open access and dissertations in English and rhetoric

I’m catching up on this conversation following the American Historical Society’s policy statement recommending a six-year embargo on the digital, open access publication of dissertations. Collin Brooke has a good discussion of the matter.There was also a lengthy discussion on the WPA-List.  A couple of things strike me about this situation, and here I want to restrict my comments to my own disciplinary area, as clearly these matters are different in other fields.

  1. By default, anything that you write you own the copyright for, at least in the US. You have to agree to give that right away. As a graduate student, you agree that if you want to receive your doctoral degree that you will submit your dissertation to the university. What are the specific terms of the agreement that you have made? Do they include the university having the right to make your dissertation freely available online? This is a decision that you have made, at least in legal terms, and it is legal terms that are at stake here (as Latour would remind us).
  2. The same thing is true for tenure-line faculty. Our jobs are dependent upon publication and our disciplines, departments, and universities set the terms of that publishing–valuing some journals and presses over others, expecting a certain quantity of work, and so on. So I can choose to devote time to writing here, but that doesn’t mean that it will “count.”
  3. My layman’s understanding of the common law surrounding copyright is that copyright infringement is connected with the monetary value of the copyrighted property and the loss created by the infringement. Copyright is really about marketplace protections, which are, to be honest, a minimal concern in our discipline. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a principle here, but still there’s an incongruity here.
  4. The “market value” of published English and rhetoric scholarship, at least from the author’s perspective, is in terms of the job market rather than the book or journal market. On some level, as a discipline, we have decided, somewhat arbitrarily, that scholars need to publish monographs. The value in the book is in the tenure it brings. We have locked ourselves into publishing books when that doesn’t really have to be the case. In addition to objecting to institutions requiring open access dissertations we might equally object to institutions requiring closed access book publication.

Not that things will work out this way, but it strikes me that the various roles of authors, editors, presses, libraries, booksellers, and readers that were invented in the last few centuries do not necessarily need to be preserved in that exact form. Not only is that an obvious observation; it’s a belated one. What we require are means to compose, disseminate, access, and consume media, and these acts may be so temporally compressed as to become a single process: the comment on a blog post, tweeted out to followers, does this. I would agree that the roles presses play in improving a manuscript are valuable and necessary, as are the roles of librarians and booksellers in archiving texts and making them accessible. Right now, many of these roles (not the librarians) depend on the market value of the books, but does it have to be that way? For a discipline, like English, that is so often critical of consumer capitalism, it is ironic that its academic judgements about its own work are derived from the market. There is some presumed connection between the intellectual merit of a work and its publication, but that’s not the case with open access dissertations.

But let’s say the money flowed in a different direction as a subvented publication. I submit my proposal. The publisher accepts it provisionally. I submit my manuscript and we go through the conventional editorial process. I pay some set fee. Maybe my university supports part of it. Then the book is freely available online. If e-book or paper copies are sold, then we have some additional arrangement for that. (I don’t accept the blanket premise that a text that is available for free online won’t sell.) Now university libraries don’t need to purchase these scholarly monographs (possibly opening up some funds for supporting my publication). And I don’t need to buy my colleagues books either. In fact, why not make subvention of monograph publication part of the start-up package at a university that expects book for publication in the humanities? After all, start-up costs for new faculty in the sciences run tens of thousands of dollars (for new labs and such). The typical English prof settles for a new computer, some travel funds, and maybe a few other things. If the university is going to give me half a year’s salary to go on sabbatical and write a book, why not kick in a few grand more?

I really think the answer lies in some blind faith in the market realities of academic publishing. Perhaps the thinking would be that if we subvented every prof’s manuscript then they’d all get published (gasp!). How would we make cheap and easy decisions about who is elite then? The concern might be that if presses weren’t financially at risk publishing books then they wouldn’t make choices based on intellectual merit; they’d publish anything. OK, but can’t we already see how weird it is to believe that financial risk leads to making good intellectual choices? What we are really after here is a reputation economy, but there are other ways to do that: reviews, pageviews, downloads, citations, links, etc.

So, for me, the bottom line is that the problem with open access dissertations is how they potentially interfere with our ability to have faith in connection between a presses economic decisions and its evaluation of the intellectual merit of the material. The real problem lies in the second half of that sentence. In principle, no one should be forced to share their work. In practice, all academics enter into such agreements, to varying degrees, as part of the work we do. The real question is why we maintain these arrangements against virtually everyone’s interest.

  • Jason H

    Great post, thanks. I just defended my dissertation a few weeks ago in English and had to think about this. It might be different where I am in Canada, but unless you explicitly request otherwise, your thesis is uploaded to archives Canada where it’s freely accessible online. I basically signed a form saying they could do with it as they please, though if they ever sell it (ha!) then I get some royalties. I retain copyright etc.. A couple of friends are not going this route and will “restrict circulation” as it’s obviously much tougher to monetize the work if it’s freely available.

    I don’t know though, maybe it’s because I’m still in the mindset of a poor graduate student but I like the idea of easy and (relatively) free access to information. It’s just the principle of it I guess. Academic institutions, including journals, have always been about scholarship and money, but it seems that money is increasingly winning out. That just doesn’t sit right with me. Nevertheless, it’s absolutely correct that my decision to keep it open devalues it, both financially and in terms of “respect.” It would look much nicer on my CV as a monograph from a reputable publisher. I like your suggestions here to bridge that gap a bit.

    I’m hoping to build on the work from my thesis so that I’m not repeating myself too much. Luckily my field (game studies) is changing quickly enough that half of my diss is already out of date. Anyway, it’s a dilemma and I appreciated this post because it’s something I thought about a great deal.