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Making My Research and Scholarship Open

2013 July 26
by Sheila

Last Sunday night, I was very excited when I posted my first revised chapter for my new digital and book project site, Stamping American Memory. I planned to blog about my process and reiterate my commitment to open access publishing. In the mean time, I got busy with my job and didn’t blog, and then most historians were floored, or thrilled, with the American Historical Association’s statement this week asking for universities to stop requiring that PhDs file dissertations in electronic formats and allowing graduate students to choose to embargo their dissertations for up to 6 years to protect the potential publishing viability of derivatives of that scholarly work. (The History@Work blog has linked many of these responses, although they are still coming in here and here).

With other academics sharing their stories publishing dissertations, one with a Creative Commons license, Adeline Koh, and another through an open access repository,Jen Guiliano, I want to share my story of how and why I’ve made my dissertation (from defense date forward) available. And, that this did not prevent me from being offered a book contract.

What I Did:

  1. Action: Before my defense, I posted my dissertation, PDFs of chapters, because I thought that it should be made widely available and having one hard copy at the library didn’t seem sufficient when I had additional methods available for distribution.
    Result: Many attendees at my defense had skimmed parts of it well enough to ask me some good questions.
  2. Action: When filing my dissertation, I chose the open access option. It is available in PDQOpen for anyone to download.
    Result: I received a number of unsolicited requests to publish my dissertation from small commercial presses, as many other folks surely do.
  3. Action: Linked my dissertation to my CV and to my personal website.
    Result: Not much of anything
  4. Action: Queried a few academic publishers about my book project and linked to the full open access version of my dissertation.
    Result 1: Received some interest, no one mentioned that publishing an open access dissertation hindered their interest in my material. The hindrance was that it needed revising…of course it did!
  5. Results 2: I won the HASTAC-University of Michigan Press Digital Humanities Publishing Award, and will be producing an open access digital version of Stamping American Memory, together with a printed book with UMichigan Press.

My commitment to open access and to making history scholarship more successful stems from my background as a public historian and my training as a historian at GMU and my work at RRCNHM. I firmly believe it is our responsibility as historians to make our research and scholarship as accessible as possible, including: making the products of the research open and accessible for reading/consuming/participating; writing in “plain style” that is jargon-free; incorporating diverse kinds of evidence that incorporates multiple voices; and making our processes more visible and replicable.

I am indebted to those who tested the waters before me, and I am grateful for their leadership in this area. First of all, I must thank Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig for pushing their publisher Penn Press in 2005 to allow for the reproduction of a free, online version of their Digital History book. And, Penn Press made that happen when almost no academic presses were considering such layered publishing strategies. Seeing that as a viable publishing option, together with other examples of scholars publishing open access volumes–including but not limited to: Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nowratotzi, Mark Sample, Mills Kelly–made me want to only seek out publishing contracts that allowed for open access versions.

All of those scholars also worked with progressive editors and publishers who are experimenting with different formats and are willing to push the definitions of academic publishing. Thanks especially to University of Michigan Press, and also to others doing cutting edge work, such as University of Minnesota and NYU.

As an alternative academic, I am not bound by the system of T&P. This means that while I do not have job security, I can afford to take a stand based on my beliefs because I am not invested in that system–and am doing so in conference panels, including during at the Society for History in the Federal Government panel in April. While individuals must make these decisions for themselves, we need to ensure that junior scholars understand that there are viable publishing paths beyond embargoing, siloing, silencing, and hoarding research. We should let our research become part of the “commons,” and should not allow that act of openness, alone, to punish anyone in their professional life.

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