Should PhD Students Embargo Their Dissertations?


Most universities offer PhD students the option to embargo their dissertations, usually for up to two years. During the embargo, access to the official dissertation is restricted. Its content is not placed online, and if someone wanted to read it, they would likely have to go to the library of the university at which the degree was earned and view the hard copy while there.

A graduate student in English, AJ Gold, recently asked on Twitter whether or not to embargo her dissertation, and I thought it would be worth putting the question to Daily Nous readers.

Why embargo?

One reason is to keep one’s publishing options open. Some people worry that publishers won’t be interested in publishing articles and books whose primary content is already accessible to its prospective customers. This concern was voiced in a statement put out by the American Historical Association several years ago arguing that students be permitted to embargo their dissertations for up to six years:

Because many universities no longer keep hard copies of dissertations deposited in their libraries, more and more institutions are requiring that all successfully defended dissertations be posted online, so that they are free and accessible to anyone who wants to read them.  At the same time, however, 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.  Presumably, online readers will become familiar with an author’s particular argument, methodology, and archival sources, and will feel no need to buy the book once it is available.  As a result, students who must post their dissertations online immediately after they receive their degree can find themselves at a serious disadvantage in their effort to get their first book published; it is not unusual for an early-career historian to spend five or six years revising a dissertation and preparing the manuscript for submission to a press for consideration. During that period, the scholar typically builds on the raw material presented in the dissertation, refines the argument, and improves the presentation itself. Thus, although there is so close a relationship between the dissertation and the book that presses often consider them competitors, the book is the measure of scholarly competence used by tenure committees…

History has been and remains a book-based discipline, and the requirement that dissertations be published online poses a tangible threat to the interests and careers of junior scholars in particular.  Many universities award tenure only to those junior faculty who have published a monograph within six years of receiving the PhD.  With the online publication of dissertations, historians will find it increasingly difficult to persuade publishers to make the considerable capital investments necessary to the production of scholarly monographs.

Though the authoring of books is more central to advancement of the careers of historians than it is to the careers of philosophers, books are still quite important in philosophy, and so similar questions arise for us. In a previous post, Peter Momtchiloff of Oxford University Press said that one of the main reasons to reject a manuscript is that it “sounds more like a dissertation than a book,” but I suspect that had more to do with how the work was written and framed, and less that it contained conclusions argued for in the author’s dissertation. Most dissertations need a lot of revising before they’d make good books.

In a post at Dissertation Reviews, Audrey Truschke argues, based on conversations with editors at university presses, that “not embargoing one’s dissertation immediately upon deposit is unlikely to harm an early career scholar’s chances of landing a book contract.” In another post, she argues that “visibility in one’s field, the resulting professional opportunities, and the inherent value of openly sharing scholarly work” speak against dissertation embargoes.

Perhaps some of our friends at university presses could inform us as to whether worries about the availability of dissertations co-opting the market for books based on them affect their decisions about what to publish.

As for articles, I have never heard of an academic philosophy journal rejecting an article because it was based largely on a part of a dissertation. Have others?

(Thanks to Michael Spicher for bringing AJ Gold’s tweet to my attention.)

Tychogirl, “Unchangeable Dark”

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