By Noam Cohen
First came years of being a foot messenger in New York City and working in data entry. Then, frustrated with his life, and feeling the responsibility of providing for a child, Michael D. Hattem entered the Borough of Manhattan Community College — the only college that would admit him, he says, as a high school dropout with a GED. He succeeded at community college, and, in 2011, graduated from City College.
Today, Hattem, 38, is a graduate student at Yale working on a dissertation in American history that “explores the role of competing historical memories of 17th-century Britain in shaping late colonial political culture.”
He told his exceptional story to help explain why he came to the defense of the American Historical Association last week when it issued a statement calling on universities to allow newly minted Ph.D.s to “embargo” their dissertations for up to six years — that is, keep them from being circulated online.
Though policies vary from university to university, the practice increasingly is to require that dissertations be filed electronically upon acceptance and to provide them to anyone with access to a university’s online collection.
The statement, which appeared to come out of the blue, caused more than a few double-takes. Don’t historians want their research to be immediately shared, stimulating arguments and, ideally, new research that either refutes or reinforces those arguments? And why would someone work years to produce a dissertation and then insist that it not be seen for as many as six more years? Academics almost by definition are delayed-gratification specialists, but still.
“Ideally, I would want all of our work freely available,” Hattem said in a telephone interview, “but we have to deal with the way things are.”
And the way things are, he said, is that university presses are known to be skeptical about agreeing to publish a book when the Ph.D. dissertation it is based on is readily available online.
“If you want tenure at a university, you have to publish a book,” he said. “It’s professional currency.”
This term, “embargo” — so common in how journalism doles out information in the digital age — perhaps is evidence that some academics are learning from journalists: readers simply have less interest in old news, even old news about the British colonies.
The historical association, which is based in Washington and has 14,000 members, including high school teachers, government historians and university professors, was inspired to act, officials said, because of simmering concerns that institutions were moving to require that students’ work be shared freely.
“I have heard from junior scholars, newly minted Ph.D.s, I have heard from my colleagues who are mentors to these younger scholars, from university press acquisition editors, who say ‘we are very happy you released this statement,’ ” said Jacqueline Jones, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who is the vice president of the professional division at the historical association.
Critics of the embargo argue that knowledge should circulate freely on the Internet. In this case, they say that if incentives in academic hiring discourage such sharing, then the American Historical Association should agitate to change those incentives, not promote the idea of embargoes.
“The idea of locking up ideas for six years is not right,” said Heather Joseph, the executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, which favors open research. “The thing that bothered us the most is that it was a one-dimensional response to a multidimensional issue, and a missed opportunity.”
The association has tried to frame the issue as giving scholars a choice, while also noting that it has pressed for greater inclusion of digital-based scholarship. Questions and answers published in response to criticism tried to lower the stakes.
“Is the AHA recommending that students embargo their dissertations?” was the first question, and “No” was the first answer, with the explainer, “The AHA is recommending that universities adopt flexible policies that will allow newly minted Ph.D.s to decide for themselves whether or not to embargo their dissertations.”
Despite this clear explanation of motive and intention, a lot of fogginess remains in the arguments from all sides, beginning with the central question: Do university presses really care if a dissertation is available when they are publishing a thoroughly revised work years later?
A recent survey of university presses found a sliding scale of concern among executives who were asked about publishing work derived from a dissertation that was “openly available.” Depending on how the findings are interpreted, they could be worrisome — only 10 percent responded “always welcome” — or reassuring in that a large majority said they were open to giving such work a chance to impress.
Peter M. Berkery Jr., the executive director of the Association of American University Presses, said he spent a day quickly learning about the issue, which had not been on his radar, and came away confused by the stir.
He said he spoke to 15 heads of university presses, and “I haven’t found one person who has said if it is available open access, we won’t publish it.” Citing his own experience at Oxford University Press, he said that a book was necessarily an entirely different work from the dissertation that laid its groundwork, and is judged on its own terms.
Still, Jones and others say they know directly from their students that there is pressure to keep material out of general distribution. As for the leaders of university presses, she said, “They don’t necessarily know what their acquisition editors know.”
Other arguments in defense of the graduate students put the august Ph.D. in a less than flattering light.
Jones and others described the dissertation as little more than a rough draft on the way to becoming a monograph, on which the hopes of academic tenure rest. When a new Ph.D. decides to withhold her work, she is really saying to her professional colleagues, do not judge my research and analysis until I am ready to publish in print.
“Really, if my scholarly career was based on my dissertation I probably would be washing dishes at Denny’s,” she said, adding that, “four years later it was a good book.”
In a post Hattem said he would publish on The Junto, a group blog on early American history, he wrote that he expected to wait at least two years before sharing his own dissertation.
He said in an interview that he regretted that these were the terms he must live under as a scholar. But they were not new to him.
“It may look to us like a step back, but they have never stepped forward,” he said. “We still do the degrees in the way we did in the 1800s.”