Skip navigation
Speculative Diction

The stakes in (no) change: The AHA and academic careers


Recently, the American Historical Association (AHA) posted a policy statement that caused some controversy among academics, because of its recommendation that universities should allow junior scholars the option of a 6-year embargo on electronic publication of their dissertations.

The argument goes that younger or early career researchers (ECRs) need the option of an embargo because widely-available dissertations might not be acceptable to publishers in book form. Some universities make it mandatory for students to submit their dissertations to an open online database, so the embargo would ensure that ECRs have the option of keeping their research private until it’s ready for publication.

While this policy is only about ensuring that grad students can have their dissertation embargoed if they want, rather than telling them they have to, what’s revealing is not only the argument that’s been provided but also that there’s been such a strong reaction and an intense debate generated by the issues involved.

Some commentators have viewed the AHA’s strategy as “empowering”, but others question the idea that only or primarily a book can gain you entry into the profession, and that publishers won’t deal with a book that has previously been available online in dissertation form. Critics argue that there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that pre-published dissertations are off-putting for academic publishers. The debate also seems to beg the question of what exactly the difference is between a book and a dissertation; they’re very different forms, with radically different audiences in mind. Not only that, but the main customers for academic books have been neither academics nor the broader public, but libraries, as pointed out here. Barbara Fister notes that “[l]ibraries have been buying fewer books no matter whether they are based on dissertations or not; they won’t buy more books because dissertations go offline.”

The key issue here isn’t the difference between dissertations and books. It’s the academic career, and what “counts” towards building it – and additionally, what “proves” quality in a candidate for tenure. The AHA post states that “although there is so close a relationship between the dissertation and the book that presses often consider them competitors, the book is the measure of scholarly competence used by tenure committees” (emphasis added). This is not just about who gets to publish what, and when. It’s about entry into the academic profession, and what kind of scholarship is seen as valid when assessing who should be on the tenure-track or tenured, and who should not.

This is why the AHA’s stance is being framed by some as “protective” of ECRs who, if forced to make their dissertations widely accessible, will put themselves (or their careers) at risk by jeopardising their chances of having books published. As the statement reads, “History has been and remains a book-based discipline, and the requirement that dissertations be published online poses a tangible threat to the interests and careers of junior scholars in particular” (emphasis added). At a time when competition for academic jobs is fiercer than ever, their argument has a lot of weight.

All this is wrapped up in the shift away from physical copies of dissertations filed on library shelves, and toward the digital databases that allow access to anyone who can get online and run the right search – a scenario involves a different set of assumptions about who can access the work, from where, and with what results for the scholarship (and scholars) involved.

I think an important issue here is the purpose of scholarship, which shapes the work that happens and what “knowledge” is created through it. As others have discussed, historical research is a public good as well as an academic one; what use is there in assuming a few narrow forms of dissemination are the most appropriate, and will continue to be so? A particular understanding of purpose is driving the assessment of scholarly worth. If the purpose of scholarship is to get you a book contract and ultimately, a tenure-track job, then the exclusivity that is so cherished in this process needs to be maintained. If the purpose of publishing is to “launch” one’s career in an appropriate fashion, then there isn’t much room for serendipity or risk in that process.

In terms of purpose, a related example is that of the REF in the UK, which is designed to assess the “quality” of research produced by UK universities. Many critics have already pointed out the systemic effects of this process, which is also tied to funding. There is a connection between academic systems of assessment and professional advancement, and the way scholars go about their work (and make career-related decisions). Because tenure is hard to obtain, the fear factor is an important one for many junior scholars and the AHA’s initial announcement reflects this.

It’s the system in which we already operate that engenders risks from “openness”, risks that are more obvious and present for some than for others. We already have a system wherein keeping one’s work sequestered is still more of a failsafe way of building an academic career. This is why it’s so difficult to use moral arguments about the openness of knowledge: this openness hasn’t yet been institutionally validated to enough of an extent that ECRs are willing to stake their careers on it. That the AHA can argue it has also “supported” alternate forms of publishing and recognition, tells us that there may be an ongoing disconnect between what scholarly societies and funding agencies advocate, and what actually happens in a departmental hiring process.

The academic profession is in a period of flux in terms of what kind of work is valued, what forms it should take, and how it should be shared with others. In many ways academe is still in reactive mode regarding changes that have been happening for some time; technology has already helped to move scholarly activity beyond the limits of what academic career tracks have “traditionally” encompassed. Those hoping to become academics are now receiving very mixed messages about the limits of what is acceptable or desirable for professional credibility. This makes things difficult not only for prospective scholars but also for graduate supervisors and mentors who hope to support their students in developing academic careers.

If it’s less risky to fall back on an established understanding of what counts, if our decisions are governed by fear and anecdotal evidence, then the issue of giving junior scholars a “choice” seems almost beside the point. Choices tend to be governed by context. Maybe it’s time to work on changing that context, instead of trying to work within what are being treated as permanent boundaries.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Click to fill out a quick survey