Even though the American Historical Association is warning  that young scholars could be denied book deals and therefore tenure-track jobs if they do not keep their dissertations off the Internet, the actual danger of such career hampering remains hard to quantify.
One recently published study suggests some publishers reject material that is already available online. A survey published  in this month’s College & Research Libraries found about 7 percent of university presses and about 3 percent of journals would not publish works based on open access electronic theses or dissertations. The respondents included 53 members of the Association of American University Presses and 75 social sciences and arts and humanities journals. The study suggests smaller publishers are more likely to balk at publishing books or articles based on material that has been available online.
According to the same paper, as of 2011, about 140 of 70,000 papers available on the ProQuest dissertation archive had been removed because publishers considered these works “prior publication.”
Joan Dalton, one of the authors of the study and an associate dean of the University of Windsor Library, said the findings are mixed but that AHA’s policy  could harm scholarship.
“My perspective is that if we’re intending to advance knowledge, that requires open communication and it seems to me that the policy may be more effective at protecting a business model than at promoting the building of knowledge,” she said.
The AHA has tried to make clear  that while it suggests embargoes of up to six years, its formal statement is aimed only at ensuring that universities give young scholars the option to embargo their research. Some universities require dissertations to be posted publicly.
Peter Berkery, executive director of the university press association, said the historical association's concerns “came at us out of left field.”
Berkery said he called the directors at 15 university presses after AHA’s statement became widely publicized. They were not aware of their presses or other presses being reluctant to publish books based on dissertations that had been freely available online, he said.
“The AHA has identified a problem that frankly is news to us,” he said. “I’m sure the anecdotal evidence that they have amassed is real, but we’re struggling to understand if this an isolated problem.”
The AHA has not presented any data to suggest there is any widespread problem, but its vice president, Jacqueline Jones, said the anecdotes are strong enough to justify the policy.
Jones said while press editors may say they are not turning down books because the material has been posted online, the acquisition editors on the ground are doing so. She said one acquisition editor contacted her Thursday to say the AHA’s warnings were on the money.
Jones said the goal of the AHA is to protect its young scholars from being denied book deals in a publish-or-perish world.
“If there’s a possibility that they are going to run into acquisition editors who are not crazy about considering a revised dissertation that has been online for a long period – that’s a reality and that puts at risk the interest of our junior faculty who, I should say, are the most vulnerable members of the profession,” Jones said.
It’s not clear that other scholarly associations have such concerns, though similar concerns have been acute in creative writing . In the hard sciences the turnaround on research tends to be rapid. In some social science fields there is less emphasis on the book as the way to launch a career or win tenure.
Edward Liebow, the executive director of the American Anthropological Association, said he dissertation issue is not a concern of his members'. Still, students he talked to this week would like a choice about whether they place their scholarship online.
“To a one, they said they believe that students ought to be offered a choice in the matter,” Liebow said.
Mike Altman, who just finished his Ph.D. at Emory University, said everyone in his religious studies program embargoed their dissertations. So he decided to embargo his, titled “Imagining Hindus: India and Religion in Nineteenth Century America.”
In a blog post,  he said libraries are not going to buy books if they can get dissertations free or from existing products, like ProQuest. Scholarship, he said, remains something unique.
“For untenured or contingent faculty and recent Ph.D.s our research is all we really have left. They are MOOCing our teaching,” he wrote, referring to massive open online courses, which some faculty worry will eliminate their jobs. “But they can’t MOOC our books.”
There is some anecdotal evidence that libraries are not buying books that are available as dissertations. The study published in College & Research Libraries said that Yankee Book Peddler, a major distributor of books to libraries, is helping libraries forgo buying books that are based on dissertations.
“The ‘profiles’ set by vendors such as Yankee Book Peddler (YBP) on books and the selection criteria established by the majority of academic libraries include a ‘dissertation factor’ which will eliminate these books from their purchase list,” one university press director told the researchers. “If no one is going to buy the book, no one will publish it.”
Dalton, one of the authors of the study, said this merits further study but she does not believe it is a major factor. Yankee Book Peddler executives did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment.
Berkery said presses have had to deal with freely available dissertations for years. To the extent that free scholarship is a threat to book sales, the threat was not new. He also said most dissertations are heavily revised.
“A dissertation is a work of scholarship written for three people, a book is a work of scholarship written for thousands,” he said.
Dalton believes the AHA policy is aimed to protect an “outdated” publishing model but also points to larger issues that go beyond publishing.
“It begs the question about how closely tenure is tied to publishing,” she said. “Then it is looking at the whole system of how new scholars get established and get hired, particularly with burgeoning ways of scholarly communication that go way beyond a print monograph.”
Alison Mudditt, the director of the University of California Press, agreed the central issue was part of a wider debate about tenure and promotion.
“There have been many calls for uncoupling tenure decisions from monograph publishing, as well as for greater receptiveness within the academy to emerging new forms of disseminating humanistic scholarship and of peer review,” she said.