Dissertation Embargoes and Publishing Fears: Introducing A Three-Part Series for Humanities and Social Science Scholars
This article lays the groundwork for three in-depth essays on dissertation embargoes and academic publishing that will be featured on Dissertation Reviews in the coming weeks. The first installment is online now and can be found here. The second installment can be found here. The third and final installment can be found here.
When 35 professors were asked if they advise their graduate students on whether or not to embargo, i.e., delay the release of, their dissertations, 33 of them (94 percent) said yes. Yet, when 350 graduate students were asked the same question in reverse, 63 percent of them said they received no advice on the matter whatsoever from their advisors. Put another way:
One thing that most academics agree upon is that dissertation embargoes are an important, sensitive topic with potentially substantial ramifications for junior scholars’ careers, most piercingly for academic publishing. Yet graduate students are making largely uninformed decisions about dissertation embargoes. All the while their advisors think that they have already addressed these concerns. This gap between perception and reality is leaving junior scholars with few places to turn for substantive, informed discussions about how to beneficially manage the dissemination of their theses.
The dissertation or graduate thesis is a peculiar beast. At its most basic level, it is the major requirement for a PhD degree. The dissertation is the final example of student work that demonstrates mastery over a specific academic field for an audience of three to five committee members. At the same time, the dissertation is a stand-alone piece of scholarship that is almost certainly the most substantial academic work its author has produced to date and may define a junior scholar for years to come. Most frequently, the PhD thesis is a hefty project, easily running to 80,000 words or more. Increasingly in the internet age, the dissertation is available online for people to download and read at will.
For many academics, the increasing online availability of scholarship is an exciting development. In a preliminary survey run by Dissertation Reviews of 420 scholars, a full 78 percent agreed that “The internet is a tool for disseminating scholarly work,” and 73 percent concurred that “Academics ought to disseminate new scholarship to as wide of an audience as possible.” Despite their reputation as hermits in the Ivory Tower, most academics are thrilled by the prospect of being able to share the fruits of their labors easily and with a broad audience.
In the case of dissertations, however, scholarly enthusiasm for the virtues of online dissemination quickly wavers. In Dissertation Reviews’ survey, a majority of academics favor allowing newly minted PhDs to embargo their dissertations, i.e., to prevent their release in any online forum and/or in print, for up to six years. The American Historical Association (AHA) and other academic groups have called for policies that allow graduate students the option of embargoing.
The logic behind embargo is simple. To quote the AHA: “an increasing number of university presses are reluctant to offer a publishing contract to newly minted PhDs whose dissertations have been freely available via online sources.” All academics know the old adage: publish or perish. To add insult to injury, we are living in an age of evaporating tenure-track jobs, rising requirements for tenure, and increasingly fierce competition to get any academic position. It is not unusual in the United States, for example, for an assistant (tenure-track) professor to be hired with a first book (or at least book contract) already under her belt. Solid progress on a second book is increasingly expected for tenure at the top American institutions. Many junior scholars base their first book on their dissertation, and if they cannot publish that first book because they put the dissertation online, then, according to the standard narrative, their career may well be over before it has begun.
Given this bleak possibility, it is unsurprising that an increasing number of scholars are opting to embargo their dissertations. More than 30 percent of survey respondents reported embargoing their own dissertations. Yet a paltry 11 percent agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “I received adequate advice about whether to disseminate or embargo my dissertation.” In the absence of grounded information, many early career scholars are deciding to hold back their research based on hearsay, especially concerning future publishing prospects. The problem is that the core narrative of fears about publishing on which most dissertation embargoes are based is largely false.
Over the next few weeks, I will publish a series of three articles on Dissertation Reviews that offer an in-depth analysis of the history, risks, and benefits of disseminating and embargoing humanities and social science dissertations in the twenty-first century academy. The first article examines historical and current practices regarding “publishing” dissertations online (more on the need for scare quotes in that first article). The second article confronts head-on the fears about monograph publication that drive dissertation embargoes and interrogates whether those concerns hold any water. The final article lays out the case on both sides—for releasing and embargoing the dissertation—with the objective of equipping graduate students who are facing this decision with better information than is currently available.
The AHA released a statement on dissertation embargoes in 2013 (later supplemented by two follow-up pieces, found here and here). But that statement offered little supporting evidence and did not document the basis for the opinions being offered. By contrast, I have carefully researched my articles here and will be transparent about the sources of my information. My goal is not to outline a single plan for what everyone should do once their dissertation is complete. Rather, I seek to provide better information for making responsible, career-boosting decisions about how to handle disseminating one’s dissertation and publishing a revised version as a monograph.
In the spirit of Dissertation Reviews and its commitment to helping both junior and senior scholars by drawing attention to new, cutting edge research, I invite you to delve with me into the murky world of online repositories, academic publishing, and library acquisitions to learn about dissertation embargo practices and their true benefits and harms.
Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow
Department of Religious Studies
 Dissertation Reviews conducted an online survey January 27, 2015 – February 10, 2015. It was open to all academics currently at the graduate student level or above (undergraduates were excluded). Nearly 90 percent of respondents were ABD (“all but dissertation”) graduate students or have received their PhD and are currently teaching. 63 percent of respondents were currently affiliated with an American institution.