By John Sherer

Last month I was invited to participate in a panel on Open Access at the annual American Historical Association meeting in Denver. One of my colleagues led their presentation with the astute comment that the way most historians react to OA is with apathy. After all, the economics of traditional monograph publishing work pretty well in history and the book is still the coin of the realm in this field. If OA is a solution to an economic crisis, then history should be the last place we need it, right?

More broadly, the discipline of history is wrestling with all things digital. To their credit, the AHA recently launched a new set of guidelines for the professional evaluation of digital scholarship. On the other hand, they’ve had what I would label a less progressive stance on the posting of dissertations on IR’s. They regrettably (although perhaps accurately) pointed to university presses as one of the key reasons for recommending embargoes, on the assumption that a press won’t publish a manuscript if an early version is freely available. I’ve tended to call bullshit on this notion, since that stance would beg the question, why are presses spending tens of thousands of dollars to transform and improve these works while publishing them if the first draft is all that most scholars need? I welcome scholars comparing dissertations to the finished books published by my press any day of the week. There’s no better way to see the value we add than going through this exercise.

But back to Denver, the panel drew a nice crowd although there was the occasional odd notion in the questions from the audience (“If you publish openly on the web where annotation can occur, how do you control the quality”?) revealing some confusion about the difference between content and formats. But overall, I was impressed with the dialog among scholars, publishers, and librarians.

I even presented a hypothetical model for how university presses might bring OA history monographs into the world (more on that in a future post). While I was neither pelted with tomatoes nor carried out as a conquering hero, it was clear that even within a relatively conservative field like history, the benefits associated with unfettered access to new scholarship is beginning to emerge.

To me this is an important step. When OA is described as a silver bullet for the broken business of monograph publishing (and it is broken, just less broken in history), then the debate gets muddied around issues of money, prestige, and resources. But when we frame it another way–there’s an alternative model that maximizes dissemination, discoverability, and reuse–then it doesn’t matter what we call it. Such a model isn’t a solution to any crisis as much it is a new and in many ways superior strategy for publishing the valuable work done by authors in partnership with scholarly presses.

Comments (3)

  1. I agree with your argument that the best reasons for promoting OA as an approach are not economic but mission-oriented: “to disseminate knowledg–far and wide,” in the famous words of Daniel Coit Gilman when he set up the Johns Hopkins Press back in the late 19th century. But I disagree with your argument against the AHA because it ignores the fact that libraries that subscribe to the ProQuest dissertation database have less incentive to buy a revised dissertation when funds are tight and they can purchase a new book that has no previous content available online. Some editors at some presses, concerned about sales, therefore are wary of considering revised dissertations. Generally, librarians have no way of knowing how different a revised dissertation is from the original, unless they took the trouble to compare the two versions, which of course they do not have the time to do. I did a study at Penn State of the sales of revised dissertations in Latin American Studies with other books in the field, and on average the revised dissertations sold around 25% fewer copies than the other books did. So there is some reason to suspect that some libraries may have asked their vendors to screen out revised dissertations from their approval plans. It is relatuvely easy to determine whether a book is based on a dissertation because the author usually reveals that information in the acknowledgments to thesis advisers.

    1. Sandy, Blocking “revised dissertations” from approval plans has indeed been longstanding practice at many institutions, so what gets purchased is hand-picked, but I think that policy should be revisited. In the past, I think that had less to do with the idea that the publication was available another way (via a dissertation database) and more to do with quality (as many revised dissertations could use a lot more revision….a quality issue). I’m very interested in your study and will look for it.

  2. I recommend the following study, which draws the conclusion same as what you suspect – that editors/publisher are more interested in creating content *derived* from theses and dissertations:
    Nancy H. Seamans, (2003) “Electronic theses and dissertations as prior publications: what the editors say”, Library Hi Tech, Vol. 21 Iss: 1, pp.56 – 61 available OA via GSU’s institutional repository

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