I recently received an email from the AHA forwarded by my department chair. In it, the AHA asked for feedback from departments regarding their institutions’ policies on the online publication of dissertations. This request from the AHA’s Professional Division was prompted by an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education from April that “raised alarms about the growing number of universities that require digital publication of theses and dissertations despite evidence that some publishers will not accept such works as manuscripts” (AHA Email). A recent graduate responded to the email, sharing their reasons for restricting access to their dissertation. This student was more concerned about the theft of their research than publisher’s attitudes towards online dissertations. We were presented with two troubling scenarios: your dissertation may lose its appeal to publishers by being online and your work might be stolen. In the email exchange, it was suggested that graduate students think about opting for restricted access to their dissertation.

These concerns are valid, but their framing is at best incomplete and at worst detrimental to the scholarly training of graduate students. This is also an opportunity to address a more pressing concern in our profession: the current system of publishing and promotion. As many graduate students envision a tenured position at a research institution as a top goal, this end often governs their relationship to their research. While we should certainly guard our intellectual property and aim for promotion in the field, I argue that restricting access to our scholarship contradicts core values in the historical profession. Furthermore, encouraging graduate students to hoard their research until they can holdout for the traditional monograph at a prestigious press denies them the opportunity to build authorship – a vital tool in safeguarding their research and building an academic identity.  The decision to restrict access to a dissertation should ultimately lie with its author, yet this decision should not be based on fear. Instead, graduate students should be encouraged to build authorship around their scholarship so that their dissertation’s impact will not depend solely on the publication of a monograph in an academic press.

Security does not lie in anonymity. The theft of ideas, data, and sources does occur in academia. The contours of these risks are highly dependent on the field and institutions; graduate students should familiarize themselves with these dangers. However, a dissertation is a published document that carries the full weight of copyright protection. A scenario in which an online dissertation was pilfered for its ideas and sources would not differ drastically from one with a printed monograph. Intellectual property disputes can be difficult and involved affairs, but my point is that scholars are not left naked by making their dissertation available online. A more sensible source of safety lies in authorship, or having people associate your ideas with, well… you. Taking ownership of your ideas means developing an academic identity, a scholarly persona that students often mistakenly believe is reserved for the most senior of faculty. Besides the growing examples many academics are providing in building an online presence, developing an academic identity can also be accomplished by being present and active within your field’s conferences, journals, and networks of communication. Most importantly, this means sharing your ideas and research early in your career so that you control their entry into the academic community.

Restricting access to your dissertation has real costs. Keeping the thieves out means keeping everyone else out too. An open access dissertation can represent your largest contribution to the body of scholarship at the end of a long journey to the PhD, but people must read it for it to be a contribution. Ah, but what of the monograph and publishers’ unease? The AHA framed the article as being primarily about publishers’ misgivings, yet the subtitle reads: “Libraries’ digital open-access rules make some editors wary of buying graduate students’ work, although others see a marketing boost.” Others see a marketing boost. In fact, the article cites two presses with concerns and three that see great opportunity in digital dissertations. Penn State, Iowa, and West Virgina’s presses all support open access dissertations, reminding readers that “books and dissertations are two distinct species” (Chronicle 2011). Obviously not all publishers agree, but the framing of the Chronicle article as simply negative is disingenuous and obscures a complex issue for graduate students. A digital dissertation aids scholarly communication, makes our research available to a public audience, and promotes collegiality between disciplines.

This message inhibits the very sort of scholarship we call for. The AHA’s professional standards read: “Historians favor free, open, equal, and nondiscriminatory access… As much as possible [historians] should also strive to serve the historical profession’s preference for open access to, and public discussion of, the historical record.” The standards also note that restricting access is appropriate when protecting the confidentiality of sources like oral histories. A dissertation with restricted access contradicts this ‘preference for open access’ and privileges a system of publication and promotion at the cost of the profession’s core values. Furthermore, at many conferences I have heard calls for scholarship that is transnational, collaborative, interdisciplinary, and comparative, yet we are being sent a message to keep our heads down until (someday) we can publish at the right opportunity. This type of work can only be done by sharing our research, not placing it in a silo. Are these lofty research aims to be reserved for senior faculty?

Many of my views are informed by the vigorous calls for open-access scholarship emerging from the field of Digital Humanities. Many of these debates are still fresh in my own mind, and I would reiterate my point that authors should be free to opt-out. However, I am troubled by how the AHA framed this article and strongly believe that open-access dissertations represent the opportunity to transform graduate training and scholarly communication in service of the core values we hold.

I plan on writing a more detailed response directly to the AHA, your feedback in improving the above article and expanding its scope would be much appreciated.


14 Responses to Don’t Keep Your Head Down: Digital Dissertations and Graduate Training

  1. “security through obscurity” (as Eric Kansa has said) is no way to be a scholar.

  2. B. Elsey says:

    A thoughtful article! In your lengthier response you may want to consider how evaluation of digital dissemination of dissertations connects to the consideration of digital publication for tenure (e-books, etc.). For those of us who hope for an overseas audience, digital publication has the benefit of creating a dialogue beyond US.

  3. Barbara Fister says:

    I am not a historian but I love being able to read dissertations that were previously so difficult (or awfully pricey) to get. I wonder how much the reluctance is due to a sense that somehow the institution is claiming it as its own, whereas a publisher taking it over would be … well, not the institution with which you probably have a love/hate relationship? Because honestly, after that much work, I would want it to be out there, able to make a contribution (and my reputation). I pay less attention to who hosts the file than to who wrote the text.

    The plagiarism fear is really hard to understand. Would you not publish it out of concern someone might steal your ideas?

  4. Gabriel Henderson says:

    Dear Alex,

    Thank you for this wonderful article. I am in complete agreement with your balanced view of the issues, and recently I’ve had an opportunity to read both manuscripts and dissertations by others without concern by the original author that I may steal their ideas.

    However, providing a dissertation online without absolute certainty that your ideas will not be stolen requires a bit of faith and trust. This fear is bolstered by the ease by which bloggers and online forums for discussion often lift the ideas of others, occasionally without the original author ever knowing and without due credit.

    In this light, how does an original author track how their research is used online? That question is likely unanswerable. While tracking these kinds of things may be a bit easier within a fairly insulated community like other academics in a given field/discipline, releasing one’s dissertation to the whims of cyberspace is a seeming risk.

    I must admit that I find it difficult to see easy answers in this debate. Openness necessarily leads to risks that your ideas can be “stolen” in whatever form. Ultimately, I am quite skeptical that there is anything that can be done to protect one’s ideas unless one is willing to become completely isolated from the community, and thus self-sabotage any chance at becoming a member of said community.

    The fundamental issue, as I see it: does copyright protection actually protect when it comes to the internet, particularly given the restraints on time and energy to keep tabs on how your dissertation is used?

    Thank you again for your thoughtful comments and I look forward to reading more on this issue.

  5. […] an important experience for crafting an open access digital dissertation, the importance of which I have written about recently. Alex is a PhD student in the Department of History at Michigan State University whose research […]

  6. Excellent discussion, Alex. People are always inclined to exaggerate the costs of doing something (e.g. putting your ideas out there, possibly to be “stolen”) and to overlook the opportunity costs of doing nothing. The cost of putting your dissertation out there is it will be stolen. The cost of not putting your dissertation out there is that it will be ignored. Personally, I’d rather risk being ripped off than risk being irrelevant. Thanks for the post.


  7. Thanks for bring attention to this important decision.

    I’d like to point out that there are uses of dissertations that fall short of theft but that the author may still not desire. I made my dissertation available electronically through ProQuest, and I was somewhat disappointed when a magazine article took a fair amount of material from it before I got my book out. It wasn’t plagiarism-the article cited me seven times. Nor did it interfere with my getting a book contract. But it did put another writer’s byline over material I had assembled.

    I would have minded less had that writer done the same thing with my completed book, since having the book cited so prominently could have led to some sales. Better still, maybe magazine conventions would have led the editors to excerpt my book-under my byline-instead.

    So I must question your claim that “A scenario in which an online dissertation was pilfered for its ideas and sources would not differ drastically from one with a printed monograph.” If you care not only that “people associate your ideas with you,” but also the manner in and time in which those ideas are presented, you may indeed wish to keep your dissertation private while you are revising it for publication.

    • Alex Galarza says:

      Zachary, thanks for the comment. I read over the linked article and was surprised at how much the author draws on your work. I wonder if an email to the author or the editor requesting a link to your book would be out of the question? I am genuinely curious as to whether or not you would have preferred the author not to include your work at all. It seems to me without your access to your dissertation the article would be far weaker, and the readership’s knowledge of the metro would be less rich. In many ways, is it not a big positive that your work featured so prominently in this medium?

      I would also defend my argument that “A scenario in which an online dissertation was pilfered for its ideas and sources would not differ drastically from one with a printed monograph” since I was specifically claiming this in the context of copyright protection as opposed to your scenario.

      In response to your overall point (and Gabriel’s), I would simply restate that my argument in this article is not to question each PhD’s right to controlling the access to their dissertation. My argument is that the AHA’s email presents this issue in a one-sided way that obscures the benefits to open-access online dissertations. There are also many costs to restricting access, as many of the above commenters have discussed.

  8. Thank you for posting my comment and for your reply.

    I too am genuinely curious as to whether or not I would have preferred the author not to include my work at all; I had mixed feelings at the time, and I still do. But had I been asked, I think I would rather have had no mention (and no material reused) than the article in the form it took.

    I say this in part in the belief that the article diminished some readers’ knowledge of Metro’s history. By precluding a more timely article that could have alerted magazine readers to the book, it likely diminished the number of readers who got the full story in book form.

    And I confess to a less pure motive: I like having my name on the stories I tell. This is selfish vanity, especially given the support I received from my university, foundations, taxpayers, archives, and oral history narrators. But it is vanity that I try to channel toward socially useful ends. As doctoral students ponder the choices you outline, they need to be aware of their own inner motivations.

    Thank you for clarifying the limits of your claim that “security does not lie with anonymity.” Copyright cannot prevent the “theft of ideas, data, and sources,” for it covers only the fixed expression of ideas. If one wants credit for the ideas themselves, temporary obscurity may be the right strategy.

  9. […] issue of fear in relation to the theft of your ideas. This is an issue that is fairly central in Alex Galarza’s article for @GradHacker. The student in question feared that their ideas may be more susceptible to being […]

  10. […] at Gradhacker, we’ve written about online identity and the use of Twitter before. In this post, I thought I’d tackle less of the “how to […]

  11. […] departmental, institutional, and online discussions among scholars. For a review of this issue, see GradHacker’s recent post on access to dissertations. But that’s not the topic of this post. My question […]

  12. Alex Galarza says:

    Another update: this thread was carried into a session at THATCamp AHA which generated a call for the AHA to consider how we value digital scholarship and openness. That co-authored call to the AHA is now published at the Journal of Digital Humanities:


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