Publishing Your Dissertation Online—Understanding Policies

Professional Division Statement on Electronic Publication of Theses and Dissertations

graduate student sessionAs graduation season approaches, the AHA’s Professional Division urges graduate students and their advisers to be aware of their institutions’ policies regarding the electronic publication of theses and dissertations.

The division polled department chairs and directors of graduate studies to find out how many universities require electronic publication. Responses revealed that policies vary widely by institution.

While there is no conclusive evidence that electronic publication can make it more difficult to publish a revised version of a dissertation, the division feels that students and their advisors should be aware of the possibility. Editors speaking at a 2011 annual meeting session on the topic and interviewed in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education were divided on whether electronic publication differs significantly from older methods of making theses and dissertations available through interlibrary loan or on microfilm. Some editors reported that they would be more likely to publish a dissertation that had attracted interest online.

The division has drafted the following statement to alert students and advisers to issues they should consider:

Graduate students and their advisers should be aware of specific policies at their institutions governing the dissemination of history M.A. and Ph.D. theses. In the past, theses were made available either through hard copies deposited in the home institution library (and made available for interlibrary loan) or through microfilm. Today, some universities require that theses be published online or on their library website. At the same time, there is evidence to suggest that some university press editors are reluctant to consider for publication those studies that have been posted online and made generally accessible to the public.

Policies governing online publication of recent theses vary widely among institutions. Some universities allow students to embargo the publication of their thesis for a year, or for an indefinite amount of time. Other places do not allow any kind of embargo. In most cases where students have the embargo option, they must make such a request within a stipulated window of time—for example, no later than a month before the defense. Students and advisers should take note of these deadlines as part of their general preparation for the defense.

The American Historical Association urges universities that have no policies at all on this issue to consider developing one that strikes a balance between, on the one hand, protecting the recent graduate’s right to maintain control over his or her work product, and, on the other, promoting the interests of the historical profession to disseminate scholarship as widely as possible.

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  1. Gene B. Preuss

    At least one academic publisher has adopted an informal policy that it will not publish a dissertation….or even a revised thesis because academic libraries have informed them that they will not publish a thesis/dissertation that has been published online. They want new scholarship. This decision by libraries is due to cost reductions, and it’s moving downstream.

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  2. John Russell

    As a librarian, I am skeptical that there are libraries that will not purchase revised dissertations for two reasons: even librarians know that revised dissertations are very different from dissertations and for good reasons; few to no librarians have the time or inclination to determine whether or not revised dissertations exist in an online form.

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  3. Peter Hirtle

    Does the AHA concern extend to Proquest/UMI, which routinely makes electronic versions of dissertations and theses submitted to UMI available to subscribers through the Proquest Dissertations and Theses Database, or does it only extend to institution-sponsored distribution?

    And instead of anecdote, the profession would do well to examine the research that has been done on publisher attitudes, the most recent of which is Gail McMillan, et al., “An Investigation of ETDs as Prior Publications: Findings from the 2011 NDLTD Publishers’ Survey” at http://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/handle/10919/11338. Further refinement on publisher attitudes towards history dissertations would be welcome, but I thought it was a commonplace assertion that a dissertation was not a book and that one should not expect to publish an unrevised dissertation.

    It seems to me that with most historical dissertations, obscurity is a greater problem than too-great a distribution.

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