The American Historical Association’s Statement on Policies Regarding the Embargoing of Completed History PhD Dissertations, released earlier this week, kicked off a round of debate that few lurking in any corner of the academic interwebs can have missed. Much of the conversation has been based on inaccurate or merely ungenerous interpretations of the statement, and the AHA made a quick attempt to address the straw men by posting a Q&A on the statement, followed by an essay from AHA past president Bill Cronon. Rather than an endorsement of a blanket ban on online availability of dissertations, they explain, the AHA “objects to institutions requiring that all dissertations go online immediately,” favoring instead flexible policies that allow young historians to weigh the impact a dissertation’s availability may have on their prospects for securing a publishing contract.
The thrust of the negative reaction to the statement, though, seems to be general disappointment in the perceived priorities of a scholarly society in the face of evolving models for and economics of scholarly production and dissemination, library purchasing patterns, and academic career tracks. The AHA’s Q&A addresses these points as well, but the disagreement here stems from conflicting principles—imagined or actual—not the parsing of any particular statement. It’s not a new conflict, and definitely not one we’d claim any chance of resolving here.
What we can do, though, is say a bit about our own practices in the acquisition of first book projects. Various survey findings and conversational gleanings have been cited by both sides of this debate, and perhaps our piping up here amounts to nothing more than another node of “inference, anecdote, and fear.” But the alternative—sitting back while other parties debate the behavior of publishers—seems a bit odd.
Most people involved in this discussion likely understand that a publication-ready dissertation is a rare thing. Generally speaking, when we at HUP take on a young scholar’s first book, whether in history or other disciplines, we expect that the final product will be so broadened, deepened, reconsidered, and restructured that the availability of the dissertation is irrelevant. It’s only fair to note, though, that from a business perspective this position is at least in part a function of our size. As one of the country’s larger university presses, we have the capacity to ensure that we can help usher the project to that expanded state. We also have grown our sales and distribution channels to the extent that the possibility of X number of academic libraries rejecting the book based on access to the dissertation doesn’t have to be as great a factor for us as it may be for smaller UPs.