Why I Embargoed My Dissertation

embargoed my dissertation.


I did it because I could.


I did it because everyone else who had graduated recently in my program did it.


I did it because every junior faculty member I know said their publisher told them to erase all evidence that there book was ever a dissertation. They said libraries wouldn’t buy the book if the dissertation was available for free. In an era of shrinking budgets, libraries cannot afford to buy the cow if they can get the milk for free in an open access database. But here’s the real problem, my milk isn’t ready yet. It hasn’t been processed and pasteurized. It doesn’t have the shelf life it needs.


Not yet.


Librarians out there: Is this true? Are you not buying books that seem like thinly re-published dissertations?


I have a book project that I’m working on and it is based on my dissertation. The dissertation is a really good dissertation (damn good, in my opinion) but it isn’t as good as the book will be. It doesn’t have the kind of sharp teeth I want the final book to have. It was written for an audience of three, not an entire field. And even though I was told to “write for the book” by my advisor, it is still the rough draft of the book. It is a damn fine dissertation, but it is not my first book.


When I was writing my dissertation I came across Richard Hughes Seager’s dissertation from Harvard as a printed and bound copy in the stacks of the Pitts Library at Emory. That dissertation became this book. I’m actually assigning the book in my seminar on Asian Religions in America this fall. The dissertation, well, it’s still on that shelf in the stuffy basement of a Methodist seminary.


The days of finding dissertations like Seager’s in the stacks are over. We are in the age of digital dissertations, digital research, and digital pedagogy. It strikes me that in the age of the MOOC, when scholarly teaching is imagined by some as something easily replaced, our research matters more than ever. We can write books–machines cannot. Our research, our books, our dissertations, these are not easily replicated massively. They should be open. I firmly believe that. We should be producing public knowledge. Open access journals are important. Public scholarship is vital. This is why I write on this blog. This is why I have written at Religion Dispatches and Religion in American History. But here’s the thing: openness does not mean a complete loss of control. I want to open my research up to the world–but I’ll do it when I know it is ready.


And it’s not just these online institutional repositories. When I finished my dissertation I was required by Emory University to pay ProQuest to take my dissertation for their database that they then sell to other institutions. Fight Club soap, all over again. Sure, I get a take of any sales of my particular dissertation, but if someone wants my dissertation bad enough to pay ProQuest for it I’d be happy to send them a PDF for free.


Right now, my dissertation’s abstract and table of contents are listed here, along with my committee members’ names. If you are working in the field and find this page in the next few years, it would not be hard to find me or one of my committee members. We will give you a copy of the dissertation, happily. I’ve done this already. Furthermore, in my case, I have been actively blogging about this project for two years and giving conference papers at national conferences. My research is not unavailable just because it isn’t in a mandatory open access database.


I have seen a lot of associate and full professors bemoaning the AHA’s recommendations. I think The Atlantic wrote something too. I cannot understand why scholars with the privileges of tenure fail to acknowledge the inequality and heavy handedness of forcing graduates to give away their research for free and outside of their control. Compensation and responsibilities for Ph.D. students vary from institution to institution. Support structures, research funding, and advising similarly range from wonderful to terrible. So, why not allow students to decide for themselves what to do with their dissertation work based on their particular circumstances?


For untenured or contingent faculty and recent Ph.D.s our research is all we really have left. They are MOOCing our teaching. But they can’t MOOC our books. There are three parties involved in this situation: junior faculty, libraries, and publishers. To all the senior faculty complaining about embargoing as a step backwards, I ask you to please talk to your librarians, talk to your editors at the presses your work with, use your role as series editors, to change the system. Get your library to stop settling for the free raw milk and make them buy it from the store. Get your publishers to think creatively about how to leverage the dissertation instead of treating it like an ugly step-child.


Because the junior faculty have little power in this.


All we can do is embargo.

10 Comments on “Why I Embargoed My Dissertation”

  1. Historianess says:

    “I cannot understand why scholars with the privileges of tenure fail to acknowledge the inequality and heavy handedness of forcing graduates to give away their research for free and outside of their control.” I think that’s more than a little unfair, and I say that as someone who is recently tenured and who published a book with an academic press and got said tenure with an unembargoed and completely and widely available open access dissertation. So I guess I say this as a victim of “inequality” and “heavy handedness”? I don’t have any problem with people deciding to embargo their dissertations (and that was an option at my graduate institution) and if that was a good decision for you, then fine, so be it. BUT. I think the problem that you’re really mad at here isn’t open access but rather the vast, systemic, structural changes that academia has undergone over the last 25 years: the dearth of state funding, the growth of adjunctification, the weakening of tenure protections, and basically the deprofessionalization of the humanities. Those aren’t the fault of open access and no one will be able to fight those huge changes simply by embargoing their dissertations. But saying that senior people who see open access as something that could be a net positive are somehow blind to inequities is, I maintain, and unfair characterization of those who have criticized the AHA’s statement.

    • I’ll grant that my language in that paragraph was over the top. I wasn’t trying to claim victimhood of any sort.

      I think you’re right that I’m frustrated with larger systemic problems and I agree that it is not the fault of open access. I agree with the senior folks that we should work toward open access scholarship. So, I apologize if I was unfair. That said, I don’t think denying student’s the choice to embargo is a solution to those systemic problems or terrible strike against open access. Again, I’d like to see open access balanced with scholarly control in publishing and distribution.

    • I think you’re absolutely right that the real problem is “the dearth of state funding, the growth of adjunctification, the weakening of tenure protections, and basically the deprofessionalization of the humanities.” But then the question is, why should the very people who are suffering the most from all of this–the people coming out of grad school now–also be forced to bear 100% of the risk of forced open access? Maybe people’s experiences will be like yours and they’ll have no problem publishing a book based on their freely available dissertation, or maybe they won’t. But the risk is being put on those of us in the most vulnerable position in the academy. If open access is such a great idea, I’d prefer for it to be tested out by senior faculty–let’s have them put up the next-to-last (or next-to-next-to-last) drafts of their second and third books and see what happens. If publishers will still publish them and libraries will still buy them, then we can move on to first authors.

  2. Per Smith says:

    “There are three parties involved in this situation: junior faculty, libraries, and publishers.”

    What about the institution that granted your degree and is de facto the publisher of your dissertation? A variety of institutions and individuals are to varying degrees stakeholders in any dissertation project. And in terms of the knowledge produced by that research what about the public and what about colleagues? Surely this questions effects much more than junior faculty, libraries and (traditional) publishers.

    I also think you’re staging an argument on somewhat contradictory ideas here. You say your dissertation isn’t ready yet. In fact it sounds like you’d like to do a lot of work to get it to publication. That’s as it should be in my mind and I applaud you for thinking that your colleagues and the public would want something more polished with added value. But then why worry about whether or not libraries “are not buying books that seem like thinly re-published dissertations?” I would think preventing “thinly re-published dissertations” and promoting the kind of work you want to do is a good thing. No?

    “I cannot understand why scholars with the privileges of tenure fail to acknowledge the inequality and heavy handedness of forcing graduates to give away their research for free and outside of their control.”

    What about other junior scholars who don’t have the “privilege” of embargoing their dissertations? I would think there is a lot more inequality created when some can and some cannot than there is between junior and senior faculty (based on this issue). Why would junior faculty measure themselves against tenured faculty in this regard anyway? Surely we don’t think that universities are going to stop granting tenure to junior faculty and rewarding senior faculty because of the greater availability of dissertations? The system will adjust…it will have to because all junior faculty are in the same boat. That is unless some can embargo and some cannot.

    • You are right that it involves the university and other funding institutions. But those circumstances vary on a case by case basis. With the various contexts and nuances of every project at each institution it seems to make more sense to me to allow for the author to have some flexibility in making this sort of decision. Blanket embargoes or blanket requirements for open access seem ham-fisted.

      My point about privileged tenured faculty may have been unclear. I was frustrated because I have heard lots of takes from senior folks on this issue but very little from recent grads and people in my position–between the dissertation and the book. What I have heard from junior faculty, as I mention, is that presses want to ignore their dissertation and wish it into oblivion when it comes time to publish their first book. So, I’m not comparing junior to senior faculty on this point, but noting the difference in voice on this topic so far. And if the problem is that some can embargo and some cannot then why not let everyone choose? That seems the fairest. Also, is embargoing a privilege? If Historianess is correct above then it doesn’t matter one way or the other. But if it is a privilege and it does make a difference then why not give it to everyone?

  3. brekhusr says:

    Humanities librarian here. I buy first books whether there’s a dissertation related to the book or not. It is not a criterion I use to decide on book purchases, nor should it be. I am well aware that books differ from dissertations. Published books add value – whole chapters can be added or rewritten, and indexes are added; wording can be made more accessible to a general academic audience, as opposed to the eight people working in the author’s arcane subfield.

    The larger problem is that my book budget keeps getting cut or held flat, year after year, so the total number of books purchased goes down. I tend to cut back on subjects not represented by current faculty…and to a degree, subjects so widely taught that I can rely on other libraries in my state consortium owning them. I hate to cut back using either method, because the first practice means that when teaching and research interests shift to other areas, there will be big gaps, and the second means that undergrads taking US history will have to get some of their books from other libraries in the state…but that’s what interlibrary loan is for. What I will NOT do is punish young scholars for basing their first books on their dissertations. Not gonna happen.

  4. brekhusr says:

    Also: there is no way that I as a librarian am going to split hairs between books that are loosely vs. closely based on the dissertation. I don’t have time for that. I either buy a book published by a university press, based on the subject, or I don’t. I pretty much *assume* any humanities author’s first book will bear some relationship to the diss, but I do NOT have time to twiddle around with dissecting the nature of that relationship.

  5. Cathy Doyle says:

    As a librarian, I really need to say that life is too short to check and see if the monograph I’m going to purchase is based on your dissertation. And even if it is, I assume that you’ve cleaned it up. Problems in scholarly publishing are driven more by budget cuts than repositories.

  6. […] a blog post, he pronounced libraries are not going to buy books if they can get dissertations giveaway or from […]

  7. […] access, but rather securing gainful employment. Any hinderance to that goal is chaff. Both Michael J. Altman and Michael D. Hattem present another point; that a dissertation, in a field like history, is for […]


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