King Canute Syndrome?

Apropos of nothing, did you know there is such a thing as Canute Syndrome? Apparently it’s the medical term for climate change denial, and is described thusly on kingcanutesyndrome.org: “A chronic belief held by an individual or group and/or their supporters that is based on aspirations…not on evidence or practicality of action.” What wonderful, random things you can discover online!

In this idling away of hours I was over on Twitter earlier and I noticed some of the folks I follow (most notably @mia_out and @scott_bot) commenting on the fact that the AHA (American Historical Association) have this month agreed to place an embargo on all History PhD theses for up to six years after their publication. They acknowledge that a growing number of universities require their doctoral students to provide immediate, online access to the results of their research, but they argue this stymies many students from acquiring what increasingly appears to me to be the Holy Grail of doctoral research: the book publication deal. The AHA’s statement can be found in full here, with blog posts from Trevor Owens and Sharon Leon on the subject (thanks to @mia_out for directing her followers to these).

I’m not sure what effect this will have on doctoral students in the UK but I do think the professionalisation of the teaching industry as a whole (the professionalism v professionalisation debate which I first encountered as a PGCE student) is leading us to this pass. I should at this point explain that I think the professionalisation of the teaching industry generally is no bad thing, but it leads us to the point where we have to justify our very existence as educators – be it in the form of exam results, league tables or acquiring CPD points – and this can unfortunately take us down a road where we are forced to view our research as simply a means to an end, a box ticking exercise (rather than inspiring debate, or adding to the sum of knowledge in our chosen fields) with the ultimate goal being a published book, or some form of success that is understood by a board of directors.

I’m very early on in my teaching career, but I fully expect to get to the end of my thesis and for it to be made accessible to the general public via the Internet, not just through my university. I’ve previously published as blog posts passages of writing that I’ve undertaken as part of my research thus far, having some vague notion of charting the progress of my work through to its final conclusion, although I confess that sometimes I’m simply too embarrassed to do this, knowing that my unstructured musings will be forever out there in the digital ether to haunt me throughout the rest of my life. It has never, however, occurred to me that my work might remain on some dusty library shelf, never to be looked at again. I don’t think this is egotism on my part: I’m not making any assumptions about my research. It’s probably not going to be a great work of staggering genius, as we probably all hope our work will be. I know that it will be looked at in some way, shape or form because it will exist digitally, and I will cannibalise parts of it here and in other places, and I will shamelessly link to it on Twitter, and people will have a nosey at it and maybe it will catch someone’s attention, and maybe it won’t. But it will be out there, adding in some small, infinitesimal way to our sum of knowledge on a particular subject. It probably won’t do that all embargoed up to Hell and back.

There are issues with this of course (and actually perhaps someone can address these for me?). At a postgraduate training meeting I attended recently I commented in a general discussion that I fully expected my work to be open access, and accessible to all, once it was completed. The lecturer said it was understood all theses completed within the university would be accessible via the university’s system, and that in fact it was an automatic opt-in and you had to actually sign yourself out of it if you didn’t want this to happen. Many of the science-based doctoral students were really concerned by this, and said in their field, if a thesis was deemed to be published elsewhere (such as through a university system, on an open access basis) that a journal wouldn’t necessarily consider it an original work, and therefore publication thereafter would be incredibly difficult. I’m assuming this is because of the very traditional nature of journals generally, but if anyone can confirm that categorically for me I would be very grateful.

I’ve meandered off-topic I suspect, but then that’s down to the fickle guiding hand of insomnia. I think my original issue was that an American academic organisation has chosen to shut off all access to published theses in their field from all but traditional methods of access. This strikes me as incredibly short-sighted, a bit like King Canute holding back the tide, or those climate change deniers of the same name. Is there actually any evidence to support their claims that a thesis available via open access has more difficulty acquiring a book publication deal than one which has been fully embargoed? As some of the blogs and Twitter commentators have noted, a book is a very different beast from a thesis anyway, and would no doubt have to change a few times to move from one incarnation to the other. I personally will consider myself a bit short-changed if my thesis doesn’t end up being deposited online, as a much larger potential audience than a journal article will have been closed off to me. I suspect, in the end, it comes down to the old snobbery of the Internet being seen as a place of gaming and online shopping and not as a place where serious works of academic rigour could potentially reside.

Anyway, it’s 6.30 a.m. so it’s time for a coffee, and a trot down to the seafront, where I will endeavour to hold back the tide in my own small way, probably by staring at it for a bit.

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