In June 2013, the American Historical Association recommended that Ph.D. dissertations in history not be deposited in online repositories. They suggested two lines of evidence to support this conclusion. 1. Publishers are increasingly wary of publishing books based on dissertations already online; and 2. Tenure requirements for the discipline in many universities requires that a book is published.
The recommendation is discussed in two articles in the Chronicles of Higher Education forum. One explored more in depth the question of how publishers do consider dissertations that are online. It definitely does have an impact. The second is a reflection on why one author chose to publish the dissertation online. The comments of readers are also enlightening.
This conversation highlights that the author must be much more intentional on what happens to the dissertation and the potential outcomes of those choices. Both options have distinct advantages and potential disadvantages, and so the question of which option may be best for the author may turn on other considertations:
1. Which readership would benefit most from the dissertation? If the topic has a broad disciplinary appeal that anticipates focused expertise, and would be best suited for world class research libraries, then publishing the dissertation may enhance your impact and standing within the discipline. On the other hand, if the topic is focused on a specific issue of interest to a social community, as would be the case for many of Andrews University Seminary and School of Education dissertations, then the high cost publishing paywall may become a barrier to impact.
Summary: If only those with economic means are going to be interested, then publish. If those with a more limited economic means will benefit more, then open access is worth considering.
2. What are the consequences of placing the content behind a pay wall vs. the potential impact if not behind a pay wall? The AHA cited tenure questions. If you have employment, and the tenure requirements for your institution anticipate publishing the dissertation, then perhaps open access is not the best choice. On the other hand, if publishing the dissertation as a book is not anticipated for tenure, but your employing institution uses other measures, such as we do here at Andrews University, making the dissertation open access may invite global opportunities with a higher return in the long run.
Summary: If you must publish the dissertation to gain tenure, do what is necessary. If you have other options, leveraging impact may open unforeseen opportunites.
Final note: how the digital revolution in scholarly communication will turn out is still a matter of speculation. New initiatives and opportunities are constantly emerging. So basing a decision about publishing on past practices and not taking into consideration the variety of opening opportunities may not be in your best interests. And should you choose to publish, carefully consider the reputation of the publisher. There are firms of questionable academic repute willing to publish dissertations, and whose product is materially of poor quality.