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December 27, 2016


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First, I am in complete agreement with you about transparency, and commend your efforts that contributed to the ASA's change in policy.

Second, this sentence might be misunderstood "It turned out that the manhunt episode had been omitted entirely from the dissertation, and it was never reported to anyone at Princeton, even though it concerned the murder of one of Goffman's subjects during the course of her graduate work."

Referring to the "manhunt episode" and "it" seems a bit confusing to the casual reader, who might link the "manhunt episode" with "murder." As I understand it, in the "manhunt episode," again as I understand it, no one was actually hurt.

Finally, of course a good headline is permissible, but claiming that your work had an impact on "sociology" is a bit of a stretch. It took no sociological training to point out the legal aspects of the "manhunt episode." TO be sure, you argued about norms in sociological research that might allow such "participation" but, in fact, the powers that be are claiming that they didn't know about it, and I can't see any evidence that any of the norms about which you argued have been changed or altered.

The impact on which you speak was only with respect to the publication of the dissertation, which, again I believe, is an issue not of sociology per se, but general research and transparency guidelines applicable to all such institutions. There may have been other impacts, but your blog above does not discuss those impacts.

Enrique Guerra Pujol

A strong case can be made that Prof Goffman is guilty of research fraud:

Captain Hruska Carswell, Continuance King

I am not an academic, but I do have a question. Aren't dissertations published by University Microfilms out of Ann Arbor or the "modern" equivalent? I recall writing a paper in college and I ordered a dissertation.

Steve L.

Almost all dissertations are now available in one on-line archive or another, but this one was "permanently embargoed" by Princeton. You can read the rest of the story by following the links in the above post.

Princeton has since revised its policy, and dissertation embargos can now last only two or three years (I forget which).

The ostensible purpose of a dissertation embargo is to satisfy publishers, when the dissertation author has a book contract. I have never met or heard of anyone who read an archived dissertation in order to avoid buying a book.


Steve, it's been my experience that short term embargoes are for the purpose of being able to use that research to crank out a couple of journal articles. Never too early to get a start on building up a tenure file. I don't think they put it quite like that but that's the intent.

Unless we're talking about a physics dissertation on how to build a cheap and easy hydrogen bomb, I fail to understand even the nominal explanation for a permanent embargo.

Captain Hruska Carswell, Continuance King

It's the same reason Nixon refused to release the Tapes, Trump his Returns, HRC her emails---sunshine is a great disinfectant.

Al Brophy

Further to PaulB's point, I understood the embargo (which back when I was in graduate school I think could be up to four or five years) was to keep the research under wraps so that other scholars couldn't mine it until it had been published by the dissertation's author. That makes sense to me, though I (and a lot of other people) want to have their dissertations available for people to use as soon as possible.

I guess one possible reason for permanent embargo is to protect the confidentiality of informants. Some dissertations in recent US history (and I'm guessing political science and probably some related areas) are permanently embargoed because they contain classified information. (I'm thinking of cases where the authors are on leave from one of the armed forces and their dissertation relates to recent US foreign affairs.) Finally, and maybe most commonly, some people are afraid that if the dissertation is available on the net, that it will eat into book sales. I think the Chron a few years back had an in-depth discussion of how university presses are concerned that if a book is substantially the same as a dissertation, university libraries won't publish the book.

Steve L.

A short term embargo might make sense for empirical dissertations with original data sets, but what other research could be mined without discovery of the plagiarism? In Goffman's case, surely no one else was going to pretend to have spent six years hanging out on 6th Street.

In all but truly exceptional cases, informants can be protected by anonymization and redaction.

As to other fears, has anyone heard of those things ever actually happening?

In general, though, I would have to say that universities exist for the dissemination of knowledge, and most dissertations these days are produced with the support of either government or charitable funders. So the argument for keeping a dissertation secret would have to be overwhelming, and the default should be public availability.

As the American Sociological Association has agreed, there is no good argument for giving awards to secret dissertations. If you want to submit your dissertation for an award, you should have to agree to make it publicly available.

Al Brophy

Steve, I'd venture that a great many dissertations in the humanities and social sciences are based on original findings. Probably most, if not all of the good ones have them. Those findings (data) are such that anyone *might* make them -- anyone *might* look in manuscript trial records, for instance; or in the obscure novels of a slightly less obscure novelist. And once it's pointed out that something's there, everyone with an interest *will* look at those records. Yet, I don't think that those data are protected by intellectual property -- and even if they are, calling someone out on plagiarism is difficult and ugly and most people don't want to have any part of it. Moving away from issues of plagiarism, even if there's an acknowledgment that someone else first found that data, another article/book out there mining the same data can cut into the significance of the original scholar's work.

In my observation, once someone "discovers" some cool new piece of data it rapidly enters the public domain. It doesn't take long for people to forget who first found data. I think you under-state the threat scholars face given how much time they've devoted to their dissertations. I can certainly understand the perceived need for it.


Steve has the better argument here: no prize for a secret dissertation.

As for the debate about unique aspects of research and insights concerning existing "data," one is reminded of the infamous FL defense of legal scholarship: "Knowledge Generation" it was called.

While I strongly believe that, at least with respect to the "law," this formulation is an oxymoron, even if it means some truly unique take on existing sources, the whole point here in not to take credit and preserve bragging rights, no?

As for "data" that is actually created, of course, attribution is required when others use it. But using it is the point, no? Isn't the point of great research to inspire others to examine the same points, not to conquer territory?

Steve L.

Assuming that your hypothetical is plausible, Al, has it ever actually happened? Has anyone ever stolen the research from an archived dissertation and passed it off as original? (And, incidentally, why do so many people post manuscripts on SSRN, if the possibility of research theft is so great?)

I can accept the need for a small number of sensitive dissertations to be temporarily embargoed, but freedom of information ought to be the rule.

Al Brophy

Anon, I'm not arguing that there should be prizes awarded to secret dissertations. I'm saying that there are good reasons for embargoing dissertations.


I don't think there's a concern that data will be stolen from a dissertation. At least in the sciences, the issue that arises from a top dissertation is that there is logical follow up research that can be conducted, and the dissertation writer wants to be the one to have first dibs on it.


"Anon, I'm not arguing that there should be prizes awarded to secret dissertations. I'm saying that there are good reasons for embargoing dissertations."

I'm confused. Steve objected because " I discovered that the dissertation had been "permanently embargoed" at Princeton, and had never been deposited in any of the usual scholarly data bases. And although it had been given the annual best dissertation award by the American Sociological Association, it was likewise unavailable from the ASA. ... What was the point of honoring a dissertation that no one would ever be allowed to see?"

When you say "there are good reasons for embargoing dissertations," are you implying that "despite those good reasons I agree with Steve"?

Could have fooled me. I thought you disagreed (unless you are only arguing for "temporary" embargoes, which Steve, I believe has conceded may be, in some instances, necessary).

Al Brophy

Anon, my 3:12 comment discusses the reasons why in some instances it may be appropriate to embargo dissertations, mostly temporarily, thought in a few instances permanently.

PualB, I think there are very good reasons to fear that data will be taken. I've seen it a number of times.


"Anon, my 3:12 comment discusses the reasons why in some instances it may be appropriate to embargo dissertations, mostly temporarily, thought in a few instances permanently."

Al, we agree with Steve, do we not, that, in the latter instance, no prize should ever be given to any such paper? ("Anon, I'm not arguing that there should be prizes awarded to secret dissertations.")

This was Steve's major point. I think you are agreeing with us, but honestly, one can't be sure. There should be no prizes awarded to secret dissertations.

Again, I think all would accept temporary embargoes.

Permanent embargoes for dissertations? Hard to imagine the reasons for a stifling of "knowledge." A dissertation that can't be studied, debated, and, perhaps, falsified or subjected to rigorous challenge (for any number of reasons) would seem to fall into a very rare category of papers that are likely not particularly important or valuable in any sense.

Captain Hruska Carswell, Continuance King

Let's put this embargo in simple terms. A commercial or trade book was published (read MONEY) based on this dissertation. The circumstantial evidence suggest that the publisher and author wanted to make some MONEY before Professor Lubet had a chance to figure out that this screed was thing was a work of creative writing or unverifiable. It belongs in a garage sale "fill a bag of books" along with the dog eared Grisham novels for fifty cents. That's my opinion and I as sticking with it.

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