Not actually being a Phd student and having to worry about what I’m going to do after writing a dissertation, I really had no idea that the issue of dissertation embargoes, especially in the history department, was such a divisive one. When the AHA issued their Statement on History Dissertation Embargoes last year, a chorus of critics in favor of Open Access quickly lashed out on much bigger problems than the statement intended to address. Some of these other issues that were mentioned in various blogs and comment sections, like promotion and tenure policies in the field and the business practices of book publishers, seemed to miss the point that the AHA was just trying to propose an action that would benefit junior scholars by allowing them more control of their finished work.
By allowing embargo periods of up to six years, junior scholars have the option of withholding their dissertations from being published online. On one hand, this option gives dissertation writers a choice in how they want their work to be accessed, in case they are in the process of negotiating a book deal with a publisher who would prefer that the dissertation should not be freely accessible. On the other hand, it limits the sharing of ideas and new research to fellow historians and other potential readers. I can see both sides of the argument, but personally I think I fall on the side of immediate access to dissertations, sans embargo, but I do think it should be the author’s choice. As someone who works in a library and often runs into journal embargoes (usually six months) while helping researchers access information, I know how frustrating it can be to be denied access to a particular article at the point of need.
Out of curiosity, I wanted to know what Mason’s stance on the embargo question was. I found the University Thesis & Dissertation Services (UTDS) FAQ page, which actually covered the embargo issue. As of last year, all dissertations must be submitted electronically to be stored in MARS (Mason Archival Repository Service), while individual academic departments can still require print copies. UTDS does provide an option to withhold finished works from public view for a specified time period. However, even if a student doesn’t want an embargo placed on their finished dissertation, they still must submit a form. The options for embargo periods are six months, a year, or 5 years, and if selected, the student must provide a reason for doing so, as well as collect signatures from committee chairs and the dean of their department.
It’s great that Mason is allowing students to chose whether or not they want their work to be made immediately available by allowing the embargo as an option as the AHA suggests in its statement, but I wonder if requiring signatures and an explanation makes it easier for students to just acquiesce to allowing public access as soon as it is uploaded to MARS. I would hope that more students would be more discerning, though, as they have put years of work into writing and completing a dissertation. Many factors contribute to such a big decision, and I am not sure what route I would choose, especially since I’m still just trying to finish a master’s degree and not sure what my potential dissertation would even be about at this stage. However, I feel more knowledgeable about the embargo debate from history student’s perspective now and not just from a librarian’s point of view.