Academic Publishing, the AHA, and the Ratchet Effect

On Monday, the American Historical Association published an official statement urging graduate programs and university libraries to “to adopt a policy that allows the embargoing of completed history PhD dissertations in digital form for as many as six years.” The statement goes on to note that “History has been and remains a book-based discipline.” However, the increasingly common practice of requiring that completed dissertations be posted freely online may make it more difficult for recent graduates to secure a publisher. This, in turn, could make it much more difficult for young scholars to earn tenure.

As the comments section that follows the AHA’s online publication of its statement against online publishing indicates, this strikes many as a backwards-looking strategy. As I have argued myself in a previous post on this blog, scholarly publishing is clearly moving online. And as it does so, the nature of how we consume, share, and disseminate knowledge is certain to change. So why not embrace this trend rather than desperately try to hold on to an outdated, 19th-century version of print culture?


The answer, of course, is that although many of us are eager to publish our work freely online, it seems wrong to endanger the tenure prospects of a whole generation of scholars whose only crime was to have finished their PhD’s during a time of transition and upheaval. It is laudable for the profession to embrace change. But we should not expect its most vulnerable members to be on the vanguard, leading the charge into an uncertain future.

But does that mean the profession can’t embrace change? Couldn’t the change we all seek come the level of hiring and tenure committees instead? Answering these questions is far from straightforward,  and it requires a small detour through what might be called the “ratchet effect.”

I first heard the term “ratchet effect” in conversation with the philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith, who described it as one among many potential mechanisms that drives cultural evolution. The ratchet effect will take hold anytime that cultural change is biased to drift in one direction rather than another. Take, for example, the case of airport security:

On a recent flight from Barcelona to Boston, I was surprised to find passports being checked at the gate of my connection in Zürich even though the Swiss border control had already inspected my documents when I entered the international terminal. Doing so added considerably to the time that it took us to board, and, to me, it seemed ridiculously over-indulgent. But there is nothing in the least bit surprising about it. In the wake of September 11th, there was a huge push to tighten the security around American airspace, and a few minutes of extra wait time seemed like a negligible sacrifice to make.

Of course, a long time has passed without a similar incident of in-flight terrorism so, for most of us, the cost-benefit analysis may have changed. But who is going to spear-head the movement to loosen airline security? After all, doing so would mean incurring the risk being blamed if another disaster did occur in the future. Hence, airline security is subject to the ratchet effect. It is much easier to tighten security than loosening it, giving us something to think about when we are stuck in what seems like an interminable queue.

Although its outcome is often annoying, the ratchet effect operates all around us, influencing everything from the evolution of the Republican party to the career trajectories of young historians.

At the same time that we have witnessed an upheaval in print culture, historians have also engaged in much hand-wringing about two interrelated and lamentable trends.  Ironically, while it is taking PhD students longer and longer to earn their degrees, they are also having a harder and harder time finding gainful employment. The relationship between these two trends is no less disturbing because it is obvious: it being harder to find a job, it makes sense for people to spend more time lingering in their PhD programs. By taking an extra couple of years to write their dissertations, they not only increase the amount of time they can spend on the market. They are also able to write better and more polished theses, thus giving them a leg up once they actually graduate.

The problem, of course, is that we are all playing the same game. Thus, we are caught up in a ratchet effect. As people spend longer writing their PhD and produce a more polished thesis, the basic requirements for securing a tenure-track job go up for the whole profession. For all practical purposes, it is simply no longer possible to land a permanent position with the kind of CV that was perfectly standard a generation ago. Rather than a completed dissertation and good letters of recommendation, you now need one or two published articles and a thesis that is well on its way to the book manuscript. Indeed, as more and more people also spend several years as a post-doc, it is not at all uncommon for recent hires to have a book contract in hand by the time they start their first permanent job. Sometimes, the book has already been published. This is, as they say, the new normal.

I read the AHA’s position on the online publication of PhD theses as a good-faith reaction to the ratcheting up of publication requirements for young scholars. But wouldn’t it be better to try and bring things down a few notches instead?

What I’m about to suggest is pretty draconian, so let me preface this by saying that I mainly put it out there as a contribution to a vitally important conversation.

What if we could use the move to online publishing as an opportunity to address the time-to-degree problem head-on? One way to do so would be to move to a more UK-style model, in which students are expected to write their PhD theses in 2-3 years (after having completed the relevant coursework, which in the US would result in roughly 5-year PhD programs). This would mean lowering expectations on PhD theses somewhat. Rather than a polished first draft of the book manuscript, the thesis would be an academic exercise, freely available on the internet, meant to *prepare* students for the task of writing a book rather than being a version of that book itself.

One virtue of such a move comes from the fact that the stagnant job market in the humanities is unlikely to change, meaning that many qualified people will fail to find a permanent teaching position. Although my proposal would not change that, at least it would mean that most recent PhD’s would be about 25 – 30 years old. My sense is that it is easier, and preferable, to make the difficult choice of leaving the profession at 30 years old rather than five to ten years down the line.

Another virtue is that it would take some of the pressure off the writing of the PhD itself. It strikes me as foolish to expect people to write a polished book manuscript in their first try. Better to learn your craft in the context of a long-form exercise in which you can experiment and make mistakes. Then, after you have defended, you can decide if you want to have another go at the same topic (this time knowing what you wished you had known the first time around), or you can choose to go with something new (this time knowing much more about how to pick a topic and design an argument).

Although others, including Louis Menand, have proposed similar measures, there are significant drawbacks to going this route.

One major problem with my suggestion about reducing time to degrees is that it does not go far enough to solve the problem of the ratchet effect. Because there are so many more talented historians with a PhD than there are permanent teaching positions, hiring committees would still be free to choose from a pool of remarkably accomplished applicants. That is, even if we suddenly forced students to complete the PhD program in five years, what’s to stop them from spending several years writing articles and polishing their thesis after they graduate? One thing I certainly do not want to do is advocate that the humanities go the way of the sciences, in which it has become standard to spend 5-10 years on the post-doc circuit building up a publication record before entering the tenure track.

Because of the ratchet effect, my proposal would only succeed if senior scholars commit to preferentially hire recent graduates. And this is where things get really draconian, because doing that would mean telling huge numbers of talented and deserving people who have been on the market for a number of years that all of a sudden they are out of the running for permanent positions. That’s a pretty bitter pill to swallow. So bitter, I think, that the AHA’s backwards-looking position on online publishing starts to make a lot of sense. 

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5 thoughts on “Academic Publishing, the AHA, and the Ratchet Effect

  1. Lee

    Thanks for your post, Lukas. This is an important topic.

    I wonder, do we have evidence–even of the anecdotal sort–of publishers turning down books because dissertations are available?

    It also seems like we should examine what it means today to turn a dissertation into a book. Whether we go with the 5-year PhD model or the one we have now, should a book just be a polished up dissertation? Or should it be considerably changed, through deepening and/or expanding? Many books on the market do seem like dissertations that have had a bit of “detail work” done. Not sure this is a good thing. I know that you have decided to write a big synthetic work on paleontology; I am doing the same with automobiles. But many people tell me not to do that but rather to turn out a theory heavy, short STS book. Perhaps you've received similar advice, or at least advice to write a book that is just your dissertation with a slight face lift.

    I have always disliked embargoes. I believe they are unethical. They conflict with (Mertonian) norms that are worth defending, and they play into historians' well-known obsessiveness and penchants for secrecy, especially about sources.

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  2. meganraby.com

    Anecdotal evidence: At a brownbag panel on publishing a couple years ago at my grad program, one major publisher explicitly said she was not interested if the dissertation was online or if substantial portions were published as articles–articles should be cross-cutting and not give away your central argument.
    So, I did put a 1 year embargo on my dissertation and may renew it, even though the book will be very, very much revised from it. I'm happy to send the darned thing to anyone who asks for it, though, which somewhat assuages my guilty conscience.
    I think a lot of grads don't get much guidance on this issue and tend to make last-minute decisions on the fly. At my school, there was no automatic way to get an embargo, you had to write a letter asking for one––something I only found out through word of mouth, which some recent grads knew, others didn't. Whether you like embargos or not, that is not an ideal system. So, I'm glad to see this post. The “ratchet effect” captures this perfectly.

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  3. Lukas

    Thanks for your comments, Megan & Lee. My own sense about the reluctance of presses to publish books based on freely available dissertations is similar to Megan's — based on a handful of personal conversations with editors, my sense is that some do indeed care whether a version of your book is already available online. But others care much less. So I think it really depends on the specifics: what you are writing about, what press you are talking to, etc.

    So although I totally share Lee's dislike of embargoes (and paywalls!), I will also admit that I embargoed my own dissertation for the maximum allowable time.

    But I think Megan's bigger point is both correct and important: my own information largely comes from personal and informal conversations with friends, colleagues, and editors. There should be a more open, systematic, and transparent discussion about publishing in graduate school.

    As for the question of what kind of book to write — more detailed and theoretical or more broad and synthetic — I think the answer again depends on the specific details involved. I will, however, venture to make the following general claim:

    My own view is that one reason to write books rather than journal articles is that books have at least the potential to reach a somewhat wider audience. Another reason is that books allow you to develop a more complex and sustained argument. So I guess that I feel that if your book is a series of loosely connected case studies rather than a unified and somewhat more broadly appealing narrative, it may make more sense to publish your dissertation as a series of journal articles instead. And, as a consequence, I also think we should be more open to tenuring scholars who publish scholarly essays (online!) rather than books.

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  4. Will Thomas

    The thinking on this issue certainly needs to be a lot more flexible, and the professional societies ought to be taking a stronger lead in making it so. Although I haven't surveyed all the online responses to the AHA statement, one sacred cow I haven't seen questioned is the basic value of the intimacy of the relationship between historians and university publishing houses. This relationship should continue, because books are an appropriate outlet for much scholarship. I think my own book ought to be a book, but mainly because this is the best way to get it read by people in the professions that I write about. These people will never read my dissertation, and precious few will read any of my articles.

    That said, a lot of scholarship (including much of my own work) is primarily of purely historical interest. Right now we shunt this material through publishers, because this is important from a career-building perspective. But publishers don't really like this sort of material because it doesn't sell, and scholars will feel the stresses of finding publishers who will publish it, as well as pressure from publishers who do show interest to make it more sellable. Rather than trying awkwardly to pretend that this work is *both* scholarly and of broad interest, shouldn't this work simply be eligible for scholarly rewards on its own terms? Further, is this not the sort of work that needs to make its way to other historians as quickly as possible so that it can be used? Is there really sufficient value added that it is worth putting years of additional work into it to add “polish” before it can be readily discovered and accessed by other historians? Shouldn't scholars be rewarded for making it available as *quickly* as possible, and rewarded extra specially for inventing new scholarly mechanisms for disseminating it to the audiences who need it?

    I have no problem, given present realities, with students being permitted to embargo their work. But it seems to me that universities that insist that students' work be made available are actively encouraging the treatment of scholarly labor as *scholarship* (i.e., a useful contribution to a body of working knowledge), where the professional societies and publishing houses have colluded to treat scholarly labor as merely steps in the entry into a club, which seem to be taken, often but not always, at the expense of scholarship (see Lee, above, on norms)?

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