Open as a Value

I have watched the #AHAGATE with fascination. You can read about it at Open History,, as well as the blogs of a host of colleagues.

Among the broader perspectives that I see is missing is a discussion of power (alluded to on Mills Kelly’s EdWired, which is a must read) and openness as a value in its own right.

Let’s start with openness as a value.  The AHA often weighs in on the value of openness of archives. To wit, “Beyond the interests of historical researchers stand a wide variety of civic-minded Georgians who depend on open access to archives. Teachers, lawyers, real estate developers, leaders of neighborhood associations–all rely not only on the vital records housed in the Georgia Archives, but on the expert advice of its archivists.”  Note that there are larger questions at work here about state institutions and their obligations in a Democracy. But, regardless, the point here is clear. Openness is a value that historians support, even in the context of economic crises and the changes wrought by the digital age.

So my question: If open access to archives is important, then why isn’t open access to scholarship?

The main objection of the AHA to openness is that too much of it will diminish the print publication of ideas (in books, but also as expressed elsewhere in journals.) The AHA claims that university presses won’t publish books based on dissertations that are online. They also have expressed concern about the cost models for scholarly journals, such as the American Historical Review, noting that subscriptions declined when it was made available on JSTOR, which is not really open at all (because it sits behind a paywall.) This, the AHA claims, will harm scholars because we need books to get promoted and tenured.

Even the least careful scholar can see this for what it is: a naked attempt to preserve the power of the AHA. Indeed, this position is exactly consistent with the AHA’s previous statements about the digital age:

Thus it is incumbent on the AHA to both understand and utilize all the cutting-edge possibilities of these new technologies, while transferring its traditional role as gatekeeper and authority for the discipline to this new medium.(I borrowed this quote and sentiment from Mills Kelly; see

I have sympathy for the position of the AHA, Universities, and other traditional bastions of cultural authority. After all, having earned a PhD is evidence of my claim on that power. But, if, as scholars, our only claim to authority is based on an eroding power structure, and not our ideas, then we should get out of the business.

Now, I want to see books preserved. I love books. But, does the publication of dissertations online (or any expression of our scholarship in print or digital form) really harm the interests of publishers?  I would argue no, which is consistent with the evidence about the publication process and the statements of at least one prominent publisher.  Also, let’s be clear about the challenges facing academic publishing. They do not come from dissertations being available online. Indeed, the challenges facing universities presses and academic book publishers began well before the digital revolution because the economic model of academic books is flawed. Really, selling 1000 high-priced hard cover books to academic libraries (but not to the public) is hardly a model for economic sustainability, not to mention for the dissemination of knowledge.  Academic and historical journals face these very same economic problems, well before the digital revolution, and university presses have been scrambling to find ways to remain cost effective. And, of course, the expansion of the digital era has continued to exacerbate these long-standing problems.

I also find anecdotal claims about university presses not publishing work that has been online or in other formats to miss an important point in the context of this debate. Namely, university presses (and a small number of peer reviewers) possess an extraordinary amount of power in the present system–so much so that their presence actually distorts and diminishes the interest of authors and historians.  To wit, most university press contracts ask authors to assign that copyright over to the press. Presently, entry-level scholars (i.e. untenured, contingent, unemployed, underemployed, or in an alternative career) have little recourse when confronted with such contracts. Likewise, first-time authors lack the ability to challenge university presses to publicize and promote their work.  Similar situations occur in publishing in journals as well, where the time from submission to publication can be measured in years, not months, and power rests almost entirely with the journals. (By the way, with book publishing the times from submission to review(s) to publication often are embarrassingly long.)

Indeed, in academic publishing, the relation between author and publisher is almost entirely assymetrical, especially for first-time authors.

(Incidentally, I agree with Adam Crymble’s point that knowledge has a real cost (i.e. it is not free.)  But, I would argue that assymetrical power relations of academic publishing as presently conceived actually asks huge concessions from authors (and first-time authors especially.) Indeed, when presses ask for our copyrights, and seek to gain economic sustainability through selling our work, they are essentially engaged in transferring our investments in research to themselves.  And, increasingly presses ask authors to pay for the costs of images, indexing, and even poor copy-editing. Thus, if the problem with open publishing is that it puts too much of the cost of the research on the individual author, the same is also true of contemporary academic publishing. And, more to the point, if a potential author does not work in an R1 setting–i.e. most historians–the present publishing model works even more strongly against their interest. See

Additionally, in his defense of the AHA, William Cronon, claimed that making dissertations available online opened junior scholars to possible theft of their ideas. This is not so at all. When an author makes their work available online–whether a dissertation, a website, whatever–they don’t lose copyright. To the contrary, they likely can stipulate the terms of that availability in very clear terms.  And, in no case, does availability of something online allow others to take those ideas without citation.

In short, dissertations are copyright protected scholarship. They are the scholars intellectual property, whether they are online, or not.  So, no scholar should worry about anyone appropriating their idea because they put a dissertation online. (One could argue, in fact, that the presence of the online version might actually offer protection from such appropriation.)

University presses should recognize that the process of scholarly publishing adds value to a work (or, at least, it should add value._ If they are concerned that the value-added is not sufficient to warrant publication of a dissertation, they either have to review their economic model or change their standards for publication. Or, as was the case with one scholar, Jennifer Guiliano, they could ask the scholar to embargo the work once its been accepted for publication. (Incidentally, as Guiliano points out in her case, the openness of her dissertation may well have been a positive.)

As for the AHA, if the AHA wants to protect junior scholars (defined broadly, not narrowly as the AHA would have it), then there are many things it could do. For example, such protection could include a demand that university presses should judge submissions based on their intellectual value, and that members and history departments allow for multiple paths to tenure and promotion (other than the book.) And, finally, the AHA could take a consistent position vis-a-vis openness. It is an important value; it should not be undermined.

With openness will come new challenges, but it is best we face those challenges head on rather than by burying our head in the sand–or embargoing our intellectual treasures.


Leave a Reply