Revisiting #AHAGate

by brandontlocke

Over the summer, when the aptly titled “#AHAGate” controversy broke out, I considered writing a post about Open Access publishing and embargoes. I never got around to putting my thoughts to words, however, as I was busy finishing up several projects and packing up my things. After sitting back and reading for a few days, I felt as though the community had spoken with resounding disdain for the statement, and had said most everything that needed to be said.[1] I began to revisit the topic when a number of students spoke against the use of Creative Commons licensing and Open Access scholarship in the Humanities in a recent class discussion. They echoed many of the same troubling (to me, at least) sentiments that informed the AHA statement, those which resigned all ownership and control of scholarship to publishers. The conversation reminded me that I had developed a filter where I only encountered people who I agreed with. All of the Open Access Week events here have encouraged me to revisit #AHAGate a bit, and put some of my thoughts down.

My frustration with the AHA statement doesn’t stem from a disagreement that it may be necessary for early-career humanities PhDs to embargo their dissertation. My frustration is that the AHA does not see this necessity as a serious problem with academia, scholarship, and scholarly communication. I seriously question the logic and motivations of an academic system which sees limited access as a positive aspect, rather than an economic and technological barrier which must be reduced or overcome. I understand that some barriers are unavoidable. If some publishers are refusing to publish monographs derived from open electronic dissertations (a very small percentage do, it seems), and academic careers depend so heavily upon publishing monographs, I agree that scholars should have the option to embargo dissertations. However, I don’t believe these policies have a positive impact on scholars and scholarship, and I’m not entirely sure that they are necessary. The AHA should have used its substantial voice to address the roots of the problem — namely the over-reliance on publishing companies to sort out issues of tenure and promotion and the problematic state of academic publishing in the humanities — rather than proposing a temporary patch.

Academic departments and publishers must recognize the changing publishing landscape and begin to modernize and decouple from the mutually destructive relationship they find themselves in. Monograph budgets at academic libraries are being reduced in favor of journal budgets, making books less profitable for publishers.[2] Despite this economic reality, tenure and promotion relies heavily upon this gatekeeping process to grant prestige. Rather than independently assessing the strength of a work, its impact and citation factors, or its general reception, T&P processes are built around this one form of scholarship and one (at least somewhat) independent entity. This forces scholars to seek approval from book publishers who may severely limit access to their work to break even or profit, rather than making the work accessible and usable.[3] With accessibility and usability comes more citations and more recognition from other scholars in the field — metrics that advance the field as well as the career of the scholar. Publishers may need to change their model of publishing and delivery in a way that is less economically intensive, while maintaining their valuable roles as editors, peer-review administrators, and assessors of quality.

In the meantime, I’m interested in exploring the issue of monograph sales and open electronic theses and dissertations (ETDs). During #AHAgate, many were quick to point to “Do Open Access Electronic Theses and Dissertations Diminish Publishing Opportunities in the Social Sciences and Humanities? Findings from a 2011 Survey of Academic Publishers” to show that only a few publishers took ETDs into consideration. What I felt was missing was a study, or even a conversation, about whether or not any publishers need to be weary of ETDs. According to Ramirez, et al.:

ProQuest, an electronic and microfilm publisher of theses and dissertations seldom receives requests by students or university personnel to remove access to their ETDs because publishers considered these works “prior publication.” This constitutes a fraction (0.002) of the 70,000 theses and dissertations made electronically accessible via ProQuest in 2011.[4]

Publishers are much less concerned with ProQuest and InterLibrary Loan acquisition because they make the dissertation slightly more difficult to access, though it still circulates and is available to many scholars.  With services like ProQuest and ILL, the vast majority of the potential market already has access, but this generally does not diminish a paper’s chance at publication.

I think it’s reasonable to believe that an open dissertation would actually increase the sales of a monograph. For the vast majority of scholars, a dissertation is quite different from an academic monograph, and they rarely work as decent or even acceptable substitutes. I cannot fathom someone deciding to read a dissertation in lieu of purchasing, checking out, or requesting a book. Conversely, I’ve personally found several dissertations that led me to purchase, checkout, or request the corresponding book. A well-read and well-circulated dissertation is an excellent advertisement, and can aid a newly minted PhD immediately.

Academic libraries compose nearly the entire market for humanities monographs, and I have yet to see any evidence that librarians would avoid purchasing a book because a similar dissertation is available. I wouldn’t presume to know more about scholarly publishing than the publishers themselves, but I would like to see data on this issue. If it is true that publishing an open ETD is detrimental to a publisher’s sales or reputation, they should share this information with scholars to develop a better plan to alleviate these problems together, either through alternative publishing, on-demand printing, purchasing contracts, or some other way. If this is not the case, the publishers can assuage young scholars’ concerns and encourage them to make their work available in such a way that it can garner them a strong reputation and maybe even drive book sales. After all, if publishers are reticent to accept ETDs because of prior publishing, isn’t it worth a study into the buying practices of librarians to determine how the purchase, or perhaps librarians should study how they should purchase with regard to prior publication?

Bonus read: Disembargo: An Open Diss, One Letter at a Time Mark Sample’s dissertation is “opening” itself over the span of six years — one letter at a time. Update: Mark recently wrote a Chronicle piece about this.

[1] The University of Michigan Press and Micah Vandegrift wrote thorough and well-reasoned syntheses of the response.

[2] Robert Darnton: The Library: Three Jeremiads

[3] Stephen Ramsay wrote an excellent piece on this topic, “The American Shrugshouldercal Society.”

[4] Marisa L. Ramirez, et al., “Do Open Access Electronic Theses and Dissertations Diminish Publishing Opportunities in the Social Sciences and Humanities? Findings from a 2011 Survey of Academic Publishers,” College & Research Libraries 74, no. 4 (July 2013): 368–80;