Do not fear open access. Embrace it!

Guest post by Rebecca Anne Goetz

In the recent controversy over the American Historical Association’s statement on open access dissertations, I found myself reliving an old argument about how scholars do research and share their work. The advent of both the internet and the social media tools that facilitate scholarly communication online have left our rather traditional professional associations scrambling to figure out how to respond to the vast changes in how we work and how we publish. The historian in me, of course, looks for past examples of how technology has changed the way we work—often for the better. And in the controversy over open access, I remembered the blog hysteria of 2005.

In 2003, I started a blog. It was a crazy hodgepodge of a blog; I wrote about politics, cats, and my dissertation. Initially, I was pseudonymous, but later I accidentally outed myself to the world, with no consequences except that other scholars with suggestions about my dissertation could email me directly instead of leaving a comment. I liked blogging about my dissertation. I worked out awkward problems, shared documents, and tried out interpretations on an appreciative and engaged audience. You might imagine my surprise, though, when in 2005 I went on the academic job market and suddenly everyone thought my blog was a huge liability.

That summer, an academic going by the pseudonym “Ivan Tribble” wrote a column in the Chronicle of Higher Education warning of doom to all job seekers who chose to also blog. Tribble indicted blogs for not being peer-reviewed and therefore also illegitimate as forms of disseminating scholarly knowledge. The response to Tribble’s (rather inane) column in higher education hiring circles was pretty dire. I went to a forum for job candidates that fall during which the facilitator begged us to delete everything about ourselves from the internet and to never, ever post pictures of our cats. In other words, the anecdotal experience of one person who could not even share his name with the world suddenly became concrete evidence that within the blogging world, the sky was falling. The rumor spread: blogging damaged one’s chances at an academic job.

One might call this the blog hysteria of the mid-00s. (I responded to Tribble’s nonsense here). The blog panic passed. I first got one job, and then another, and now blogs are so commonplace as to be passé. In fact, many graduate students now blog, and blogs might even be assets on the job market. I haven’t heard similar complaints about Twitter or Facebook. Academia seems to have gotten used to the idea of social media as a medium for scholarly exchange. What was initially unfamiliar has become standard, and perhaps even expected.

The recent kerfuffle over the American Historical Association’s statement on open access dissertations reminded me of this episode in 2005. Underlying the AHA’s statement is a hysteria similar to that generated by Tribble’s column. Based on rumors and innuendo (and, in the case of William Cronon’s follow-up column, “off the record” statements by publishers and editors), there is now a widespread belief that allowing one’s dissertation to be available via open access will prevent one from ever getting a book contract (and therefore a job and/or tenure). The only way to protect oneself is to embargo one’s dissertation for a period of up to six years. Fear prevents rational conversation about what open access is and how newly-minted PhDs can benefit from it.

Open access strikes me as not that different from previous systems that allowed dissertations to be available via microfilm and later through ProQuest’s database. Open access cuts out the ProQuest middle man (and the fees paid by libraries to access material) and allows universities to make dissertations publicly available online. Jason M. Kelly has written an excellent short history (on a blog, no less) of open access in the historical profession that gives a good overview of the OA movement and explains why many in the humanities are advocates of OA. What open access isn’t, of course, is an attempt to seize the intellectual property of dissertators, nor is it a tool to facilitate plagiarism. Nor is open access an attempt to prevent new PhDs from pursuing a career in academia. As Kelly points out, the evidence that publishers choose not to work with scholars whose dissertations are available via open access is very weak indeed, perhaps even non-existent. (I do agree that embargoing a dissertation is a good idea when classified material was used, or potentially sensitive oral interviews were conducted, but this will affect a very small proportion of history dissertations every year.)

We do have anecdotal evidence that open access dissertations actually facilitate the traditional publication process. In a cogent response to the AHA’s policy statement, editors at Harvard University Press pointed out the obvious: if you can’t find a dissertation, you can’t sign a dissertation. HUP’s position on open access mirrored my own experience with Johns Hopkins University Press, which published my 2012 revision of my dissertation The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race. I ended up submitting my manuscript to JHU Press after American history editor Bob Brugger had read the dissertation and sought me out at a conference to talk about it. I was never told not to mention in the acknowledgements that my book had once been a dissertation. Instead, Bob gave me lots of good advice about how to turn my dissertation into a book. A book, I might add, that is selling well enough that I got a royalty check about six months after it came out. But the material point is this: Bob found my dissertation, signed it, and published it because he had access to it. Had I embargoed the dissertation, it would have been that much harder to find a publisher.

Indeed, I fear that embargoing a dissertation might result in real harm to new PhDs just starting out. Within a year of my dissertation becoming available, I ran into people at conferences who had read it (I have a vivid memory of my friend Ed Blum bounding up to me and announcing that he just LOVED my dissertation and he had so much fun reading it, and oh by the way five pages were missing from the middle of it). By the time my contract came up for renewal in 2009, I was able to show numerous citations other historians had made to my dissertation. If I had embargoed the dissertation, many historians would not have had access to my work. As scholars we are supposed to speak to one another, and our written work is supposed to start conversations. Embargoing prevents good conversations from ever getting started.

Rather than having a conversation based on fear and lack of concrete information, or, as I like to call it, a Tribble conversation, here’s what the historical profession should be talking about. We should be asking ourselves why we are so far behind in the open access movement. We should be looking at universities that have open access policies and figuring out how to disseminate historical knowledge using those policies, rather than trying to circumvent them. Imagine if the AHA had decided to look into building an arXiv-like network for historians, instead of trying to get around open access policies! (arXiv is a forum for scientists to share new work and works in progress—and it does not seem to have inhibited scholarly publishing in those disciplines at all.) We should be thinking about how to respond to the challenge of changes in the publishing industry, not with fear, but with ideas about how to make open access work for recent graduates. The question the AHA’s statement should have asked is this: how do we embrace OA and make it into an advantage for our discipline?

goetzRebecca Anne Goetz is an associate professor of history at New York University and the author of The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Raceher first book. She blogs infrequently at and tweets quite regularly from @historianess.