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Embargoing Dissertations

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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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