I came into this week’s readings assuming that I’d have a strong opinion one way or the other about the impact of digital scholarship on the history profession. I was wrong. I’m feeling rather conflicted and I think that is most likely because I have not experienced any of this firsthand and the idea of publishing a dissertation or a book is pretty abstract at this point.
After reading through all of the articles, I was most interested in the debate over AHA’s statement about allowing students to choose to embargo their dissertations. The statement provided a time frame 6 years, the length of time it typically takes a PhD to publish a book and secure tenure. While I recognize the reason for the proposed time frame, perhaps the option could be even more flexible. Why not allow students to embargo once they enter into talks for a book contract? Or allow students to choose a length of time up to 6 years for an embargo? OR allow students to decide sometime into the embargo period that they are ready to lift it? If the AHA’s intention is protection of and flexibility for early career scholars, it seems there should be even more options.
William Cronon offers a fair and valid point. It’s great when senior historians publish online and we can appreciate their generosity. Yet it is unfair to require online access publishing of graduate students who have not yet had the opportunity to publish a book or even an article.
At the same time, Dr. Jennifer Guiliano also makes a good point that maybe the AHA should have surveyed its members. Additionally, she writes that her dissertation got downloaded 604 times and she made the argument to the publisher that an audience truly existed for her work. I do have to wonder if she is an exception to the rule rather than the typical case she claims to be.
I think what much of this boils down to is the decades old system in the history profession of finishing your dissertation, looking for a job in academia, turning your dissertation into a book and thus securing tenure and more career flexibility. (Perhaps this is simplified process and it certainly glosses over the various moves to tiny colleges out in some random state and the low pay and slim benefits that career academics must endure in their quest for a book deal and tenure at a better position.) It seems to me that this system needs to change. Universities cannot continue to mandate that everyone publish a book when the presses are shutting down and/or becoming more stingy with what they publish. It’s not a sustainable system for anyone.
Dan Cohen touches on this issue in his article, “The Idols of Scholarly Publishing.” “Can we get our colleagues to recognize outstanding academic work wherever and however it is published?” he asks. Trevor Owens and Timothy Burke also encouraged the academy to explore options outside a printed manuscript. Maybe one day a new system will allow historians a more flexible way to attain jobs and tenure aside from publishing a book. The profession and its members are still, I believe, in the process of refining how we view work that is published on the web without a hard-copy counterpart.