Sunday, July 28, 2013

When Is a Product of Research Ready for Public Release?

By now, many readers will probably be aware of the debate surrounding the recent release of the American Historical Society's Statement on Policies Regarding the Embargoing of Completed History PhD Dissertations. The discussion has gained quite a bit of attention on social media (particularly Twitter) under the tag #AHAgate, and there has been an eruption of responses--including the AHA's own Q & A. Tim McCormick has taken the initiative to crowd-source a curated, online collection of the discussion via the newly launched Open History project (click through to those sites for a summary, with relevant links to many responses). At first, I had little to contribute to the already strong debate, but the more I read and thought about it, the more I wondered how much of this is actually a debate. Much of my reading has been strong criticism of the AHA, with only a few responses seeking a balance to the debate.

My central issue with the debate so far is that many critics of the AHA seem to be approaching the question of open access to dissertations as if these PhD theses are finished, published products. But dissertations are not publications, and they are not, themselves, the end results of research and scholarly work. If consensus is forming (at least in some circles) that academic research should (pedagogically, financially, ethically, etc.) be available to the public--as in the sciences--then we should also consider that this assumption regards what happens to published results, not drafts of research in progress. After all, scientists do not publish data openly as soon as they have lab results; they work to frame that data into reports. So, as my title suggests, I want to pose the question: When is a product of research ready for public release? I argue that the point of publication (public-ation, making public) is the point at which we need to ask the question of making that research available via open access, and that notion can drastically affect the questions we ask about the public release of dissertations.

In my own response to the AHA and the debate so far, I find myself on the fence, but not from indecision. Here, in brief, are my opinions on just some issues already raised:
Do I fundamentally agree with the AHA? Yes... and No. I am sympathetic (to varying degrees) to aspects of their statement and criticisms of it.
Do we need more studies and facts (not anecdotes) about dissertations, open access, and publications before making assumptions and recommendations? Yes.
Do attitudes and assumptions about hiring, tenuring, adjuncts, and other systemic issues in academia need reform? Yes.
Do assumptions about publication need to change? Yes.
Are authors' rights worth defending? Yes.
Should graduate students have release rights over their own dissertation work? Yes.
Is open access important? Yes.
Should end results of publicly funded research be openly accessible? Yes.

That last question and response is where I want to focus. First, some caveats.

Of the responses to the AHA's recommendations, my thoughts resonated especially with those of Michael J. Altman, on why he embargoed his dissertation. I certainly support open access, sharing research, extending academia into the public sphere, bringing the public sphere into academia--whatever metaphors for such interaction we can muster, though whatever means we can imagine. I especially think this is important for scholars working from public funding (such as at state schools, which I'm keenly aware of since I'm a graduate student at one). I have written about my issues with publishing on this blog before; I maintain my own curated profile for my publications on to make my work freely available (when allowed by publishers--I also learned the hard way to be more careful with whom I publish in the future); and I have long viewed blogging as part of this endeavor. Yet, for all of my support for scholarly openness in its many possibilities, I am aware of my place in an academic setting that still must change radically before the issues are resolved. I also acknowledge that this awareness does not free me from an ethical responsibility to seek that change, or to work to contribute my own efforts to shifting the status quo.

So I return to my initial question. As I am in the process of writing my dissertation, I am all too aware that it is a draft of something that I will only be comfortable releasing into the public after much more work. I have already gone through several distinct drafts of various chapters in consultation with my advisors and some friends. I know that I will write and revise these chapters several more times before they're ready for public life--and some of those drafts will be after my defense, as I work to turn this project into a book. That may be several years. Will it take 6 beyond my PhD? More? Less? (Will academic publishing shift so dramatically in that time that it will not be a physical book but a digital publication of some sort? Could it be both?) In some sense, regarding open access, perhaps the time table is inconsequential, because until it is ready for publication, this project is in a liminal state.

I think there is a good analogue if we think about scholarly production beyond dissertations and books. For example, what about articles? I have many research documents currently in liminal states on my computer hard drive--seminar papers, conference papers, various side projects--that I have never released to the public because they were not ready for publication of any sort. Should those be openly accessible just because they are some type of result of my (publicly funded) research? I certainly hope not, since some of these research avenues are half-baked, and I may never return to them. I have chosen to publish articles that I felt were ready; in those cases, I made my research results available via my profile. Or, to take another, more recent means of publication--perhaps closer to the notion of electronic theses--what about digital projects? Over the last several months, I have been working on a digital project, and I recently began writing about that process on a development blog. Of course, I have, in one sense, published some of my notes and research up to this point; but I have kept other aspects of this work in files on my computer, not ready for release until the project is further underway. With this digital project, I have wondered at what point I will release my work. Will I publish the project as a final, fully formed product, or will I release it in stages? I expect it to be a year or more before some of the products of this research are released.

I have also thought about my dissertation in similar ways. Will I publish one or two articles from my dissertation before publishing it as a book? At what point is my research ready for publication? When will I make my work public? Some scholars may choose to publish in different ways, at different points, via either traditional means or new means of digital dissemination; and that is fine, since authors' rights should be pre-eminent. Yet I think that these questions raise new ways of thinking about dissertations and open access. In writing this post, perhaps I have asked more questions than I have made any specific claims. I do hope that these questions point to one more issue that will be considered among the mass of discussion already happening.


Anonymous said...

I've only just caught up with this, and discover that the OpenHistory site linked has already gone the way of 202 + 202, but I think you're quite right to broaden the comparison to draft articles and conference papers anyway. My thoughts on this are many and confused, but they include:
(1) a completed and passed Ph.D. has in some sense passed peer review, perhaps the most rigorous peer review our writings ever get, so while it may be incomplete it shouldn't be inadequate, and in that sense the comparison to draft material misses something;
(2) I think it probably does, ethically, matter, who funded the work, and what they want, so if the AHA wants to take the pressure off, as the Q&A suggests, then I don't think that can be seen as bad thing;
(3) I have dithered a long time about what portion of my research to post on my blog, not because I fear it does me harm, quite the reverse, but because I take so long to finish things that it would be possible for someone to scoop me if I put too much up. I think there is one published article actually based, without acknowledgement, in a discussion on my blog, which was a neat trick by the author. This is a concern with making any `development' material accessible, of course, but the first point throws into question whether a dissertation should be seen this way. Nonetheless, if you have things to do with it I think it should be fine to hold onto it. I don't understand, in this light, why people put draft material on; it's either in the hope that it will help people, or in the hope that people will help them, I guess, but what it looks like to me is not knowing when stuff is ready.
(4) Lastly, just as a datapoint, I put my thesis online myself and it caused me no trouble at all getting a book contract, but then those publishers were also keen that the book incorporate revisions, which I also wanted, so the issue may not have been so keen.

bwhawk said...

Jonathan, thanks for this great input--some excellent points here. You're right about the peer review aspect of a dissertation, and that's certainly important. I also have similar thoughts about putting my research online too soon, though I'm happy to put it up as soon as it's ready in what I think of as publishable and acceptable. There's a lot to consider in all of this, and I'm sure that the conversation isn't over.

Sorry that the OpenHistory site is already taken down. Presumably they're working on getting the collection together now that pieces have been selected, so hopefully it will spur more debate and conversation when that's out.