfacing.  Let me try again.  In 25 years as an academic librarian, I have never met a librarian who looks for an online version of a dissertation before buying the published, and presumably heavily revised, monograph based on that dissertation.  That is just not part of the process; most acquisitions librarians do not even know if there is an online version of the dissertation when they decide about purchasing the monograph; I certainly did not when I made these sorts of decisions. Libraries look for well-reviewed items that fit the curricular needs of their campus.  They may ask if the book is over-priced and/or too narrowly focused, and those questions may rule out many revised dissertations these days.  But they simply do not, based on my experience and discussions with many of my colleagues (more anecdotal evidence!), look to see if they can get an unrevised version for free.  Perhaps librarians trust publishers to have guided the revision process well, creating thereby a better book, while the AHA does not seem to value that process.

Occasionally in this discussion we have seen publishers assert the same fiction about library acquisitions, sometimes dressed in more sophisticated form.  They say that it is true that individual librarians do not make decisions based on OA ETDs, but that vendors like Yankee Book Peddler allow approval plan profiles to be designed so that revised dissertations are never considered.  This is true, but it does not prove what it is asserted to prove.  Many academic libraries, especially at smaller institutions that do not have a mandate to build a research collection, will exclude books based on revised dissertations from their approval plan because such books are likely to be very expensive and very narrowly focused.  Many libraries simply cannot put their limited funds toward highly-specialized monographs that will not broadly support a teaching-focused mission.  To try to use this situation to frighten people about open access is disingenuous and distracts us from the real economic tensions that are undermining the scholarly communications systems.

Finally, we should remember that dissertations have been available in pre-publication formats for a very long time.  The AHA statement talks about bound volumes and inter-library loan, but that is either extreme nostalgia or willful ignorance.  UMI/ProQuest  has offered dissertations for sale since the 1970s, and has sold those works in online form for years before ETDs began to pick up momentum.  And ETDs are not so new; early adopters began making electronic dissertations available a decade ago.  Duke’s own ETD program began in 2006, and we worked from the example of several predecessors. So why did the AHA wait until 2013 to issue its warning? Perhaps they took their own bad advice and nurtured their opinion until it suffered the same fate they are now urging on graduate students — irrelevance.

4 thoughts on “More on the AHA, ETDs and Libraries”

  1. As an academic librarian, I have never in my 13 years gone to check to see if a monograph I want purchase for the library is available freely online as a dissertation in an ETD repository. I just don’t have time to worry about that, nor do I expect that the monograph and the dissertation it is based on would be exactly the same. So there’s another piece of anecdata for you about acquisition habits of academic librarians.

  2. One reason why approval plans can be devised to eliminate such things as revised dissertations is because some of the larger libraries have multiple approval plans and they assign different specialties to different book-jobbers (though there are far fewer now than there were 25-30 years ago).
    The other reason, of course, is of no comfort to the AHA–how often do we see reviewers report: “unfortunately, this book has all the drawbacks of a dissertation…”

  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? – See more at:

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