Proposed rule change for the American Sociological Association Dissertation Award

open science can

Dear Prof. Janoski and members of the ASA Dissertation Award Committee,

I am writing to suggest a rule change for the Dissertation Award. Jordan Robison at ASA told me:

Any rule change for an award committee is usually voted on by the same award committee, presented to Committee on Awards. If Committee on Awards approves any rule change it is then brought to Council, who makes the final vote.

So it is my hope to persuade you to take this rule change up the chain to the Committee on Awards (currently chaired by Jane Sell at Texas A&M), and from there to Council (where the current liaison to the Committee on Awards is Adia Harvey Wingfield at Georgia State, moving to Washington University in St. Louis).


The issue has been raised with regard to 2011 winner Alice Goffman’s dissertation at Princeton. That dissertation is not available at the Princeton library. A query from me to the library produced this response from Martin A. Mbugua, Director of Media Relations & University Spokesperson:

Alice Goffman was granted an exemption from submitting her dissertation to the University Archives, so we do not have a copy of her dissertation in our collection. The Graduate School in 2012 instituted a dissertation embargo policy under which no dissertation would be exempted from the submission requirement. Thus, a dissertation may be embargoed for a period of time to allow for publication in other forms, but it must be submitted to the University’s Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library.


Goffman’s case is extreme in that her dissertation apparently may never be available, but it remains the case that people at Princeton (and at other schools) may choose to embargo their dissertations, to keep them out of public circulation, while they publish them commercially. Perhaps other schools also allow a complete exemption. If that is their privilege, and they choose to exercise it, then I believe they should be ineligible for the ASA Dissertation Award. My logic is that, if ASA holds up a dissertation as the best of the year, the purpose of that honor is partly to inspire and inform other sociologists about what constitutes the best doctoral research. If the dissertation is not publicly available, that purpose is undermined. Further, I think it would be a welcome – albeit small – signal in support of emerging norms of open science for the association to affirm the principle that dissertation research should be publicly available.


I propose the following rule be added:

In order to be considered for the ASA Dissertation Award, a nominee must commit to making his or her dissertation publicly available through a suitable academic repository by the time of the ASA meeting at which the award is granted.

Thank you for considering this request. I welcome your response, and would be happy to work with you on getting this rule – or something like it – passed by the ASA Council. Please let me know if there is anything else you need.


Philip Cohen

24 thoughts on “Proposed rule change for the American Sociological Association Dissertation Award

  1. I agree but would go a bit further. I think the dissertation should be submitted to a repository, not simply that a scholar commit to submission. The rule would then read like this: In order to be considered for the ASA Dissertation Award, a nominee show proof that his or her dissertation is publicly available and submitted to a suitable academic repository by the time of the ASA meeting at which the award is granted.

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  2. I agree, and think this is an important step, though I think the language should be more precise to include people who filed their dissertations but requested embargoes in anticipation of publishing a version of the diss as a book. I went to a Princeton University Press Q&A, and while they don’t care if a diss has been embargoed (that is, they don’t care if the diss was immediately accessible on ProQuest), I’m not sure if that’s the case for all academic presses…? Perhaps there can be an ASA repository for award winners, so they can be uploaded for membership consumption, even if an embargo was requested?


  3. I agree with this rule. How and why was this exemption granted? I understand time-limited embargoes if you’re writing a book. But not something like this exemption. Some serious questions on the horizon for her Professors and Princeton. Steve Lubet might be doing a FOIA request for the dissertation as I write this…


  4. Seconded, but with a friendly amendment: does the word “public” imply un-gated? If so, Proquest wouldn’t qualify. Maybe this is better and the dissertation should be on the open web, but it’s also a more radical change and could imply greater unintended consequences with, for instance, publishers passing on dissertations that are available un-gated.


      1. I would encourage and support a rule change that included a definition of “publicly available” that meant, well, available to the public via an institutional repository (IR). This would be an important nudge in ASA policy toward making scholarship more openly available across the board. To date, there’s little to no evidence that book publishers are disinclined to award book contracts to people who have deposited their dissertations in IR’s. The evidence that does exist suggests that “Electronic Thesis and Dissertations” or ETD’s are not an impediment to future publication (see, for example: This study is about journals rather than book publishers, but informal reports from editors/publishers I’ve spoken with don’t regard ETD’s as a problem because dissertations rarely, if ever, get published as they are written and loaded to the IR.

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  5. Although this is an excellent suggestion, it would be unfortunate if this proposal were not given its full due because the author failed to correctly spell the last name of the chair of the Committee on Awards. Jane’s last name is Sell, not Snell.

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  6. It seems to me that the question about how publishers treat unpublished dissertations is an empirical one. I would want to know the answer to that question before supporting this amendment.


  7. Ironically, if the dissertation *is* published as a book, it will be much more accessible than if it were published through most academic channels.

    However it does make sense that any embargo should have a time limit, maybe 2 years, so that if the book deal doesn’t happen it will still be available.


  8. A published book is available to public; theses are available only to academics, and rarely on line. I can order Alice Goffman’s book on Amazon.

    This appears to be a way of shutting out access to general public, and keeping the awards to a select coterie; given the bent of sociology academia, I am suspicious of the rule change. If you had demanded that the disertation be open source, then people would support yo; right now, it is a minor tempest in a teapot of no interest outside ASA faculty.


    1. Open source material is not free to produce, index, or store. Are you OK with increasing the costs of tuition and/or state funding for universities in order to pay for producing thousands of dissertations, only a very tiny percentage of which will ever get read (as dissertations)?

      My local university allows anyone from the general public to come in to the library and read its holdings on site. That’s hardly “shutting out” the public, even if it does mean someone has to physically go to a library. Horrors.


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