Students, AHA push for dissertation embargoes

Many universities require dissertations go online, which some say could hurt book deals.

by Roy Aker

The American Historical Association is asking graduate programs and university libraries to adopt a policy allowing history Ph.D. graduates to embargo the digital form of their dissertation, preventing the work from appearing online for up to six years.

In a statement released July 22, the association said the embargo is necessary so recent Ph.D. graduates can publish books based on their dissertations.

The AHA is not yet able to comment on which schools have adopted the suggested policy, said Jacqueline Jones, vice president of AHA’s Professional Division. She added that the possible change wouldn’t take effect at schools until September.

Opinions on AHA’s statement have been mixed. Some say the AHA is scaring students out of releasing their dissertation, while others say students should be wary of posting their work online.

According to the statement, putting dissertations online can create a problem for Ph.D. graduates because university presses may be reluctant to offer publishing contracts if the digital version is already available for free.

Joseph Haker, a graduate student in the University of Minnesota’s  history department, said the optional embargo makes sense, but only if the AHA continues to support a “book-based” approach to history over publishing articles online.

An increasing number of higher education institutions — including the University of Minnesota — require graduate students to submit electronic theses and dissertations, called ETDs, and subsequently provide open access to the works online.

Henning Schroeder, the University’s vice provost  and dean of graduate education, said embargoing a dissertation for six years is too long — and that if a student embargoes their dissertation for more than a year, then they should have a good reason.


‘A tedious process’

At the University, students have to get permission from the graduate school to embargo their dissertation.

According to the University’s doctoral dissertation submission webpage, students may be able to embargo their dissertation if a press is interested in publishing it as a book or if there’s an “ethical need to prevent disclosure of sensitive or classified information” about people, institutions or technologies.

“Most of this doesn’t work for humanities students when talking about dead people,” said Rachel Gibson, a Ph.D. candidate in French and Italian.

“I think a lot of publishers are coming to avoid publishing dissertations if they’re already online,” she said. “For humanities, you usually have to try to get a book before you can even get tenure.”

She said the embargo renewal process is difficult, and some are not even aware that they can embargo a dissertation in the first place.

Currently, graduate students can put a hold on the release of their thesis or dissertation for six months, one year or two years.

Advisors must approve the request before a dissertation can be held.

“We want our graduates not to be fearful of putting out the wonderful work that they have published and generated,” Schroeder said. “But I understand that there has to be reasonable embargo times.”

He cited a study published in College and Research Libraries that found about 83 percent of journal editors and more than half of university press directors polled welcome manuscripts that are revised versions of openly accessible ETDs — or at least consider them on a case-by-case basis.

But some students want more control over where their work ends up.

“I think the conflict is that the University has been funding us and our research for a long time, so in a sense they have a rightful claim to a lot of the work that we might publish,” Gibson said.

She said she thinks the University can benefit more if a student can nab a publishing deal after successfully embargoing a dissertation.

“That actually will look a lot better on the University than if that dissertation just languishes in open access depositories,” she said.