In January 2014, I uploaded an article-length draft of my Masters’ Thesis on School Desegregation in Roanoke, Virginia to Academia.Edu. It was a tough decision for me to make- will college or high school students plagiarize me? By putting this online, will scholarly journals or essay collections pass on it? Will it receive any readership or merely eliminate me from consideration for more august publications?
I had read the AHA’s statement on embargoing of Dissertations (it had come out in July 2014) and I feared rejection from journals because my work was publicly available. Obviously publication of a MA thesis is not as critical as turning a dissertation into a monograph, an act on which careers can sometimes be created (or ended). Yet, the same issues felt like they were at play. Ultimately, I took a deep breath and hit the “publish” key.
It would be nice if this story fit into the narrative described by Rebecca Anne Goertz (and published on the blog of Johns Hopkins University Press). But no bigshots at preeminent journals have found my thesis and demanded its publication. Still, the paper has received over 300 views. I can tell from search keywords that many of the viewers are members of the public or even students of Roanoke schools (former and current) I wrote about. I’ve been contacted by a French novelist who sets her historical fiction during the Civil Rights Era and by a Virginia Tech Education professor who used my piece with public school teachers in Roanoke.
It’s too early to call my decision a success (JAH, call me!). I currently believe it’s been a qualified success exactly in ways I did not expect. Academia.edu has a reputation as the “Facebook” of scholars (one of many), so I expected historians in my field (“my audience”) to find the paper and perhaps comment. In reality, members of the public who have an interest in the history of schooling in Roanoke read my paper. The primary academic interest I did receive was from outside of my field in the education department.
I think this speaks to the importance of open access and creative commons licensing, as work online will inevitably be used in ways that the creator did not expect. Academia.edu allows me to keep the rights to my publication, while still pushing it to the public.
I do respect the positions taken by AHA President William Cronon, that the suggested embargo is meant to protect “our most vulnerable colleagues.” Cronon is sincerely attempting to help junior faculty, but, I find more compelling Trevor Owens’ argument for a bizarro AHA in which the goals of the Scholarly Society align with public good rather than a traditional model of publishing books.
I still worry that my decision to go open access was too naive, but in the meantime, someone is searching for my work on Google.