Historians’ group backs right to embargo dissertations

The Organization of American Historians has called for allowing new doctoral degree holders to decide whether to embargo their dissertations, taking a stand on an issue that has divided academics over the merits and risks of open-access publishing of research and scholarship.

The OAH, which receives support from Indiana University and is based in Bloomington, released the following statement, approved at its recent fall meeting in Atlanta:

The OAH Executive Board strongly supports the right of authors to make their own decisions about the manner in which their doctoral dissertations will be published and circulated. The board urges history departments and graduate school administrations to support that right without qualification, understanding that embargoed dissertations will be available for public consultation upon the expiration of the designated embargo period. 

OAH President Alan Kraut, University Professor of history at American University, said the organization doesn’t oppose open-access publishing but wants to protect the rights of Ph.D. candidates who may want to draw on their dissertation research for future books or other publications.

OAH offices

Organization of American Historians offices

“Our point, is, who should decide, in this complicated situation, what the right thing to do is?” Kraut said. “And our argument is, everybody should have ownership of their own work and they should make that decision in cooperation with their institution.”

Not so many years ago, doctoral dissertations were printed, bound and often placed in university libraries. But that no longer routinely happens, so researchers and universities have turned to electronic methods to distribute their work. The OAH says many universities strongly encourage — or even require — researchers to publish their dissertations in open-access formats.

But Kraut said some publishers are reluctant to publish research that has been circulated and cited on the Internet. In the humanities and social sciences, he said, junior faculty members often need to produce a book to earn tenure. An embargo addresses that issue by preventing dissertation findings from being circulated long enough for the researcher to make progress on a book project.

Another organization, the American Historical Association, came out in support of dissertation embargoes in July. (The OAH is made up of scholars who study American history; AHA members are American scholars of history, regardless of what area they study). That statement produced considerable debate, with critics questioning whether open-access publishing actually reduces changes for a book deal.

Both sides in the debate have cited a study published last summer. It found that only 7.3 percent of university publishers would refuse to publish research that had been circulated through open access. On the other hand, only 9.8 percent of said such submissions were “always welcome.” The vast majority said they would decide on a case-by-case basis, depending on circumstances.

David Daleke, IU Bloomington vice provost for graduate education and health sciences, said the university’s mission is to create and disseminate knowledge, so the University Graduate School discourages students from applying an embargo to their dissertations without good cause.

“Our advice to students is that they should explore these policies with potential book and journal publishers before making a decision on embargoing their dissertation,” he said.

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