July 16th, 2013 | Tags : USETDA | Category : Education & Outreach, Student Work

Open Access ETDs: Providing Readership and Opportunities for Graduate Students

With USETDA coming up later this month, we thought it would be fun to share this blog post we ran across recently by Dr. Danny Kingsley of the Australian Open Access Support Group.  More and more institutions are asking, even requiring, their students to make ETDs openly available in repositories.  Occasionally, though, students have questions, misunderstandings, or even objections.  This post provides compelling replies to some of the most common objections given by students:

So you want people to read your thesis?


After three, four (…seven) years of hard slog, of course you do. There’s a ‘joke’ around that the only people who will ever read your thesis (besides you) will be your supervisor, the examiners and your mum. And she will just *say* she read it.

It should not be this way. The reality is that PhD theses (or dissertations as they are called overseas) contain a huge untapped resource of original research that sits hidden unless it is shared.

It is usually a requirement of graduation that a copy of the thesis is held in the university library and is available for ‘borrowing’ on request. This can be by physically going to the library and requesting to see the printed version, or by requesting a copy through interlibrary loan. I can attest, by looking at the borrowing list on the inner binding of many theses held in the library of a prestigious Australian university, that most physical theses are only borrowed once, many never. Comparing the list of requested theses against the total number of theses produced by the university indicates that the majority of theses simply never get requested.

This is a tragedy. More than that it is a massive waste of time and money – yours, your university’s and the taxpayers’.

Sharing your findings

The way the information in a thesis is distributed changes depending on the discipline. In some areas, tending towards the sciences, recent PhD graduates will publish several papers that emerge from the research. That is, if they have enough time after securing (and working as) a post-doc. Indeed, in some disciplines the idea of a ‘thesis by publication’ has taken hold. In these instances, the research does find its way into the academic discourse.

While publication of papers from theses is laudable (and in some disciplines necessary for academic standing), bear in mind that a thesis is usually completed a year or two after the empirical work was originally done. Then the information needs to be rewritten as a paper, which takes time, then submitted to a journal, accepted or rejected, any corrections made before publication, and then there is often a considerable wait before the accepted work is published. By the time these papers appear in the scholarly literature often it is many years after the original research was done. And in some disciplines this means it has lost its potency.

Publishing work as a book

Putting this delay issue aside, if you are in a non-hard science or in the humanities then producing a series of pithy papers based on empirical research might not be an option. It might even be that the expectation is that your work will be later published as a monograph. The idea of this is very appealing. Your name on the cover of a book, royalties and book talks flowing in…. but unfortunately the reality is very different.

For a start, if you are lucky enough to get a contract, it will not be to publish your thesis as it is. It will need a substantial rewrite. The blog It’s a Dissertation not a Book  makes that case. This rewriting process will be on top of the new work you will be expected to do in your job.

And then, once it is published, the number of sales of the book is likely to be in the low hundreds. So the royalties will be very small, if there are any. In some instances the money flows the other way, there is an expected contribution by the author or their institution to the publication process. But possibly worse, the number of people who are then able to read your work is limited to the people who are working or studying at the 200-odd institutions holding your book in their libraries. Around the world.

So what can you do? Well you can make your thesis available open access. But first a word of warning.

Watch out for rogue publishers

If you have recently completed your thesis you may be contacted by a publishing company called VDM Publishing Group or its imprint, LAP Lambert Academic Press with an offer to publish your thesis. This is a German based publishing house, and in Germany there is a requirement that theses be published before a PhD is awarded. In order to service this need there are some publishing companies which ‘publish’ theses for students. But there is no editorial process, they simply print it. While that is fine in Germany the issue is that these companies have expanded their business model to approaching recent PhD graduates around the world.

The problem with publishing your work in this way is you then prevent yourself from ever publishing your work as a ‘real’ edited book. If you are aiming for an academic career this can cause complications in relation to your publication record. A good resource explaining the issues with this is put out by Swinburne University and the Australian Catholic University also have some warnings.

Making theses more findable

Many Australian universities require that a digital version of their students’ theses be placed in a database within the library called an institutional repository. Indeed the Registry of Open Access Repositories Mandatory Archiving Policies (ROARmap) lists 17 Australian institutions with thesis mandates (out of 39 universities in total). While most institutions are simply requiring deposit in the repository, some mandates actually require the theses are made publicly available – more about that later.

Generally the requirement or not of providing electronic copies or making theses open access is an institutional decision. But in a possible indication of the increased momentum towards open access around the world, Japan has recently introduced a country-wide mandate. As of April this year all doctoral dissertations approved by Japanese universities are required to “be publicly available via Internet”.

Digital repositories have strong metadata which means their contents are easily found by search engines like Google and Google Scholar. All records about Australian theses held in university repositories are also harvested into the National Library of Australia’s search facility called Trove. This string takes you to a pre-populated search for all Australian open access theses available, and you can click back to the original repository to open the thesis.

And there is no doubt open access theses are being consulted in large numbers. The 500+ theses held in the ANU’s Digital Theses Collection are accessed over 10,000 times every month. Think about how much that would increase the chance of your thesis being cited in the published literature.

What is open access?

At its most basic, open access means making work available freely to anyone with an internet connection.

There is a comprehensive page on this site called FAQ about open access which addresses the topics:

  • What is open access?
  • Why open access?
  • Open access journals?
  • Open access and copyright
  • Author concerns about open access
  • Publishers and open access

Here is a simple graphic on the Benefits of open access and another on How to make your research open access.

Having your thesis available in a repository means you can engage your social media networks – you have somewhere to point people. If you are a stats junkie you can watch the downloads add up. Hopefully you will start to see citations to your work appear in the scholarly literature. These are all important ways of demonstrating the relevance of your research in job interviews and grant applications.

But, but….

Over the many years I have had this conversation with PhD students, two questions always come up:

Won’t this open my thesis up to plagiarism?
Response: No. Plagiarism is always a possibility in any environment when you make work available (either in an open access form or by publishing in a traditional journal). But there are academic norms which require acknowledgement of sources.

Having your thesis available in a repository and date-stamped clearly identifies the work as yours, and could actually make it easier to refute a plagiarism case. There have been instances where PhD graduates have specifically made their thesis open access to identify themselves as the author of the work. This has allowed them to demonstrate that others have used their work without attribution.

Won’t this prevent me from being able to publish my work later if I do get a book contract?
Response: No. Making your work available open access in a repository is disseminating your thesis, not publishing it in an academic sense. It does not preclude your work being published as a book. The process of rewriting a thesis for publication involves substantial alteration so usually there is no commercial disadvantage in having the original thesis available. Occasionally publishers will ask the open access thesis be removed from a repository when a book is published, and if the repository has a take-down policy this is not problematic.

But don’t take my word for it. This Office Hours: Open Access video from Harvard University, answers the questions:

  • Should dissertations be made open access?
  • If my dissertation is publicly available won’t someone steal my ideas? and,
  • Can I negotiate with publishers to make my articles open access?

So go and chat to your library about putting your thesis in the institutional repository. Today.

Dr Danny Kingsley
Executive Officer Australian Open Access Support Group

If you happen to be attending USETDA, we invite you to learn more about how Digital Commons institutions are utilizing several different workflows to solve problems and save time for both students and the Graduate Office at the session, “Emerging Trends in ETD Publishing Models: A Bird’s Eye View,” presented by David Seitz, Consultant and ETD expert at bepress.