Breaking the Embargo

At the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, young scholars distance themselves from the organization's stance on embargoing dissertations and encourage new forms of graduate work.

January 3, 2014

WASHINGTON -- As doctoral students of history urge their departments to allow more experimental types of dissertations, the desire for free flow of information between scholars may end up trumping the need to keep the research embargoed.

A roundtable session on the “digitally informed dissertation” during the American Historical Association's annual meeting here on Thursday brought together two current and two recent doctoral students who used digital tools to aid their projects, but the discussion quickly turned to reconciling the differences between the scholars’ views on sharing and the host organization’s stance on promoting the right to keep digital version of their research embargoed.

In a policy introduced last July, the AHA recommended doctoral students be allowed to place their dissertations under embargoes lasting as long as six years. “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,” the organization said in a statement then.

The Organization of American Historians followed suit last month, saying it “strongly supports the right of authors to make their own decisions about the manner in which their doctoral dissertations will be published and circulated.”

Proponents of embargoes say the alternative in many cases is for dissertations to go into open-access repositories, where their availability may discourage some publishers from looking at the work -- an argument that some scholars and publishers have disputed.

At Thursday’s session, none of the panelists seemed inclined to place their projects under an embargo.

“For me, it’s just a pure cost-benefit thing,” said Cameron Blevins, a Ph.D. student at Stanford University. “The benefits of making my work as widely available as possible outweigh any of the kind of fears of getting scooped.... I really think the historical profession needs to really engage with the wider public more explicitly.” Being reduced to writing exclusively for other scholars in the same field, he said, is “the danger of dissertations in general.”

Although the panelists were invited specifically to discuss research techniques enabled by technology, two of the scholars said they had written largely traditional dissertations after being dissuaded from experimenting by their advisors.

Rachel Leow, a former student at the University of Cambridge who completed what she called her “100 percent normal dissertation” in 2011, created the blog “A Historian’s Craft” in 2007 when she began her research. The blog soon took on multiple roles, serving as a creative outlet and a way to connect with other scholars -- but it also helped Leow publish journal articles and find job openings.

“I was brought up on the Internet, and underneath the conventional structures of the dissertation, I found myself experimenting with trying to forge an online community to talk about the ways in which the dissertation or historical research could be different than the way I was being trained at Cambridge,” Leow said.

Perhaps because of the pushback some of the scholars faced while working on their dissertations, all four presenters listed faculty support for experimental dissertations as one of the most important features of a graduate program. Leow, for example, said it was the core question behind her blog.

“One of the biggest problems with digital publishing, obviously, is the norms of scholarly assessment and review haven’t fully caught up to kind the scholarship which technology is enabling us to produce,” Leow said. New Ph.D.s, she said, “have a responsibility to be conscious and self-aware of what it takes to produce innovative scholarship.”

Konrad M. Lawson, who graduated from Harvard University in 2012, said doctoral students should be encouraged to experiment as early as possible -- as long as the students are willing to accept the risk that doing so could affect their job prospects.

“If you start with students ... who already have advisers and a project and have imagined the way they’re going to put together their chapters, then even if you throw a significant chunk of money at them, there is only going to be so much you can do to change the structure and the approach and the type of dissertation that’s going to emerge from that,” said Lawson, who teaches East Asian history at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland.  

Thursday's session included frequent and often self-deprecating references to the “dinosaurs” in the field, and while the presenters suggested they would not embargo their research, they added that they could see cases where it could be necessary.

“There’s no single lesson for everybody here,” Lawson said. “Even as some of us can barely contain our enthusiasm for new methodologies, for a spirit of experimentation, we should be careful and respectful as we engage with fellow students and scholars who have legitimate concerns about some of the risks that are involved, not just in doing a research project, but in sharing your work.”


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