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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