Today we are honored to have a guest post by Kathryn Hume, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of English at Penn State University and author of Surviving Your Academic Job Hunt: Advice for Humanities PhDs (revised edition, 2010).
I got in touch with Kathryn Hume initially to send her a fan email! I really like her book and will be reviewing it here on the blog soon. When I invited her to consider writing a guest post, she immediately responded with an idea to write about ProQuest, and the impact that electronic dissertation storage is having on the rules of publishing, and potentially on your tenure case. Thank you, Professor Hume, for sharing your insights.
Once upon a time, dissertations were “available” through UMI as microfilm or through Interlibrary Loan as bound copies. In either case, you knew that you were not supposed to quote from the document or use its ideas without permission from the author. In the case of a hardbound copy, the libraries had records of the borrowers, so misappropriation could, in theory, be traced. Since you knew the material was unusable without permission, you felt free to ignore dissertations, except to make sure that a recent one was not too similar to the one that you hoped to write, lest it get published before yours and scoop you. Yes, such documents were technically “available,” but they were definitely not published or easily consultable.
Electronic dissertation storage changes the rules. Universities have enthusiastically assumed that a thesis online is just a faster and handier form of microfilm, and dissertation supervisors have assumed that since they put their theses on microfilm, you should put yours on ProQuest. They are wrong. Once available through any form of open access, be it ProQuest or a university library’s public access materials, that dissertation is functionally published, though this does not constitute refereed publication. Without the quality control implied by refereeing, ProQuest “publication” will not count for tenure. Furthermore, its being there may interfere with your landing a revised version at a reputable press. You could ruin your chances of getting tenure if your thesis is freely available.
In the Chronicle of Higher Education (http://chronicle.com/article/From-Dissertation-to-Book/127677/), Leonard Cassuto sums up a round table discussion among six academic publishers as follows:
Don’t make your dissertation available online. Book editors seem unanimous on that point for obvious reasons. Many university libraries routinely add dissertations to their electronic holdings. If yours does, then opt out. If your thesis is already online, then have it taken down. Information may want to be free, as the earliest hacker generation first avowed, but if it’s free, then you can’t expect a publisher to pay for it, even in a later version.
At present, this is a disaster waiting to happen rather than a battlefield covered with the bodies of humanists denied tenure because presses would not even look at their manuscripts, but warning signals are going up. I have heard of two commercial-academic presses and one university press that insisted the dissertation be removed from ProQuest before they would consider it. I have also learned of a major journal’s response to the issue. A job hunter at my school took a chapter from his recently defended dissertation and turned it into an article. He sent it off and the journal wrote back to ask whether this was from a chapter in a thesis on ProQuest; if so, they would not look at it because they considered it already published. The same could happen to your article or book manuscript.
Numerous universities have made putting dissertations on ProQuest a requirement. Others will permit you to block that process and renew the block, at least for a while. Whenever that protection runs out, though, ProQuest or the library or both will make the piece available. Your university may argue that a state institution receives public money, so part of its mission is to make its research available to that same public. Fair enough, but you must still try to ensure that your university can and will remove a dissertation from open access if asked. Refusal to create that mechanism could destroy the careers of its humanities PhDs.
This may prove to be an issue that dies without much consequence. Not all fields, even within the humanities, operate on the same assumptions, and some people see dissertations cited as a way of boosting your visibility within your specialty. Presses may eventually decide to ignore ProQuest dissertations and rely on the degree to which you have revised your material. Or they may just settle for your taking the document off line until after your book is in print. Various professional societies have argued that the thesis monograph should not serve as the basis for a tenure decision, and tenure itself may disappear some day. Obviously, such changes would affect the significance of your dissertation’s being available online.
For the present, though, none of these outcomes is assured, and the more radical are not likely to happen soon, so protect yourselves!
- Read your graduate office requirements now, not the week you hope to hand in your thesis.
- If your university requires public access, get your department to raise the issue with the university’s lawyers and its Ethics Committee or Ombudsperson.
- Try to get your graduate school to establish a mechanism for removing your thesis from open access should that prove necessary.
- If you can block access for a limited time with renewals, tattoo the renewal date on the back of your hand, with room for subsequent dates to be added.
Revising a humanities dissertation into a book can take far more effort than you realize. If you are moving from one temporary job to the next, having to pay for moves with nonexistent savings, and teaching six or more new courses each year, you will need to remember and act on successive deadlines despite many distractions. Ideally, you revise your manuscript during the first two years of your tenure clock. If you are lucky, you land your manuscript at a press within the next four years. Perhaps it will be in print a year after that. Only then should you let your dissertation go on line.