Embargo My Eggo!

24 July 2019, 1702 EDT

Today, I learned that I am out of touch. Ok, that is old news. I got into a twitter conversation about embargoed dissertations. A friend was trying to access and then cite a dissertation that has been out for a few years, and she could not because the dissertation was embargoed. I then raised this on twitter, and got a whole lot of push back. So, let’s take a look at this.

My basic take is that a dissertation is a contribution to knowledge, and our job is to not only create such knowledge but to share it. I also argued that it is counter-productive to one’s career as it makes it hard for folks to cite one’s work, to build on it, to address it, and so forth. I am firmly in the camp of if you write “do not cite,” you are hurting yourself. Fundamentally, for me it comes down to this: “Hey, I did all this work, but now I am going to hide it.” Not good.

I received a variety of responses:

  • That is the way we do it in the UK (or elsewhere), as we often do not have research ethics require us to limit how to identify respondents in our written work. So, to protect those we interviewed who might otherwise be identified, we embargo.
  • The scholar is from an authoritarian country or does research in one, so making accessible a critical dissertation would be either dangerous or bad for future research.
  • Publishers demand it since they don’t want to invest in publishing books if the stuff is already out there.

The first and last surprised me the most. Of course, if you live in an autocracy, well, oy, good luck and be careful. If you study one, then I have no idea how to do the work because eventually you will be writing stuff that the autocrat dislikes. I have many friends declared persona non grata in Rwanda. It seems like that is the price of doing business, and I don’t know a way around that.

That research ethics and dissertation defense processes are different elsewhere, I guess so. I would think that one would always write the dissertation (and everything else) in ways that protect respondents as much as possible, and that one warned respondents about the limits of confidentiality. Informed consent and all that, right? But maybe it works different in the UK. The case that got me tweeting is an American one.

Which gets to the third possibility. In the olden days, when one wrote a dissertation, a copy went to the University of Michigan (if I recall correctly), who then put it on microfiche. They would then list the dissertation, and others could get access if they paid a fee. I remember buying a few dissertations as I was writing my own. Now, stuff goes online, and so it is far easier to see someone else’s dissertation. Good news for dissertation writers (mostly) and for researchers, but perhaps bad news for publishers.

Seems like we have a collective action problem if publishers really want to restrict access to dissertations. Because our business really is about sharing ideas, and we have enough publishers making it hard to do that (Elsevier comes to mind).

I now have a homework assignment for myself and for those going to APSA–ask the editors about embargoed dissertations. Is this really an expectation?

All I know is that if younger scholars are being told not to make their work accessible, then our profession is even more broken than I thought.