Phantom plagiarists, academic boogeymen, and open access fears that go bump in the night

Some of you may have read about the recent call from the American Historical Association to Ph.D.-granting universities to permit their recently credentialed historians to leave their dissertations off-line for six years in order to give the junior scholar time to revise the dissertation for publication.  The AHA’s reasoning?

History has been and remains a book-based discipline, and the requirement that dissertations be published online poses a tangible threat to the interests and careers of junior scholars in particular.  Many universities award tenure only to those junior faculty who have published a monograph within six years of receiving the PhD.  With the online publication of dissertations, historians will find it increasingly difficult to persuade publishers to make the considerable capital investments necessary to the production of scholarly monographs.

I read through the AHA statement, the New York Times article on the subject, and a blog post by Berkeley biologist and open access advocate Michael Eisen (courtesy of Comradde PhysioProffe).  I agree entirely with Eisen.  The AHA position is wrongheaded, although I’ve got some different reasons to disagree with the call to embargo disseratations than Eisen has.  Let me explain:

First of all, when I heard about this controversy, it sounded to me like some of the more paranoid fantasies from graduate school that circulate among young scholars masquerading as advice:  did you hear about the grad student whose brilliant research was totally scooped by a senior scholar sitting in the audience when ze gave a paper and innocently shared a copy of it with the senior scholar, who then went on to steal hir research and publish it to great acclaim?  Didn’t you know that you need to worry about this at every conference you attend?  No?  These are stories of scholarly skullduggery that are famous as grad school urban legends, but I’ve never actually seen or heard of anything like this happening to any specific person in 23 years.  All variations on this story have the same implied moral, which is that scholarly generosity and engagement is foolish, and secrecy and aggressive self-interest is prudent or even virtuous.  And that seems to me to be the exact opposite of how to succeed as a professional historian.

So to my ears, the fear that university presses will see an electronic copy of a dissertation as a reason to decline publishing a quality monograph seems equally paranoid, for at least few reasons:

  1. There is no evidence that this is even a real problem.  The Times article makes this very clear, which makes me wonder why they published the story in the first place:  “Peter M. Berkery Jr., the executive director of the Association of American University Presses, said he spent a day quickly learning about the issue, which had not been on his radar, and came away confused by the stir.  He said he spoke to 15 heads of university presses, and “I haven’t found one person who has said if it is available open access, we won’t publish it.” Citing his own experience at Oxford University Press, he said that a book was necessarily an entirely different work from the dissertation that laid its groundwork, and is judged on its own terms.” 
  2. Even university presses these days like to pretend that they’re not publishing revised dissertations.  This is a weird newish fetish.  I was specifically warned against using the word “dissertation” at all in the acknowledgements of my book,even though my book was a totally new project and not based at all on my dissertation,because (as I was told by the copyeditor) “we don’t want readers to think this project was originally a dissertation.”  Because. . . ?  Because it’s not, but I didn’t see why I needed to pretend that I hadn’t been to graduate school.
  3. If you’ve written a dissertation, it’s already available in hard copy to anyone with access to interlibrary loan or a credit card and the University Microfilms International website or phone number, even if it’s not (yet) downloadable on WorldCat, which it probably is if it was completed in this century.  I’m amazed that no one has yet pointed this out, but the point of the dissertation is that it’s an original piece of research that’s meant to be shared.  Dissertations are published research, albeit they have traditionally not circulated as widely as books or journal articles.  That’s why back in the twentieth century, I had to show up with two hard copies of my dissertation printed on high-quality cotton rag paper to have the Margin Lady measure my margins and approve the dissertation for 1) shelving a copy in the university’s own library, and 2) sending a copy to University Microfilms International in Ann Arbor, Michigan so it could be microfilmed and printed on-demand for anyone who wanted to buy a copy.  To me, the availability of dissertations digitally is merely a convenience.  It’s much easier to download whatever dissertation I want to look at, but I can use these twentieth-century technologies to get my hands on it.
  4. If your concern is plagiarism (per the aforementioned urban legend), get over yourself.  If you’ve written a dissertation based on archival research and creative analysis, and you’ve gone to the trouble of finding new documents or unearthing long-neglected sources, it will be nearly impossible to steal or otherwise plagiarize your work.  In other words, if you’ve been a good graduate student–put the time in in the archives, given a few conference papers, or even published an article or two–your work is more than likely perfectly safe, because stealing or plagiarizing it will be so obviously traceable to you.   Alternatively, if you’ve not been very good at your job so far–you’ve chosen a well-trod-upon subject, using the same boring (and usually published) sources like The Papers of (Your Favorite U.S. President Here), especially if you’re writing about the so-called Founding Fathers or something that every trade press and journalist-“historian” has already published a thousand books on in the twenty-first century alone:  well then, I suppose you’re entitled to your paranoia.  (But how can you claim that your analysis is truly original anyway?  To me, it seems both easier and more prudent to find a new subject and do some aggressive archival research.)
  5. Finally, how much time and effort do you think other people put into thinking about you and/or your dissertation?  Srsly.  If you’re lucky, your dissertation advisor read every page and gave you substantial comments on the whole thing, but honestly:  she’s probably the only one, and if she was that faithful and conscientious, count yourself lucky, because not all advisors are like this.  There are peer-reviewed books that have been out for more than a decade that I haven’t read yet.  (This means that I can continue to think of them as “new books.”  It’s a coping strategy.)  I can barely keep my own career together–do you really think your colleagues in the profession have either the time or energy to do you in, even if they truly wanted to?

This whole issue calls to mind something Jonathan Rees has written on his blog about MOOCs and online ed to the effect that “if you can be replaced by a computer, then you should be.”  If someone can plagiarize your dissertation, then you haven’t written a very original dissertation.  But even if I’m wrong, don’t you want your dissertation to be widely available so that you can make your case more effectively to your colleagues or potential publishers?

Why hide your light under a bushel?  Like I said:  openness and generosity are the hallmarks of the successful scholar.  In both my professional and my personal life, I have never regretted generosity towards others.  To the contrary, I am haunted by the times I had the opportunity to be generous, and I chose to be ungenerous instead.  We’re talking a Crack Up-style “real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning” kind of regret. friends.  Don’t let it happen to you.

Instead, cast your seed widely.  Be flattered if someone downloads your dissertation–they might just like it enough to cite it, promote it, and even agree to serve as your press reviewer one day.  She might even ask you to apply for a job.  She might be asked to review your tenure file and agree to do it because she liked your dissertation so much.  You never know.

Your thoughts?

24 thoughts on “Phantom plagiarists, academic boogeymen, and open access fears that go bump in the night

  1. I can’t speak for all publishers but I can tell you that as the co-editor of a book series we do not accept manuscripts that are essentially available in some form online and we do not accept manuscripts if more than two chapters of that material have been published. This boils down to the politics and economics of the book business. We want you to submit mss so we won’t say, oh no, not if it is available online, because, frankly at university presses the administration is always asking, “how many submissions did you get?” So sure, you should submit. But, at the other end, we aren’t going to be able to sell your book if it is available in some other format. The librarians who purchase books have shrinking budgets and academic libraries are an important revenue source for academic publishers. Sure, you can get something on ILL (although authors should be able to embargo dissertations if they want) but ILL is not the same as simply clicking and reading. It is a tough tough job market for our junior colleagues and I would hate to make it tougher by having them learn the hard way that a lot of presses won’t take their books if the material is easily downloaded. And yes, when I go speak about my work as a series editor I make these points to my audience.


  2. The AHA policy is asking that recent Ph.D.s have the choice to keep their dissertations off-line. This seems entirely reasonable to me. I’m unclear why it has caused such controversy and agree with Bill Cronon:
    Although what Historiann says here sounds reasonable to me, there is also a utopian “all information should be free” strain in the internet world that I find problematic. It is the same language that is used to promote MOOCs and undermine the fact that our lectures are our intellectual property. Why not let Ph.D.s decide?


  3. In the UK, you can put an embargo on your dissertation for 3 years (this stops it being online and through ILL; it’s still on the shelf in the library), with the idea of giving people time to publish. Most UK uni presses, however, explicitly say they will not publish unrevised dissertations, and some even have a section on their forms where you have to describe what makes your book different from your dissertation. But, this isn’t new- the book is a different beast to the disseration.


  4. Who would publish an unrevised dissertation anyway? And why does simply making it more inconvenient and cumbersome to acquire satisfy the AHA that they are doing something to support junior scholars? I’m with Historiann.


  5. Thanks for the analysis and for the Michael Eisen link. I’d also like to suggest a couple of posts by Mills Kelly: – Where he criticized both the AHA council that made this decision and the AHA’s larger issues with open access. – Mills critiques both Bill Cronon and the revenue issues related to the AHA and the AHR.

    I think Mills can kind of come off as an open access jihadi. We are not going to make some fantastic leap into a a brave new world of open access publishing. Its going to take a long time to sort it out, and the AHA should be leading the change, not hiding its head in the sand.

    Asking universities and telling PhD students they should embargo their dissertations for six years counts as putting our collective heads in the sand. I was thrilled to find people who were citing my dissertation in their research! I think having it published by my degree granting university, on-line or in epub format would be way better than sending it off to proquest. Maybe more people would have read it, and I would have gotten more feedback to actually revise it into a book manuscript instead of using it as a doorstop in my office and working on other projects.


  6. Widgeon: thanks for that prompt. A number of people have assumed that the AHA was against open access dissertations tout court, but their statement is clear that they’re pro-choice for each student, not making a blanket statement. I tried to highlight that in my orig. post, but it’s worth repeating.

    This is from the second of the links that Matt left, and from a link therein from Harvard University Press that speaks to TR’s and swordfish’s points:

    Generally speaking, when we at HUP take on a young scholar’s first book, whether in history or other disciplines, we expect that the final product will be so broadened, deepened, reconsidered, and restructured that the availability of the dissertation is irrelevant. It’s only fair to note, though, that from a business perspective this position is at least in part a function of our size. As one of the country’s larger university presses, we have the capacity to ensure that we can help usher the project to that expanded state. We also have grown our sales and distribution channels to the extent that the possibility of X number of academic libraries rejecting the book based on access to the dissertation doesn’t have to be as great a factor for us as it may be for smaller UPs.

    HUP also makes another argument that supports mine, which is that availability of the diss. can be a GOOD think for a young scholar, not only or always a bad thing. (Not in the least!)

    In this whole discussion, academic publishers tend to be characterized as a strangely passive lot, sitting back, keeping the gate, waiting for scholars to come to us and meet our terms for entry. If that was ever the case, it certainly is no longer. An enormous part of a university press acquisitions editor’s job is to be out scouting for new voices, new ideas, and new inquiries. And as Distelberg notes, much of that scouting takes place online, where these conversations are happening. If you can’t find it, you can’t sign it.

    The way that ideas and arguments being available online relates to their author’s ability to publish them in book form has an analogue, perhaps, in the trade publishing world’s practice of finding popular blogs, tumblrs, and twitter accounts, signing the authors to contracts, and releasing books that may or may not just repackage in book form what’s already freely available online, sometimes with remarkable success.

    But, as the HUP comment notes, they work from a position of privilege and already huge sales to libraries–something that few UPs can count on (or coast on).


  7. A six-year embargo is too damned long. As you note, H’ann, UMI and institutional libraries will have access sooner although Proquest does have a 6-month to 2-year embargo option:

    I decided that my dissertation was enough publication of that particular research question and didn’t pursue it with a press. I knew it was read by scholars in farflung parts of the world pretty soon after I was finished which was proof enough to me that the material was out there. Thankfully, my tenure committee didn’t demand a book out of the dissertation, as well!


  8. I can see both the reasonableness (i.e. human-*natur*ableness) of the fears about early open access and the ultimate paranoia and silliness of those fears. I think what a lot of junior scholars are more afraid of than someone stealing their “work,” i.e. ideas and analysis–where the same technologies that make the stuff widely available make anything that could fairly be called “plagiarism” of it easily detectable–is someone stealing the raw materials, the cool treasures ingeniously tracked down (or lucked upon) in some obscure archive, and then taking them into print first. So that when Dr. Dutiful Revisor finally gets through the third set of readers reports and makes it to hard cover, it will look like *Ze* was the one who unoriginally used things someone else presumably excavated. Careers are not made or lost by coming in second in commenting on an ancient pipe roll or samizdat poem, but that particular aversion is the human nature part.

    The other thing is an aversion to appearing in public in even partial intellectual undress, looking like a clueless rookie. Because the graduate apprenticeship system does tend to tell people that even though they’ve just done something that only a sub-molecular fraction of the world’s population has ever done, it’s still a pretty dumb job they’ve done of it. If people want to send off to North Zeeb Road for a microfilm copy of the diss. they can, and if they end up at your graduate school and hunt through the stacks to find it, they do. But keeping the dissertation substantially hidden until you can re-dress it in more mature garb (hopefully in less than six years) seems like a reasonable trade off from that perspective.

    All that said, I think that immediate access and generosity is better. In the very old days (I’ve heard) the rhetorical trope in graduate programs was that an acceptable dissertation “should have no difficulty finding a publisher.” But “should” was the operative word, and the filing of the thing in Ann Arbor *was*, in fact, considered publishing it. I didn’t even copyright my dissertation. Nor did the federal government, which paid for most of the research and the very raw early “report” version of part of the text, copyright it. So I was free to do what I wanted with it, claiming authorship, not ownership. But so was anyone else, for a significant number of years, and nobody “stole” anything of it. A few people actually cited it. One scholar I know replaces the “Please do not cite, quote, or circulate” boilerplate on the title pages of seminar papers with “Cite with abandon…”

    My first professional history job was to write forty-some nominations to the National Register of Historic Places. I had never even heard of the National Register, or the National Historic Preservation Act, but a job was a job, and it led to more and better things. Now every last nomination has its own Wikipedia page! Some even incorporate the original forms, including the ones I got coffee-rings on, which I can still remember doing. It’s like a current cubicle-dweller years from now seeing their Angry Birds screen-caps or Rotisserie baseball draft choices posted on-line, with the angry boss just outside of webcam frame. The non-peer reviewed time-wasting interwebs have indeed changed everything. But when you change everything, nothing is changed.


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  10. Dissertations used to live in the twilight. Because they were harder to get they weren’t necessarily part of the literature or historiography. Some scholars did look for them, some didn’t. As a result, it was easy for some unscrupulous scholars to track them down use their archival work and interpretive ideas and publish them as their own. I know of instances where it has happened. Putting them online brings dissertations in from the cold (how many metaphors can I use?), so that now they ought to be part of a lit review and plagiarism as obvious as it is with old-fashioned published books. That being said, I can understand why some scholars might want to embargo their work, so that they can grow it up. When I published both my books, my editor did look at how much had been previously published and said it mattered as to whether they would take the mss. As they did take my msss. there is no way to test my editor’s claims.


  11. Ahhhh, Historiann, thank you for this! Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’ve had so many arguments with colleagues in the past few years in which the position against basic openness (and sensible humiity) is a farrago of half-understood notions taken from private sector propaganda about intellectual properly, unattractive get-offa-my-lawnism, wildly grandiose self-evaluations about originality, and not a small dose of Underpants Gnomes variety !!!! possible!!!! !!!profits!!! pie-in-the-skyism.

    Ugh. All of that being said, like probably every scholar ever, I feel that I have been plagiarized by colleagues. But it’s always been in a way that no set of rules could ever prevent, in the absence of some kind of Omniscient Objective Central Justice Committee, and which I’ve made my peace with via the old and true platitude about imitation as the sincerest form of flattery.


  12. As a grad student currently, I find the idea of embargoing anything kind of ridiculous and sad – don’t we WANT people to read our stuff? Isn’t the best way to get credit by putting it out there? I really appreciate your “always be generous” advice, Historiann, as I’ve encountered a bit of the “be careful who you talk to” advice, and I still feel a little nervous about sharing my “cool treasures” with people doing related research who aren’t as open or generous with me.

    On another note, though, I find it ridiculous and sad to think that this project we’re supposed to work on for years of our lives to “make a contribution” does not actually count for much beyond grad school. It’s not the same as a book, but if it’s not a valuable product in itself, why do we produce it?! (I’m one of those who’s not desperately in love with my dissertation, it was more of a shotgun wedding, so I look forward to finishing it and moving on to new questions. I do not want to revise it into a book.)


  13. I’m glad that AHA came down on the side of choice — obviously from this discussion no blanket rule could be appropriate. If I were choosing now, I would want my diss to be open access for the FIRST few years to get my voice out there, and then closed because as I revised and did more research I found the mistakes in my diss rather embarrassing. My book was a revision of my diss, but it was a complete revision, which I suspect is appropriate for most grad students transiting to more mature work.


  14. Thanks, everyone. Katherine, you’ll have to fill me in this summer about the cases of stolen research you know of. It’s interesting to me that you see sunshine as a more effective disinfectant/repellant for plagiarism than the proposed 6-year embargo. As you note, anyone who’s a working scholar knows how to get their hands on a dissertation.

    grumpy grad, we should talk about the wisdom of NOT revising your dissertation. Maybe I’ll write a post about the pros and cons of ditching your diss., as that’s what I did after publishing several articles out of it.

    The only case of plagiarism, or of systematic unacknowleged “borrowing” from another scholar’s work, that I know of in my field in recent years involved a 50-year old book, not a brand-new or newish dissertation. So that suggests that even publication can’t inoculate you from being ripped off, even if it takes 50 years. (We must ask: why did a press publish a book that was based largely on evidence and analysis from 50 years ago? That’s something the acqusitions editor and the peer reviewers have to live with as much as the author.)

    The book so nice they published it TWICE?


  15. Dear grumpy grad: the dissertation shows that you can do original research, structure an argument, situate it in the literature and take a project to completion. That’s no mean feat — ask any one of the ABDs who ultimately were not able to do it.

    There is something affecting the profession as a whole right now, which is wanting everything to be more than it is, and sometimes more than it should be. Everybody wants to write a crossover book, for example, except that a good work of scholarship can’t always be written for a popular audience, and vice-versa. People also want their blogs to “count” towards tenure. Why? Should we really be embracing and count our email for tenure too? As a response to this, Cathy Davidson at Duke suggests that blogs should count in the category of “service” and that we should value service in the tenure process more than we do.

    Different categories of literary activity have their own uses. The category of dissertation serves its purpose, both for the scholar and for the credentialing folk who want to know you have a basic skill set and are qualified to teach others. Anyone who tries to write a real book for their dissertation risks setting the bar way to high and staying in grad school for a long, expensive ride.

    That said, the embargo truly sucks for those of us in the field of recent history — that’s where the good research is now, not among senior scholars — very few of them have the skills or interest to take it on.

    In this vein,, a dissertation counts because if you don’t or can’t do it, you won’t get a PhD.


  16. My problem with much of the backlash directed toward the embargo is that there seems to be a double standard at play. We don’t want graduate students to have the option of controlling the dissemination of their intellectual labors, but we see no issue when mid-career or senior scholars request that the privacy of a workshop paper or even a conference presentation be respected. If the goal is truly open access, then ostensibly these forms of knowledge should also be freely circulated. Short of that, shouldn’t individual scholars at all stages have the right to choose when to share their work, whether or not we agree with their reasoning?


  17. I don’t think I have a double-standard–I think it’s totally fine for recent grads to make the choice themselves, rather than to be commanded to submit a digital version of the diss. I just think that it feeds an unnecessary fear of engagement.

    I am unfamiliar with “mid-career or senior scholars request[ing] that the privacy of a workshop paper or even a conference presentation be respected.” I’ve participated in workshops in which the precirculated papers were password protected, but that’s usually the decision of the conference organizer regardless of the preferences of the scholars. I don’t know what kind of “privacy” anyone presenting a conference paper can really expect, though–a ban on tweeting conference panels? (Has anyone giving a paper publicly demanded “privacy” in the discussion thereof?) This is something I’ve never confronted, but I take your point that people shouldn’t be hypocrites.

    In any case, the dissertation has long been considered something that is a summation of an academic apprenticeship. They’ve been published for years and cited as published scholarship; they just haven’t circulated as easily before the digital age.


  18. Back in the old days, it was possible to require permission to read the hard copy of the dissertation for some years, and I did that – it put mien contact with those who were reading my dissertation. So I am not against embargoes. It seems to me, though, that this discussion has confused two separate issues. One is about the AhA statement, giving recent PhDs the option to decide, and the second what new PH.D.s should decide.

    A friend once told my grad students that the phd is a drivers license. Some very fine drivers may have just squeaked through. You may not want that to be the first thing people see of yours. In my case, I saw the argument of my dissertation when I finished it, and this gave me time to put out what I was really thinking. Was I right? I dunno. It’s what I did 30 years ago, and it just is. And whether that was the wisest decision, I’d like today’s grad students the ability to make the same choice I did. And even if you embargo, the abstract is out there, and people can get in touch ask for the whole thing.


  19. It might be interesting to look at this question, to use a term seen a lot lately, trans-nationally. I’ve stumbled on several dissertations written in France in the last few years, always accidentally through keyword searches, not looking for French dissertations. But they have had a common not typeface, but rather manner of presentation, to wit: a line of vertical print in the left margin of each page with some information that is not clear to me. It does appear to suggest, however, some kind of national practice. I was skimming through one the day before this post arrived, looking more for primary sources I could use than any big “ideas” that I might appropriate. It didn’t feel *too* creepy doing that, although one can imagine the sources of paranoia about it in some contexts.

    A couple of years ago, via the same system, I found the first 2,500 page dissertation in history that I ever heard of, or could even imagine. You wouldn’t have to embargo that one, as its length alone would probably inhibit appropriation for at least six years! And imagine the editorial injunction to cut words out if you wanted to get *that* one through a university press editorial board!


  20. yes, it’s the point #3 that threw me (and which I pondered aloud at Twitter). They’re out there. Right there. At ProQuest (or whichever Big Company now runs that database). At WorldCat.

    Dissertations are everywhere any reader wants them to be. So I’m all like, Huh??????

    Well, that plus near-muscle-straining roll of my eyeballs over the AHA, which I gave up on years and years ago….


  21. I’m kind of dumbfounded by all the embargo support. I could not have written my own dissertation (back in the paper/microfilm-based twentieth century) if I hadn’t had access to the footnotes of other dissertations. I had no problem ILLing dozens of theses. As part of a new field, we relied on each other’s work to do archival research. Isn’t that how fields grow?

    I actually thought it was important that my dissertation could be cited years before my book came out — and that’s a great way to get your research/ideas identified as your own.

    Re: Plagiarism: personally, the most blatant plagiarism of my work has been from my published pieces.


  22. Shaz: your comment points to something I mentioned in passing in my post, and which no one has commented on so far, and that was my point in #4 about the originality of dissertation research.

    Just as the AHA’s policy recommendation points backwards, it also seems curiously indifferent to the very thing you mention, which is growing new fields. By suggesting to new Ph.D.s that they might consider an embargo on their digital dissertations, is the AHA suggesting that there’s really nothing or very little new under the sun? There’s no reason to put new research out there and have a conversation about it? Huh???


  23. This is a bit off the topic of dissertations but as it’s on the subject of open access and digital publishing I’ll include it. I’m on the advisory board for the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, which is in the process of developing a policy on open access for journal articles, modeled partly on science journal publishing, and partly on history journals in the UK such as _Medical History_.

    The issue that journal publishers run into is sustainability: who is going to pay for the staff and to keep the servers running if anyone can have access to the article for free without a subscription? The answer in the science is — the author(s). I was recently “invited” by a prominent medical journal that publishes history of medicine articles to have an article available on open access for the “reduced” price of $1,000. I suppose those with big research budgets and/or grants from NIH or NSF can manage that but those of us in history can’t. We do need to have a serious discussion about publishing in the digital age but we also need to understand that “free” information isn’t really “free” — someone, somewhere, has to pay for it.


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