Why Put at Risk the Publishing Options of Our Most Vulnerable Colleagues?

William Cronon | Jul 26, 2013

William Cronon is Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and past president of the American Historical Association. We hope that this essay stimulates additional conversation on this issue, and remain gratified by the thoughtful contributions that so many of our members have offered thus far.  

I must confess to feeling disheartened that so many members of the history community have attacked what seems to me the mild-mannered and entirely reasonable statement that the American Historical Association’s Professional Division crafted on behalf of early-career historians worried about the potential impact that institutionally mandated digital posting of their dissertations might have on their eventual ability to publish those dissertations in book form.

This isn’t remotely about dissing online scholarship or defending the book-length monograph as the only legitimate form of historical scholarship. It quite emphatically is not about refusing to share the fruits of historical scholarship for all time to come.

It’s about preserving the full range of publishing options for early-career historians and giving them some measure of control over when and how they release their work to the world.

As a practicing historian who has worked closely with a fair number of publishers for more than three decades, I can testify that concerns about online dissertations competing with books are very real. Indeed, I’ve had at least one former graduate student whose publisher refused to permit publication of an article in one of our discipline’s most prestigious journals for fear that it might undermine sales of his soon-to-be-published book. Since the publisher threatened to cancel the book contract if the article appeared, I can only imagine what it would have done had the entire dissertation been available online. In another instance, I had to intervene with a government agency to request the removal of an online version of one of my students’ dissertations that had been posted without the student’s permission and that the publisher said would likely jeopardize the book contract if it remained available for free download. I’ve had several editors from distinguished presses tell me (off the record, unsurprisingly) that although they would certainly consider publishing a revised version of a dissertation that had been posted online, the general effect of online posting would be to raise the bar for whether they would look at such a dissertation in the first place or eventually offer it a contract. And I’ve heard of university libraries that now save money by choosing systematically not to purchase university press books based on dissertations that are available online.

This is mere anecdotal evidence, I know, but since I experienced these anecdotes at first hand and have myself had to mentor students trying to navigate these scary circumstances, I’m troubled by those who seem blithely to assume that such situations are so inconceivably unlikely that we shouldn’t give them a second thought. Instead, we’re asking our most vulnerable colleagues to jump off the open-access cliff at the very moment when free instant access to the fruits of their intellectual labors could possibly have the greatest negative impact on the early stages of their careers. If senior historians want to start making their own books available for free online download, I’m happy to applaud their generosity and courage for doing so; but it seems more than a little unfair to require this of other scholars who haven’t yet succeeded in publishing their very first book-length monograph if they’re still hoping to do so.

A book is a very big thing that typically takes more than a decade to produce. Given the enormous investment of time and energy that goes into creating a good one, it seems wrong to force its publication—for that truly is what online open access now means—before it is fully ready for prime time.

It’s certainly true that book publishing is being transformed by the digital revolution, and equally true that all historians need to be working to promote alternative ways of communicating the insights of our scholarship beyond the covers of book-length monographs. I hope anyone who studies my website or CV, or who reads the AHA presidential columns I wrote last year on “the public practice of history in and for a digital age” will recognize how committed I am to supporting and participating as fully as I can in this digital transition: http://www.williamcronon.net/aha-writings.htm.

But are enthusiasts for open access really so passionate about their cause that they would force on their most junior and vulnerable colleagues the premature release of work that has taken the better part of a decade to produce even 1) if those colleagues do not yet feel their work is ready for publication; or 2) if they object to giving away for free years of scholarly labor; or 3) if they fear running the risk of other more established scholars possibly scooping their findings before they themselves can get them fully into print; or 4) if there’s even a modest chance that an online dissertation might undermine their ability to attract the best possible publisher for a revised version of that work in book form?

In the fierce tweets and blog posts that have been swirling around the AHA statement over the past week, much has been made of an article by Marisa L. Ramirez, Joan T. Dalton, Gail McMillan, Max Read, and Nancy H. Seamans entitled “Do Open Access Electronic Theses and Dissertations Diminish Publishing Opportunities in the Social Sciences and Humanities? Findings from a 2011 Survey of Academic Publishers” published this month in the journal College & Research Libraries. Open-access enthusiasts note that in the 2011 survey reported by this article, only 7.3% of university press directors surveyed would under no circumstances consider printing a book that was already available as an open-access electronic dissertation—implying that only a handful of antediluvian presses are worried about this problem or would stand in the way of recent PhDs publishing their online dissertations in book form.

But if you look at the survey’s results from a different angle, it’s easy to draw much more worrisome conclusions from the data. First, an additional 7.3% said they would consider publication only if the digital version of the dissertation were accessible solely on the campus where the PhD originated. So nearly one-sixth of all university presses would refuse to publish open-access digital dissertations of the kind that so many seem so eager to force on newly minted PhDs.

More troubling still, when asked whether they would always consider publishing an article based on an open-access electronic dissertation, 65.7% of journal editors replied in the affirmative—evidence for what we have long known, which is that this drive toward open access has emanated mainly from the journal-based disciplines. When book publishers were asked the same question, only 9.8% replied in the affirmative.

If one wanted to exercise the greatest possible fiduciary caution on behalf of unpublished early-career dissertation writers, one could thus conclude from this 2011 survey that in 9 cases out of 10, there is at least the possibility that online posting of an electronic dissertation might reduce the chances that such a dissertation would eventually become a book.

This caution is further affirmed in the strangely sanguine declaration by the authors of this study that “over half of university press directors (53.7%) indicated that their enterprise will consider an openly accessible ETD [electronic thesis or dissertation] for later publishing.” That would seem to leave just under half (46.3%) who were rather less sure that they would even consider such dissertations, let alone publish them. Careful readers will also note that the verb “consider” is hugely ambiguous in this whole analysis, since a great many online dissertations could easily be refused for publication after having received some token consideration.

Let me repeat that I am not remotely opposed to distributing historical knowledge in all conceivable formats. I celebrate it. I am deeply committed to helping book-length monographs make the transition to digital e-book formats, and indeed believe that this must happen if the long-form narratives and arguments that have been such an important intellectual tradition for the discipline of history are to survive in a digital age. I am in no way hostile to digital history or digital publication in all their myriad forms. Quite the contrary; I consider myself an enthusiast for them.

I just believe that historians who spend many years working on a book-length manuscript should have the option of trying to publish their work in book form if they so choose. The AHA’s statement merely articulates the hope that recent recipients of the PhD should be given some measure of control over the timing and form in which their work will be released to the wider world.

Why open-access enthusiasts would be so terribly eager to deny them this opportunity—or even run the possible risk of denying it to them—is deeply puzzling to me. I can’t believe we would ever pass a law requiring nonacademic writers to post online the first draft of their book manuscripts; why would we demand this of newly minted PhDs even before their careers are properly launched?

The new one-size-fits-all open-access dissertation policies have been developed almost entirely on behalf of journal-based disciplines where outrageous rent-seeking rates imposed by the monopoly power of a handful of European publishers have generated a backlash among scientists and librarians who believe (and I agree with them) that the journals weren’t remotely adding enough value to justify the exorbitant costs they were extracting for work that was funded not by themselves but by grants and universities.

The issues here are not mainly about protecting traditional tenure requirements. The AHA has long been concerned to make sure that digital scholarship receives full recognition in the tenure process, and continues toward that goal. This recent statement simply seeks to recognize the role that books have long played in the intellectual life of disciplines like history that value long-form narrative and argument. I don’t think I’m alone among historians in hoping quite desperately that it will still be possible to publish book-length monographs in the future, even as we make the transition to a digital age and revel in the myriad alternative forms of research and communication that are increasingly available to us.

Those of us who care about the long-term survival of books—please notice that I say the survival of books, not their hegemonic dominance—worry that the new policies being imposed by university libraries (and the journal-based disciplines that no longer have much use for books anyway) will have as an unintended consequence the further erosion of the mechanisms for editing, revising, designing, marketing, and distributing books at a moment when those mechanisms are already massively under threat from would-be monopolists like Amazon.

In the case of free online distribution of dissertations, we’re potentially eroding the ability of historians to publish books at the single most vulnerable moment in their professional lives. That’s what the AHA is concerned about and trying to address with this statement. We’re not so much trying to protect the traditional tenure process as defending books themselves as a form of communication that most members of our discipline continue to hold dear, no matter how great our enthusiasm for other forms at the same time.

In history in particular (and the humanities in general) there is virtually no grant funding, so the risk capital of publishers has long played a vital role in supporting the many services involved in bringing a book to market. Publishers have historically very much improved the quality and increased access to work that would otherwise be far less visible and reach much smaller audiences. They typically risk a minimum of $10–$20,000 of their own money for each book they bring out. The course of action advocated by open-access true believers—essentially, to release all this work for free and blithely hope either that the publishers will continue to make such investments OR maybe that they’ll just go away altogether and we’ll share everything digitally for free—seems likely to accelerate changes already going on that may spell the end of book publishing as we know it. That, in my view, would be a tragedy.

A crucial feature of book publishing that members of the journal-based disciplines don’t seem to understand is that journals have a guaranteed audience (and revenue stream) for their output—subscribers and libraries—and their main goal is to transmit new information to that audience as efficiently as possible. No book has a comparably guaranteed readership, so editors work with authors to make their work as interesting and pleasurable as possible so that readers will actually want to spend their own money for the experience of reading the book. I’ve edited on the order of 70 books in my career, and advised more than 50 dissertations, and much of my work with authors—much like my work with graduate students—has to do with making their work accessible and engaging enough that readers will be willing to pay good money to read it.

There’s also an intellectual property rights issue here that I’m amazed people aren’t more concerned about. My graduate students typically spend 5–8 years working on book-length manuscripts that will hopefully get them their first academic job (if that is their goal), and, when published, justify their getting tenure (assuming tenure survives all these changes—a whole different set of questions). My students’ work is very much their own. Unlike the sciences, they are not employed by me to work on grant-funded projects that I oversee as principal investigator. The vast majority never receive federal money, and most never even receive grant support beyond graduate fellowships (mainly for serving as TAs) that generally fall short of meeting basic living requirements. They support themselves mainly by teaching, which is one reason they take longer to complete their degrees than is typically true in the sciences.

It is not at all obvious to me why research universities would want to run even a small risk of undermining the professional future of these students by giving away their work for free via instant online downloads. It was one thing when people had relatively slow access to dissertations by borrowing them on interlibrary loan or reading them on microfilm for a fee; it’s quite another thing to be able to download them in a few seconds as free e-books. The latter are in much starker competition with published books than the former. In the old days (just a few years ago), one accessed dissertations by waiting a couple of weeks to borrow them on interlibrary loan, which yielded just enough friction in the circulation of information to alleviate any significant threat to book publication. Those who really wanted to read a dissertation could still do so; they just had to wait a while. Universal instant free access on the open web is quite another matter, and constitutes a difference in quantity that represents a radical difference in quality (especially as books themselves become more electronic).

Another possible unintended consequence of these open-access policies for dissertations could be that students (and probably their mentors as well) might start to feel an incentive to reduce the quality of dissertations by withholding key findings and tolerating rougher work so as to meet the minimum requirements of the degree while maximizing the difference between the free downloadable text on file in libraries and the very different version eventually available as a published book. I’d hate to start feeling an incentive to encourage such behavior, but I’m quite sure that thoughts like these will be more on my mind in a world of freely downloadable dissertations. The rougher the dissertation, the less it will compete with the ultimate book. Ironically, it will be the very best dissertations—the ones closest in quality to published books—that will be most susceptible to these pernicious incentives toward artificially reduced quality. Having advised quite a few dissertations that have gone on to win some of the most distinguished book prizes in our discipline, I’m really troubled that so many colleagues seem to have so little understanding or respect for the hard work and complex editing and publishing processes that yielded these important works of scholarship.

Bottom line: this is NOT just about tenure. Nor is it about any lack of commitment on the part of the AHA to diverse forms of scholarship. It is rather about defending the full range of options implied by such diversity while trying to leave as much choice as possible to individual scholars about how they prefer to share their work. And it is also about the long-standing and very complicated cultural and political-economic relationships that have sustained the book-publishing corners of the academy for at least the past three quarters of century.

I’m very much among those in the history profession who strongly believe that the digital revolution will and must change the way historians do our work, and I have enthusiastically embraced many of the transformations we’re discussing. But one of my greatest concerns has to do with whether the long-form narratives and arguments we historians also cherish will survive the transition to a digital world where audiences increasingly lack the patience to read extended texts. I very much fear that the seemingly technical arguments about publishing and tenure that are at stake in these free open-access policies for online dissertations will be one more nail in the coffin of book writing, book publishing, and book reading as we know them.

I completely agree that free online dissertations are hardly the only (or the biggest) challenge that books face in this new reality, but why would universities—of all institutions—be so eager to undermine the world of book publishing that has been such a vital part of their intellectual enterprise and that they themselves have played such an important role in sustaining for so long? And how can so many of my history colleagues have become so unconditionally committed to open-access absolutism as an unalloyed good that they’re blithely willing to embrace policies that might make it more difficult for early-career colleagues to find publishers for dissertations they still hope might one day become books?

This post first appeared on AHA Today.


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