The Illusion of Scarcity

The Amer­i­can His­tor­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion just called for a six year embargo on the release of dis­ser­ta­tions. At the moment, you write a dis­ser­ta­tion and it goes to your university’s library, which typ­i­cally makes a dig­i­tal copy avail­able to the pub­lic, often for free.

The AHA argues that if your dis­ser­ta­tion is avail­able free in dig­i­tal form, no pub­lisher will want to print it as a book, which means that you will have a harder time com­ing up for tenure. It’s pre­sent­ing this embargo as an effort to pro­tect young scholars.

umiThis seems to me to be a pre­pos­ter­ous idea on many lev­els. Any scholar knows that dis­ser­ta­tions were always already avail­able, well before the dig­i­tal age. I have at least a dozen dis­ser­ta­tions that I ordered from Uni­ver­sity Micro­forms Inter­na­tional, bound in intim­i­dat­ing black paper. No one that I know of felt that this dam­aged the author’s print prospects.

And the idea that they are pro­tect­ing young schol­ars has its own absur­di­ties. Here’s an exam­ple of the model they are protecting:

$44 for the dig­i­tal edition

I found this in about 3 minutes–$44 bucks for the Kin­dle edi­tion. There are far, far worse exam­ples out there. Is the AHA inter­ested in pro­tect­ing young schol­ars from the ridicu­lous, absurd, and crim­i­nally high cost of dig­i­tal edi­tions of schol­arly books? No, not so much. They’re fine with that.

The obvi­ous point here is that the AHA is attempt­ing to prop up a model  that’s rooted in a dif­fer­ent cen­tury. His­to­ri­ans cer­tainly under­stand that impulse–we see count­less exam­ples of it in our work. They nearly always end in failure.

As an employee of a State uni­ver­sity, with a Ph.D. from another state uni­ver­sity, I’ve already been paid to cre­ate knowl­edge. The tax­pay­ers paid–not very well, I can assure you–for the cre­ation of my dis­ser­ta­tion. Why should they be pre­vented from see­ing it, so that pub­lish­ers can later charge ridicu­lous fees? The logic is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent if you got your Ph.D. at a pri­vate insti­tu­tion, and they could cer­tainly choose to embargo their stu­dents’ dis­ser­ta­tions, although the stu­dent could choose to pub­lish it dig­i­tally his or her self. But do free dis­ser­ta­tions cut into book sales? Well they surely cut into the sales of dig­i­tal edi­tions that cost $44 dol­lars, as above. The AHA isn’t pro­tect­ing young schol­ars, it’s pro­tect­ing presses that charge ridicu­lous prices.

The AHA is right, though, that the prob­lem is stan­dards for pro­mo­tion and tenure, which gen­er­ally demand print books. I would argue the answer for the AHA isn’t embar­go­ing dis­ser­ta­tions, it’s tak­ing over the pub­li­ca­tion func­tion itself, and charg­ing rea­son­able fees.



Note: I recently pub­lished a book with an aca­d­e­mic press, which charges to my mind far too much for it. Why did I pub­lish it with them? tra­di­tion, iner­tia, lazi­ness on my part, a vague notion of pres­tige, and the sense thatI’d entered into the game under a spe­cific set of terms, and that I ought to meet them. But I think this is the last print book I’ll ever do.



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