Saturday, April 13, 2013

Open/Closed (Or, Dissertations in the Digital Age)

I've been having a conversation on Twitter with a colleague, and it's gotten to the point that I can no longer make my case in reasonable numbers of 140-character increments, so I've taken the liberty of moving the conversation over here to the blog. And hopefully, it will continue and draw in other participants in the comments feed. I'm curious to hear what others think about the question of making theses and dissertations more widely available than they are.

Let me start, then, with a bit of background for those who might be wandering into it over here for the first time.

About two weeks ago, I was more than a little dismayed to find this tweet in my Twitter feed:

After a panicked few minutes in which I made sure that the link did not actually lead to a PDF of my dissertation, per the terms of the embargo that I opted into when I filed, I replied with my dismay. I tried to keep the tone light, but I was really quite unhappy about this development:

Today, after finding that this colleague had tweeted someone else's thesis (an M.A.-level one in this case, I tweeted the following:

And this conversation ensued:

(Continued at Tweet Longer): @homophonous I appreciate your disagreement. I think the issue is a slant by academic readers to strictness that they tend to mistake for rigour. I think that's unfair. One should always be aware of what kind of piece one's reading--a thesis isn't a finished book. All steps matter. I'm always happy to correct myself and I'm happy to see גדולי הדור to correct themselves. Yaakov S. Spiegel is the quintessentially modest scholar who gets back to his own writings, acknowledges his misreadings and publishes his own corrections of himself.

And now, to resume the conversation:

I see your point, but I still disagree on a number of counts:

First, I think you're imagining a scholarly audience that is much more charitable than, in reality, it is. If it were the case that dissertations could be read consistently with the attitude that you've alluded to, that they're unfinished work, my opinion might be different; but there are definitely plenty of scholarly readers out there who will take any excuse to slag off a colleague (and I hate to bring this into it, but that goes doubly when it's a young or a female scholar on the receiving end).

Then, there's the issue that you've correctly identified of the dissertation as unfinished work. And that really gets to the central point that I was raising earlier, that dissertations and theses should be considered as a special category. Some dissertations are good, some are bad. Some boldly push a field forwards while others are mere demonstrations that the author is basically capable of research and of handling texts or other relevant source materials. But all are unfinished. And given that caveat, people should have the option of not having their unfinished work publicized in social media, even if it is available to people who might either stumble across it or have a reason to go looking for it. Again, in an ideal world all dissertations would be amazing, valuable contributions to the scholarly conversation, but in reality, for any of many different reasons, that's not the case.

The scholarly ethic and the ethos surrounding the dissertation simply hasn't caught up to the technology. The doctoral dissertation as a form presumes that one copy will be on file in the basement of a dusty university library and that anyone who really, really needs or wants to read it can go visit that library or pay an exorbitant sum to UMI for a microfilmed copy. Digital archiving, which has been instituted only recently, makes what is automatically rendered an archaic form much more widely available. And in a situation like this, I think that the preference of the author caught in the technological interstice should be given some deference.

And finally, still in the technology vein, I'm not sure that simply tweeting a link to something actually counts as engaging in the scholarly conversation. It's less like critical engagement and more like putting up a neon sign that says, "Hey! Look!"

In sum: There are people out there who don't see this issue the way that you do, and I don't think it's up to you (or anybody, for that matter — I'm not trying to make this personal) to force them into the conversation in this way. If they want to join or if they want to allow you to bring them in, fine, but I also think that a desire not to have unfinished work that a person might or might not be happy with or proud of brought quite so front and center should be respected.

I'm not saying don't do it. I'm saying ask first.

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