Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Pretend Fights

Dueling Duo

Dueling Duo by peapodsquadmom

There's been a lot of consternation of late over a controversial policy statement put out by the American Historical Association recommending a 6 year embargo for dissertations of history grads. The rationalization for this recommendation, according to the statement, was the practice of university presses refusing to accept revised dissertations. And it's a very hot controversy indeed, including a call for the shaming of university presses who do this.

Now, that's kind of the barebones of the controversy. Professional organization seeks to protect its most vulnerable members from the consequences of a perceived publishing practice. But let's tear this controversy apart, maybe we could learn something from its pieces. Let's first look at the AHA's concern. Do university presses avoid publishing revised dissertations? On the surface it might appear they do, but I'm not sure that's actually true. Instead because university presses think that libraries won't buy books they can determine to be revised dissertations, when most university presses find one they want to publish, they scrub all signs of it being a revised dissertation from the manuscript. Remove the thanks to their committee and advisors in the acknowledgements, change the title, pull the anecdotes about grad school from the foreword, that sort of thing, but they still publish it—if it's a great piece of scholarship. Is the fact that it's in an electronic repository a factor? I don't think so, as long as it can be distanced from that original work. If the association with the dissertation will clearly impact sales I think it would be a factor, but if that impact can be mitigated through omission, as it typically is, I don't think it does impact sales. Either way, the upshot of this is university presses pretend they don't publish revised dissertations, but actually they do.

But that brings us to the next part to consider. Do libraries avoid the purchase of revised dissertations? I think they do, but if you ask them they will frequently tell you they do not. What I do know is that their largest supplier would like us to tell them if a book is a revised dissertation because it would appear that supplier thinks they do avoid revised dissertations. So perhaps libraries pretend they buy dissertations or their supplier pretends they don't, I'm not quite sure on that one, but it's not a risk that seems worth taking.

So, because those two parties—the university presses and their customer libraries—aren't really sure what the other is doing, the AHA has, frankly pragmatically, advised their junior faculty members to hide the fact that they have written a dissertation. I think the problem with the AHA's policy is that it assumes university presses are doing something that most are only pretending to do, and that libraries are doing something they may or may not actually be doing, and it encourages their junior faculty members, by limiting access to their graduate work, to also pretend they haven't written a dissertation.

So, what's at the core of this problem? Perceptions? Yeah, that's a big factor. But the biggest problem is the market. I think most university presses would love to not have to care about the market for the serious scholarship they publish, but as long as their home and administrative institutions (which in some cases is ironically their university library) require that they pay for the majority of what they do with sales revenue, then we will all continue to have to live with this charade and simply because of the market for the content, not because of the quality or origin of the content. We all need to stop pretending. And we need to stop allowing the market to have such a large voice in both the accessibility of the content, and even what gets published, and by extension, who gets tenure and why. Until university presses and the scholarship they produce aren't dependent on capricious market forces, this kind of response to uncertainty will continue. And frankly this pretending is child's play compared to the market impact that Demand Driven Acquisitions is about to have on university press editorial decisions. Then we'll limit what we publish to what's predictably popular at libraries, and no amount of pretending can change that impact on History.

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