Scholars Wearing Cement Shoes

It may be that academic publishing finds itself wearing cement shoes at the same time that other fields are running in Nikes.

“The American Historical Association has spied itself a Problem with a capital P and it is determined to do something about it. That problem? Too many people are reading history doctoral dissertations on the Internet. This madness must be stopped, the AHA thought to itself. We can’t have all these people reading scholarly works online, for free.”

So said Rebecca Rosen, tongue in cheek, writing in The Atlantic in 2013, She was referring to the AHA’s suggestion that universities adopt a policy that would allow graduate dissertations to be kept off of the internet for six years. Rosen quotes Dan Cohen’s reaction: “Rather than trying to push other levers, or experimenting with other ways to disseminate historical knowledge, the AHA’s default is to gate. ….It’s the passivity in the face of what is the lack of initiative to explore other models as well, that’s disappointing.”


The Atlantic, July 23, 2013

There is an analogy here to the music industry, one that I’m aware of but don’t know enough about to totally understand. Music publishing companies were rocked by upstarts like Napster. For a time, no one could tell whether Napster and its ilk were villains or heroes. Napster was disruptive to the industry. It knocked both publishers and artists on their butts. Some never got up. But the sun still comes up every day, and the music plays on. Records stores may have closed, but streaming was born. Streaming offers artists access to a wider audience and sooner. While musicians have had to adapt, they have and many are better off. And because of YouTube and similar channels, more artists are discovered than would otherwise have been the case.

If the music industry can adapt to the digital age, so can academics and publishers. Rosen says that with its suggestion of a six year embargo on the publication of dissertations, the AHA is saying that history should remain “a book-based discipline.” But Rosen disagrees and goes on to quote Dan Cohen again, who said that this sort of thinking represents “a collective failure by historians who believe — contrary to the lessons of our own research — that today will be like yesterday, and tomorrow like today.”

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