American Historical Association is encouraging a 6-year “embargo” of history PhD dissertations, designed to keep the dissertations off the web for many years.

While this proposal sounds really frustrating (undermining the proliferation of ideas and all that), AHA appears to have a fairly good point. As the association explains:

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.

It’s becoming difficult for historians to get their first books published (and publication is very important to academic careers) because their work is already available online to anyone who’s interested in reading it.


Now, more and more university libraries are archiving dissertations in digital form, dispensing with the paper form altogether. As a result, an increasing number of graduate programs have begun requiring the digital filing of a dissertation. Because no physical copy is available, making the digital one accessible becomes the only option. However, online dissertations that are free and immediately accessible make possible a form of distribution that publishers consider too widespread to make revised publication in book form viable.

Putting the dissertation online seems like an efficient solution but, as the association points out, it’s actually efficient only for the graduate programs; it’s pretty disastrous for the actual PhD graduates.

Or it might be anyway. As University of California, Davis history professor Eric Rauchway points out, the evidence here is pretty limited. “Have publishers made threats to publish fewer monographs because the underlying dissertations were available online?” We don’t really know.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer