Those who deny access to history are condemned repeatedly

One of the most disappointing aspects of the push for open access to scholarly works has been the role of scholarly societies – who have, with precious few exceptions, emerged as staunch defenders of the status quo.

In the sciences – where most of the open access battles have been fought – anti-OA stances from societies have been driven by the desire to protect revenue streams from society-run journals. I had always hoped that the humanities – less corrupted by money as they are – would embrace openness in ways that science has been slow to do. Ahh for the naïveté of youth.

At my own institution – UC Berkeley – efforts to pass a fairly tepid “open access” policy were thwarted by humanities scholars who felt a requirement that faculty at public institution make their work publicly available represents some kind of assault on academic freedom. But that is nothing compared to an absurd statement released this week by the American Historical Association.

The gist of the AHA’s statement is this: they want universities that require their recently minted PhD’s to make copies of their theses freely available online to grant a special exemption to historians, allowing them to embargo access to their work for up to six years.

The ostensible reasons for this embargo request is to defend the ability of junior faculty to get their theses published in book form by a scholarly press – something they claim online access precludes. Here is their explanation:

By endorsing a policy that allows embargos, the AHA seeks to balance two central though at times competing ideals in our profession–on the one hand, the full and timely dissemination of new historical knowledge; and, on the other, the unfettered ability of young historians to revise their dissertations and obtain a publishing contract from a press.  We believe that the policy recommended here honors both of these ideals by withholding the dissertation from online public access, but only for a clearly stated, limited amount of time, and by encouraging other, more traditional forms of availability that would insure a hard copy of the dissertation remains accessible to scholars and all other interested parties.

They are basically arguing that, because of the tenure practices of universities, the history literature should remain imprisoned in print form – and that scholars without access to print copies should be denied timely access to this material - unless you think six years is timely.

What really galls me about this is that the AHA takes the way that academia works as a given. Yes, IF university presses refuse to publish books based on theses available online, and IF universities require such books for tenure, then young historians whose theses are made available online without an embargo are at a disadvantage. I’ve heard this from lots of young humanities scholars – and while I would dispute the extent to which it’s true, people really feel this way.

But shouldn’t the response to this sad situation by the leading organization representing academic historians – many of whom are in leadership positions at universities across the country – be to, you know, actually lead? Instead of a reactionary call for embargoes, they SHOULD have said something like this:

The way scholars in our field are evaluated is broken – so broken, in fact, that a young scholar in our field feels immense pressure to hide their work from public view for years so that they can cater to antiquated policies from our presses and our universities. The inability of our field to take full advantage of the internet as a means of dissemination should be a wakeup call for all of us in the field – and the AHA is committed to using our pull, and that of our members, to reform our presses and alter the rules for tenure at our institutions as rapidly as possible.

Shame on the AHA for being yet another scholarly society to let down the scholars they represent.

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  1. Ian Holmes
    Posted August 5, 2013 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    I have to ask if you’ve ever bought a popular history book by a recently tenured academic? I have; multiple times, but my favorite is probably “The Forbidden Best-sellers of Pre-revolutionary France” by Robert Darnton.

    These books are commercially successful publishing ventures, a fascinating window into scholarly history for novices like me, and an enormous credit to their authors as academics performing outreach. The idea that departments should just grab their ankles and comply with a top-down edict that all such future publications should go through approved channels, excluding any commercial publishers who operate independently of state support, is ridiculous on its face. I’m entirely unsurprised that humanities departments balked at this.

    Why should a humanities professor view the process of commercializing their work in printed form any differently from the way a science or engineering professor views the process of commercializing their work as a startup?

  2. Rudolf Cesaretti
    Posted October 4, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    You’re right about the AHA needing to fight for young historians’ publishing rights even if the content is online. Yet the primary reason why the AHA is attempting an embargo here is because of the print-bias of the discipline, which is forged from the sheer quantity of pseudo-scholarly historical bullshit available free online. You blogged about the peer review problems in Science; the quantity of this stuff is to the power of ten. There are a plethora of websites on nearly every historical topic made by amateurs that contain myriad fallacies, etc. I work for the Evolution Institute on the Seshat Database, and it is next to impossible to find worthy historical scholarship online for free. For this reason, nobody doing good historical scholarship ever begins with an internet search…. they always look for published material in journal databases (JSTOR etc.) or do library research. As such, most history PhDs going into academia try to publish their thesis in print form–otherwise no other historians will ever find it! You’re still correct that the AHA needs to try to correct the publishing problem, but until that time most scientists doing historical work know better than to find their data online.