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July 29, 2013
Academic Publishers, Historians, and Tenure
This feels like another version of the scuffle going on between scientific authors and the big academic publishing houses
but now it's historians. Over the weekend, the NY Times published a story about the American Historical Association and its push to allow authors to "embargo" their dissertations for up to six years
That seems like approximately forever, and in a world where most universities require dissertations to be filed and electronically searchable around the time of acceptance or graduation, it is forever. Why then would authors want to lock up their own research for such a length of time? Well, actually, many authors don't. But these historians feel they have to because publishers are reluctant to publish the books based on these dissertations if the original material is freely online and searchable.
As I've mentioned repeatedly, it all comes down to tenure decisions. Historian Ph.D.s need these book publications as important components of their tenure cases - in many cases failing to get such a book done can be enough to torpedo someone's case. This hands enormous power to the publishers to control the free circulation of information that was often developed on the public dime. I think public support of historical scholarship is an excellent idea, but part of that bargain ought to be the timely dissemination of the results, not locking them up on some commercial publisher's schedule.
Unfortunately, the people most affected by this - those newly minted Ph.D.s - are in the worst possible position to effect change in the tenure system. That's why it's so disappointing to see AHA pushing for the right to embargo rather than pushing for changes from publishers and universities. Clearly there needs to be cooperation from all three parties in this: publishers need to make it clear and public that they are not pressuring for embargoes; universities need to be clearer about what factors go into a tenure case; and students need the time and care it takes to turn a research dissertation into the polished and professional volume on which they want to be judged.
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