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Embargoing Dissertations


Academics face increasing problems in dealing with academic publishing. This is especially true in the book-driven fields of history and anthropology, where because dissertations are now archived online, publishers don’t want to publish them. This leads to a real problem for young academics who need tenure. For me, this is not a big problem because I have completely reworked my project anyway and have condensed the entire dissertation down to the first two chapters of my book manuscript. But for others, who complete a dissertation that really is quite ready or close to ready to publish as a book, this provides a true dilemma.

Unfortunately, the American Historical Association’s response, to call for the embargoing of dissertations so that young scholars can publish them, is not particularly helpful. Rob has talked about the many problems of academic publishing. It’s almost impossible to have a serious, scholarly, and timely conversation based upon your research in an academic setting. I’m currently writing a very long book review for an important journal in the field of labor history covering multiple books. It’s around the theme of what should labor do to stem its crisis. I’ll finish writing that review in the next month. It probably won’t be published until the fall of 2014 or so. By then, who knows how relevant it will be for anything?

So retracting knowledge is not a good answer for a discipline that needs to remain relevant. What needs to happen instead is a revision of tenure requirements that consider a cluster of factors rather than simply a book to determine whether a person’s scholarship has value. This could be citations of your dissertation (problematic in its own right I think but it has some value), more of an emphasis on articles rather than books, a path toward new research, the dissemination of research in non-traditional ways (through the internet or other new media for instance), etc. But of course departments and especially universities don’t want to do any of that. Rather, the increased difficulty of publishing combined with the retraction of jobs has created a labor surplus. So the universities can see tenure denial as a money-saving exercise and can effectively demand whatever they want from assistant professors (that faculty who got their jobs in the 1970s and never published a single word seem to be routinely the most strident in upholding publication standards for young scholars has amused me for at least a decade now).

In any case, I don’t see anyone taking the AHA statement seriously. It’s really not an acceptable response.

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  • Linnaeus

    more of an emphasis on articles rather than books

    I’d like to see this as well; I’ve thought for a while that the centrality of the monograph in history needs to be attenuated.

    • efgoldman

      I’ve thought for a while that the centrality of the monograph in history needs to be attenuated.

      As does unnecessarily ornate language.

      • Linnaeus

        Heh. Guess I’ve been doing this too long.

        • Hogan

          “Brevity is . . . wit.”

    • We’d still need to adjust expectations, given how long it takes to do historical research compared to other disciplines where you can run expertiments, or do a set period of field research, or run statistical analyses on centrally-available public databases.

      • Linnaeus

        Agreed. History has one of the longest times-to-degree (close to 9 years now, IIRC), and several friends and acquaintances in other fields didn’t understand why. They understood much better when I explained to them how historians do their work.

        • As someone who’s traveled to every Democratic Presidential library from FDR to Carter, and the National Archives every year, and that’s for a relatively easy research project (no pre-type manuscripts, no overseas archives), I second that sentiment.

  • Spouse of an academic

    You also get into a problem in the humanities where some fields have a lot more publishing opportunities than others, so when you seat a divisional level tenure committee, you frequently have people from fields with a two book minimum (say in history) reviewing candidates in fields where it can be difficult to publish one book (say in a minor language like Portuguese), at least at a reputable press. And no matter how much you try to normalize for that by telling the committee that in the candidate’s field, five peer reviewed articles in top journals and a manuscript under consideration at a good press (but one that can take years for final approval) is an excellent CV, the people from history or English who are expected to have two-plus books are going to be a tough sell.

  • Fake Irishman

    As a newly minted and newly unemployed PhD in a social science, my dark sense of humor derives a bit of perverse pleasure from examining the CVs of senior profs on hiring committees who don’t have enough publications in their entire careers to get tenure under the terms they create for new hires. I find it takes away the some of the sting of being the deemed the second-best candidate in four job searches over the last two years.

    • Dirk Gently

      I’ve had this exact experience, more than once: sitting across the table from a search committee composed of Assoc. Profs whose CV’s are comparable to mine, and weaker than some of my peers (unemployed, marginally employed, or newly hired). It’s galling, but mostly I take the same perverse comfort as you are: quiet knowledge that these people are not really so intimidating, and would be eaten alive if they were starting out in academia nowadays.

  • dporpentine

    Excellent article using (heaven forfend!) actual research to argue that electronic publication of dissertations doesn’t really affect their subsequent revised publication as books:

    Obviously, research will have no sway over anything practiced in universities, but I was just glad to read something so sane.

    • Tschussle

      “The findings indicate that manuscripts that are revisions of openly accessible ETDs are always welcome for submission or considered on a case-by-case basis by 82.8 percent of journal editors and 53.7 percent of university press directors polled.”

      50% of UP editors willing to consider ETDs means 50% won’t consider them; and of those considered, how many will really be published? Those aren’t heartening statistics.

      • dporpentine

        The abstract goes with a poor amalgam of the results. That 53.7 percent figure combines “Always welcome” (9.8 percent) and “Case-by-case basis” (43.9). But it leaves out the 26.8 percent who would consider them if they’re “substantially different”–which any half decent book is going to be. (There’s a reason you have a very popular and well-established book called From Dissertation to Book.)

        So really more than 80 percent of book editors will consider ETDs for publication. It’s not great news but it’s better than folklore.

  • Warren Terra

    I’m not well acquainted with publication in the humanities, nor with many of the books based on dissertations (I read a fair few popular-history books, but am less enamored of most academic-history books clearly adapted from dissertations). From this admittedly blinkered perspective, I have to wonder whether the whole system is broken. It seems to me that many of the adapted dissertations published as books by respected academic houses go widely unread, are indeed never intended to be widely read; furthermore, that the people who do read them would be equally willing to read the original dissertation online. However cleaned up, even gussied up, for the book, these works usually remain highly specialized and largely of interest to other academics and aspiring academics, who will (or should) not be put off by the somewhat less pleasant (but infinitely cheaper!) experience of learning from a dissertation rather than from a book.

    It’s not my impression that academic publishers pay their authors anything of significance (I would I suppose be delighted to be wrong about this), and I suspect a lot of their sales are to University libraries – meaning that academia as a whole is being taxed to support the gatekeeping function they provide. A gatekeeping function is necessary, but I’m inclined to wonder if there aren’t vastly more cost-effective and productive ways to provide it, rather than publishing paper versions of dissertations for a tiny audience that would be quite satisfied with the original article.

    As I said, this is my view as an outsider; I could be way off. And I certainly don’t mean it to apply to any individual book, especially not one that (like Erik describes his own) takes the dissertation as a point of departure and greatly expands from there. But I do wonder whether something more like the Arxiv (which I as a biologist have no firsthand experience with, but the concept of which sounds wonderful) would be preferable.

    • seeker6079

      So, is the requirement for publishing the problem? Perhaps that is an outdated requirement.

      Maybe it was never a good idea. When I was in law school I saw two brilliant profs (both accomplished in legal work outside publishing) be refused tenure because their written works were very slim compared to those hired. The dullards who were hired had many long papers published … almost NONE of which were in any way useful to practitioners. Oh, they were useful to other academics and they could cite each other, but none were of any use for court. (You can always tell a paper by a legal academic: they get all happy the older and more obscure the reference, and therefore the less useful it is in a factum.)

    • Lee Rudolph

      I was very suspicious of the ArXiV when it first started (or, rather, when there was first talk of expanding it to mathematics), largely because at that time my department was still using DEC Rainbows (hey, they could dual-boot Windows 1.x AND CP/M!!!) and I despaired of our ever being able to use it. But, of course, Clement Moore’s Law eventually saw us get enough presents under our tree, too, and I have long since been converted to the wonderfulness of the ArXiV for propagating new mathematics.

      That said, I don’t have any evidence about how well the ArXiV works for tenure-and-promotion cases; none of the many such cases I worked on during its existence involved publications that existed (at the time of making the case) only on the ArXiV (for a variety of reasons, the most relevant being that though mathematicians use the ArXiV a lot, it’s much less used by computer scientists—they have their tradition of publishing the proceedings of a conference in time to hand it out or post it on-line before the conference starts [!!!]—and most of the cases I worked on were CSci ones).

  • seeker6079

    I’m not an academic, and this question is only a tiny bit tongue in cheek: Is there anything in current academia which isn’t a gigantic Fuck You And Then Fuck You Again to the students, graduate students, and any non-tenured faculty, or, for that matter, anybody who isn’t an overpaid school administrator or tenured prof whose dissertations was done before typewriters were dangerously modern equipment? Seriously.

    senior profs on hiring committees who don’t have enough publications in their entire careers to get tenure under the terms they create for new hires

    It appears that the new Royal Baby isn’t the only person who has a nice job by accident of birth. Timing is everything.

  • Lee Rudolph

    that faculty who got their jobs in the 1970s and never published a single word seem to be routinely the most strident in upholding publication standards for young scholars has amused me for at least a decade now

    Tell it to me. … No, don’t bother.

    I write only as an observer, having made my living as a mathematician, a field with somewhat different problems. But I had a long, long time to observe.

    Your sort of situation is made all the more piquant when the in-practice-reactionary Old Guard still think of themselves—and want everyone else to think of them—as the Dashing Revolutionaries they were (or, thought they were) back when they signed the Port Huron Statement.

    • seeker6079

      Are these the same sort of profs who have criminal records from their Dashing Revolutionary years but shitcan applications from teachers who, say, had a drunk and disorderly when they were eighteen? Or is that sort of thing a myth?

      • Lee Rudolph

        I don’t know if that’s a myth (though I’m inclined to think it is—at least, I hope it is), but it certainly doesn’t apply in the instance(s) I had in mind.

        • seeker6079

          When you see the large number of former student radicals who are professors, I wonder. From friends of mine who are in academia I hear that even the tiniest tiniest blot on a record puts an application into a circular file. By comparison, Boudin is an admitted murderer and she teaches at a law school, for example. Ayers and Dohrn were trying ever so hard to be murderers and only failed because of incompetence within their revolutionary group.

          • oldster

            This is useful; as soon as anyone mentions Boudin, Ayers, and Dohrn, I can tell that they are a right-wing ignoramus who gets all of their information about universities from whatever Rush Limbaugh spouts.

            You do realize how utterly irrelevant those clowns are to anything in universities now, don’t you? You realize that mentioning them as typical or representative of professors is kind of like taking Sacco and Vanzetti as representative of contemporary Italian-Americans?

            No, you don’t. Because you’re a right-wing buffoon. Thanks for at least making that clear.

      • Linnaeus

        I’ve served on a faculty search committee, and I don’t recall seein any information about anyone’s criminal history for good or for ill, though that may have only been because none of our applicants had one.

        • seeker6079

          I defer to your experience. Just to contribute to the discussion, one English example: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jul/02/youthjustice.ukcrime

          I have no idea as to whether it is representative or not, or how much it happens in North America.

          • Linnaeus

            I honestly don’t know either.

          • wjts

            That’s a case of a prospective student’s criminal record resulting in his offer of admission to a university being rescinded, not a case of a prospective faculty member being turned down for a professorial position.

        • Bill Murray

          Unless the applicant put it on their CV, I don’t think a faculty search committee at my school would ever know. Of course all we can do technically is give a slate of candidates that we consider acceptable. HR probably checks the databases on criminal issues, and the school President and the Board of Regents would make the final call on hiring.

          • Manny Kant

            I feel as though many online application forms for academic jobs ask if you’ve ever been convicted of a felony.

            • Bill Murray

              That could be, but the committees I’ve been on you don’t see this. The committee head might see this, but the committee doesn’t

              • Linnaeus

                I didn’t even see the question being asked.

      • Matt_L

        Nope, that is not a myth for High School or Primary School teachers. Although I’ve never heard of it being an issue for college faculty. Is it fair? no, but school boards don’t want to hire anyone who already has a DUI on their record either.

        You will not get so much as one student load for any kind of higher ed if you are caught by the cops with a dime bag and convicted for possession. The war on drugs is lost, long live the war on drugs!

  • ruviana

    And what if you have, as I do, bright-eyed young undergrads who long to go to graduate school and become a professor? I long to send them on, to see my own younger self in them, as I do in their dreams, but instead I discourage them over and over since by the time they finish they’ll just become one of the (by then) 97% contingent faculty if they are lucky!

    • seeker6079

      Tell them the truth: they’ll never get a fair shake and the jobs will be blocked by tenured faculty for the next few decades, and when those profs die off all those resources will be reallocated to bloated bureaucracies and fundraising rather than moving contingent faculty into the empty positions.

      • ruviana

        Uhh, yeah, that’s what I do as I said in my comment.

      • rea

        Or, more likely, in a few decades accademia will be a deserted wasteland, because degrees will no long represent learning, or be of any use getting a job, and no one will be able to afford college anyway.

        • Marc

          That depends quite a bit on academic field; it absolutely isn’t true in the sciences.

  • Dead Poet

    Glendower: I can summon history monographs from the vasty deep

    Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man; but do they get read?

    • Caliban

      You taught me language, and my profit on’t is, I can write monographs.

      • Dick

        The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers. No, wait, wrong thread.

        • Republican Historian

          We have always been at war wth history monographs.

    • I’ve often thought of Prince Hal and Falstaff as a really toxic advisee-adviser relationship, except that graduate students don’t usually inherit monarchies.

      • Lee Rudolph

        Boy, everybody’s getting things in the wrong thread tonight.

  • wichita lineman

    The thing is, most dissertations suck (mine does), most academics know this, so I can’t imagine people turning to dissertaions for reasearch, unless it’s one that has never been and will never be published.

    In my dream world a monograph is never a tenure requirement.

    • Matt_L

      Sure, maybe your dissertation sucked, or maybe you got so sick of looking at that you failed to see the diamond in the rough. I know mine sucked, and I have abandoned it to work on other things. But I have sat on a couple of dissertation prize committees and there are some great history dissertations out there that deserve to be read. They are not books yet, but they are real journeymen/woman pieces of research.

  • efgoldman

    For me, this is not a big problem because I have completely reworked my project anyway and have condensed the entire dissertation down to the first two chapters of my book manuscript.

    So, Loomis, does this mean we’ll have to address you as Herr Professor Doktor Loomis?

    • Matt_L

      no, he has not written his habilitationschrift. If he dares call himself Herr Doktor Professor he would be a fraud, a bounder, and a cad. ;)

  • wjts

    Vast swathes of anthropology are not as book-driven, or at least as monograph-oriented, as history. For physical anthropology (and to a not inconsiderable extent archaeology), journal articles and chapters in edited volumes rather than monographs are the usual avenue of publication, even for dissertation research.

  • Merciless

    Like the man said, print is dead. Academic publishing is mostly dead. Most scholarly journals are moving to online publishing, the academic publishing houses have consolidated (i.e., got bought up cheap), and good luck getting a monograph on paper between covers. I suspect that the committees are mostly comprised of dinosaurs who haven’t gotten the memo. But football is fully funded, so there is that.

  • microtherion

    Six years is for amateurs. Noam Chomsky’s thesis got published 20 years after he obtained his PhD.

    • Lee Rudolph

      What a piker. Daniel Ellsberg’s thesis was published in 2001, a good 50 years late.

  • Dirk Gently

    An issue related to the problem at hand: “publish or perish” is arguably more important than ever, but to such an extent that nobody has time to read all the things being published, which sort of defeats the point of publishing research in the first place. Above I made fun of senior faculty who have thin publishing records compared to hungry up and comers, but the sad truth is that if anything people should be publishing less, ESPECIALLY when teaching and administrative loads are on the rise. There is simply no way that someone teaching a 3-3 or 4-4 load—especially working in fields that straddle lines, like media studies, sociology, communication, certain health subfields, etc.—can even stay atop of the latest and greatest in the field, much less contribute anything meaningful to it. Worse, there is a lot of “filler” research out there by virtue of the pressures exerted on researchers to produce (I personally know some folks who turned one significant lab experiment into something like five “different” papers).

    tl;dr: Everyone’s so busy churning out research and doing teaching that they don’t have time to actually read each other with the care that they should.

    • mch

      A related issue: publishing still another version of the same essay in still another collection of essays.

      A query: at many colleges/universities I am aware of (including my own), distinguished outside readers (usually 4) report on the scholarship of someone up for tenure or promotion to full professor, and their reports play a vital role in the department’s evaluations and that of the faculty-administration group that makes the final decision (before President and Trustees give their stamp of approval). These readers comment on both the quality and quantity of the person’s scholarship — quantity as appropriate to the particular field.

    • Matt_L

      There is simply no way that someone teaching a 3-3 or 4-4 load—especially working in fields that straddle lines, like media studies, sociology, communication, certain health subfields, etc.—can even stay atop of the latest and greatest in the field, much less contribute anything meaningful to it.

      ah, I get the point that people with heavy teaching loads should probably be evaluated differently for tenure, but I think you should reevaluate this statement about who is able to contribute what. I teach a 4/4 and think I do OK on keeping up with my sub field in history and the general lay of the land.

      I have had a frustrating time with getting published, but I have found that doing archival research, going to conferences, presenting papers has actually helped my teaching quite a bit. I have friends with 3/3 teaching loads who are active scholars and publishing plenty of books and articles in the field of history. So I don’t think its fair to write someone’s scholarly potential or output based on their teaching load.

      And frankly, it would be malpractice for me to teach our senior seminar or research methods class if I was not actively pursuing my own research agenda. You can’t teach historical research effectively unless you are engaged with it on some level.

      I would be really happy if I could bang out an article every two years and publish an undergrad survey book in the next decade. My research agenda might not culminate in a monograph or a slew of articles, but over a twenty or thirty year career it might add something to the field.

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