Open Access and Dissertation Embargoes


Published yet Unpublished: The Dual Rise of Open Access and Dissertation Embargoes

This is the first of a three-part series on dissertation dissemination and publishing for humanities and social science scholars. Part 2 can be found here. Part 3 can be found here.

For most graduate students, the final step on the road to completing their PhD is depositing a copy of their dissertation. This used to be a mundane activity that merely meant a paper copy of one’s thesis would henceforth adorn a shelf in a university library. But in recent years dissertation deposits have become a focal point for controversy and anxiety among junior scholars. The central catalyst for this shift is that dissertation deposits have largely gone digital.

Since the late 1990s, most United States-based students have deposited their dissertations online with ProQuest, the official repository of dissertations written at American universities. At many universities, students now simultaneously submit a copy of their thesis to an institutional digital repository that then makes the dissertation freely available online. Especially in the last decade, many PhD candidates have balked against disseminating their dissertations so widely and instead elect to embargo (delay the release of) their theses for six months, one year, two years, or even six years. How do students decide whether to embargo their dissertations? Their universities might make a recommendation, but more commonly schools punt the question to academic advisors, who, according to their advisees, mostly fail to ever discuss dissertation embargoes with their advisees.

Putting one’s dissertation on ProQuest or online via one’s university does not—for most purposes—constitute a “publication” (more on this below). Yet, if a junior scholar choose to release her dissertation (or if her university compels her to do so), the dissertation will be available to a notably wide audience. It will be “unpublished” and yet obtainable by academics at the 3,000 (largely Western) institutions with access to ProQuest or to anybody with an internet connection. We arrived at this bizarre idea of the unpublished but broadly accessible dissertation slowly and through a rich history. In this article, I recount the history of making dissertations discoverable, the shift to putting them online, and current practices of disseminating and embargoing PhD theses.

Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for the second installment of this series, going live on Monday, April 13.

The Discoverable Dissertation and the Advent of ProQuest

In the pre-internet days, dissertations were deposited as hard copies in the library of the university at which a graduate student completed her PhD. The paper copy of the thesis then typically sat on a shelf for decades, attracting dust more often than readers. In the late 1930s, a man by the name of Eugene Power set out to change the uneventful end of most dissertations as mere place holders on library shelves.

Eugene Power founded a company called University Microfilms (later renamed University Microfilms International, UMI) that, among other things, launched a monthly publication that provided abstracts of dissertations. This publication, first called Microfilm Abstracts (1938-51) and later dubbed Dissertation Abstracts (1952-69), published summaries of North American theses. Starting in the mid-1960s, the summaries were divided into two broad categories: (1) humanities and social sciences and (2) science and engineering. These monthly abstracts opened up American and Canadian dissertations to subject-based discovery. For the first time, libraries could catalog and index dissertations. Interested readers and libraries could purchase microfilms of a relevant dissertation from UMI. UMI quickly began to do a brisk business selling dissertation abstracts, indexes, and microfilms to university libraries. In 1969, UMI changed the name of its publication to Dissertation Abstracts International (DAI), the title the database still holds today under the company’s current name: ProQuest.

Over the decades UMI went through a few ownership changes (including a stint when it was owned by Xerox in the 1960s-80s). It was renamed ProQuest in 2001. The company also added European dissertation abstracts to their offerings in the 1970s. The most substantive change, however, was the move from microfilms to digitization of dissertation abstracts, indexes, and entire theses. UMI jumped from digitizing abstracts to full dissertations in 1996, and from 1997 onward UMI/ProQuest has digitized most dissertations successfully defended in the United States. In 1998, the Library of Congress named UMI its official offsite repository for American dissertations.

When ProQuest offers a full dissertation online, for most professional purposes, this does not constitute a publication. This may seem a pedantic point, but it is a crucial technicality. The distinction is obscured by the fact that universities and even ProQuest regularly talk about “publishing” one’s dissertation by including it within the ProQuest database. But two influential groups of people typically do not view an online dissertation as part of a publication track record: fellow scholars (including hiring and tenure committees) and academic publishers. For academic publishers there is some diversity on this point, but ProQuest works with many presses to ensure they do not count a dissertation included on ProQuest as a “prior publication,” a category that would introduce serious complexities in publishing a revised version as a monograph. For fellow scholars, a dissertation on the ProQuest database does not constitute a book-length publication for any practical reasons, including hiring, research output evaluations, and tenure.

Like its paper predecessor, ProQuest digital dissertations is a closed access database that only makes its wares available to paying customers. University libraries constitute ProQuest’s patrons who purchase varying levels of access to ProQuest’s dissertation database for the benefit of their students and professors. Some universities pay for access to abstracts and the ability to order dissertations in various forms (digital, hard copy, etc.) for an additional fee. Others institutions pay for full access to all available dissertations in the ProQuest archive. Nearly all major US institutions of higher learning and many international universities subscribe to ProQuest digital dissertations in some form.

Through its online database, ProQuest has faithfully followed its mission of making dissertations discoverable. But their foray into the digital world and the introduction of full dissertations available at the click of a mouse has also introduced some thorny issues for early career academics.

ProQuest Dissertations: The Rise of Dissertation Embargoes

The ProQuest repository currently boasts more than 1.7 million full-text dissertations and theses with abstracts and indexing available for another 2.1 million. The overwhelming majority of post-1996 American dissertations are available in full (either for purchase or through a subscription), but a certain percentage have been “embargoed.” ProQuest offers dissertation embargoes for up to six years (although many universities limit their graduates to one- or two-year embargoes). An embargoed dissertation is not available for the specified period of time, though the abstract remains accessible. Typically, the dissertation is released to ProQuest and its users after the embargo expires. Occasionally, ProQuest receives requests for dissertations to be permanently taken down from the database. ProQuest reports that such entreaties are rare, but they willingly comply.

ProQuest keeps spotty numbers on dissertation embargoes, but it is clear that they have risen dramatically in the last decade. According to Austin McLean, Director of Scholarly Communication and Dissertation Publishing at ProQuest, the editorial staff recall fairly low and standard levels of embargo 1997-2005. According to an article written by Stacey Patton for the Chronicle Vitae, as recently as 2009 less than five percent of all dissertations were embargoed on ProQuest. A mere year later in 2010, nearly nine percent of authors placed their dissertations under some form of embargo. In 2013, as many as 19 percent of all dissertations may have been embargoed, and McLean estimates that in 2015 “some subjects have in excess of a 20 percent embargo rate.”

Dissertation Reviews’ 2015 survey data suggests a higher rate, with 42 percent of early career (pre-tenured) humanities and social science scholars with a PhD degree reporting that they embargoed their dissertations. A snapshot of one university reveals similarly elevated rates. Among the 543 PhD degrees awarded at Stanford University in 2014 (in both sciences and humanities), 46 percent of students elected to embargo their theses for six months, one year, or two years (the maximum allowed by Stanford without requesting special permission).

What is driving the rapid rise in dissertation embargo rates? It is certainly understandable that the centralized, business-driven nature of ProQuest concerns some junior scholars. Roughly 3,000 universities have access to ProQuest digital dissertations, which amounts to releasing one’s work to hundreds of thousands of people. Additionally, ProQuest sells copies of dissertations. Authors receive royalties, but ProQuest is a privately held, for-profit company that accordingly prioritizes business interests. Perhaps business and academic interests need not conflict, but ProQuest has occasionally waded into murky waters that upset some scholars. For instance, in the early 2010s, ProQuest sold copies of dissertations on Amazon and other third-party retailers, surprising more than one author who did not recall authorizing such sales (Proquest has now discontinued this program). However, rather than distrust of their company, ProQuest representatives see a different reason for the rise in embargo rates: the advent of institutional digital repositories.

Institutional Repositories: Let Everybody Read The Thesis

An increasing number of universities have what are known as institutional repositories (IRs), online archives that digitally collect, preserve, and disseminate intellectual output. IRs frequently host many types of scholarship, including (but not limited to) journal articles, book chapters, masters theses, undergraduate theses, and dissertations. Regarding dissertations, IRs are distinct from ProQuest in one crucial respect: IRs are usually open access. As Columbia University puts it in their electronic dissertation deposit Frequently Asked Questions: “Works appearing in the Academic Commons [Columbia’s IR] are available to anyone with an Internet connection.”

Universities are still split on whether they require dissertations to be deposited in their IR. Columbia does, proclaiming: “The nature of the Academic Commons is that Columbia dissertations will be made available online with no impediments whatsoever, an improvement over ProQuest, which is a subscription-based service.” The University of California-Berkeley (like many public institutions) adds a bit of high-minded guilt, reminding thesis submitters: “UC Berkeley upholds the tradition that you have an obligation to make your research available to other scholars.” Other schools take a neutral stance, such as Washington University in St. Louis, which states: “Neither the Libraries nor the Graduate School take a position on whether or not degree candidates should or should not make their work more or less accessible.” Given these varying attitudes, it is unsurprising that both Columbia and Berkeley allow for embargoes up to two years but require a formal request for anything further, subject to the approval of an internal board. In contrast, Washington University lists “permanent embargo” for both ProQuest and their IR as an option their graduate students can select simply by checking a box.

For some academics, putting the full dissertation online, available to anybody with access to a computer, sounds exciting and promising. Many humanities and social science PhDs went into their programs with some degree of idealism, including a belief in advancing human knowledge for the benefit of anyone who is interested. But for many academics, being asked to release their dissertation online is an anxiety-inducing prospect. One indication of the resulting unease is provided by the spike in embargo rates that ProQuest reports seeing from specific institutions following a “trigger event,” such as open access policy publicity or new mandatory IR submission. After one to three years, ProQuest reports, embargo rates from the affected institution typically settle back to a lower level.

Why Academics Embargo Their Dissertations

Why do academic elect to embargo or release their dissertations? There are a myriad of reasons at play in this decision. The hard sciences have their own set of concerns, frequently pertaining to patent applications and protecting information of commercial value. For the humanities and social sciences, a scholar who releases her dissertation may seek greater visibility in her field, feedback on her work, or a clear marking out of academic territory. A scholar who embargoes her dissertation may be concerned about the quality of the work, copyright infringement, and sensitive material in her thesis. But far and away the biggest concern that most humanities and social science scholars have with releasing their dissertations is the effect it may have on their ability to publish. The next article in this series will be devoted to the largely unfounded but nonetheless powerful fear of never getting your first book published if you have already released your dissertation online, but a few preliminary thoughts are helpful here to capture the wide-reaching effects of this concern.

Many, perhaps most, humanities and social science scholars base their first book on their dissertation. That first book is likely to be crucial for getting tenure. Increasingly in the United States, the first book may also be instrumental for landing a tenure-track position in the first place. An anxiety that grips many junior scholars is that if their dissertation is available online, on ProQuest and especially publicly available on an IR, no university press will publish the book. As the American Historical Society (AHA) put it in a 2013 statement: “students who must post their dissertations online immediately after they receive their degree can find themselves at a serious disadvantage in their effort to get their first book published.” The statement explains further: “online dissertations that are free and immediately accessible make possible a form of distribution that publishers consider too widespread to make revised publication in book form viable.”

When the AHA published this statement in 2013, two things quickly happened. Other academic organizations followed suit and issued similar proclamations (e.g., the Organization of American Historians). Simultaneously, some scholars criticized the AHA for scaremongering and shoddy research. The 2013 AHA statement on dissertation embargoes includes not a single citation. It makes no references to research on digital scholarship. It gives no indication of the basis for alleging that embargoes help junior scholars to publish their first books, despite the fact that this assertion is contradicted by research showing that only a very small percentage of academic presses refuse to publish dissertations that are available online (more on the lack of connection between the online status of a dissertation and publishing a revised version as a monograph in next week’s article).

The 2013 AHA statement on dissertation embargoes is useful in one respect: it succinctly captures standard thinking in today’s academy about dissertation embargoes. In a preliminary survey run by Dissertation Reviews, a majority of junior academics (184 out of 336 respondents) cited their intention to use their dissertation as a basis for their first book as a consideration in whether to release or embargo their thesis. The next most commonly named issue (concerns about the quality of the work) was raised by less than half as many early career scholars.

For senior scholars who regularly advise graduate students, concerns about an academic press being reluctant to publish a revised dissertation also top the list of reasons to encourage students to restrict access to their theses. As Karen Kelsky, a former tenured professor, bluntly puts it on her blog, The Professor Is In: “You could ruin your chances of getting tenure if your thesis is freely available” (emphasis in the original). As I discuss next week, there is a large chasm separating the perception and reality of the major factors involved in publishing a first academic book based on a dissertation. But, for now, it suffices to underscore that these views about publishing, however inaccurate, reign strong among junior and senior scholars alike.

How Academics Decide Whether to Embargo

Everybody agrees that PhD students should consult with their academic advisors when deciding whether to embargo or release their dissertations. University websites and ProQuest both advocate this course of action. Several university press editors with whom I spoke also endorsed the centrality of advisor consultation in this decision. However, in Dissertation Reviews’ preliminary survey, 63 percent of early career scholars (220 out of 350) reported that they had received no advice whatsoever from an advisor about disseminating or embargoing their dissertations. Of eight possible factors that informed the decision-making process of junior academics about whether to release or embargo, advisor advice rated the lowest by far. A paltry 11 percent of all respondents attest that they “received adequate advice about whether to disseminate or embargo my dissertation.”

For their part, it is unclear whether academic advisors are well-positioned to give advice on this issue. Many PhD advisors wrote and defended their own dissertations well in advance of the digital age. Many also got jobs and tenure in a professional environment that was radically different from the current academic climate. Theoretically, senior scholars keep up on major shifts in the academy and regularly address the issue of dissertation embargoes with their graduate students. In reality, PhD advisors fall along a wide continuum in their degree of awareness and engagement with the changing nature of the academic profession. Nonetheless, in the current structure of the academy, academic advisors are the key advice-givers about dissertation dissemination. And, according to their advisees, these professors are dropping the ball.

In the absence of advisor advice (or at least the perceived absence of advisor advice), graduate students appear to be deciding whether to embargo their dissertations for a few flimsy reasons. Publishing fears—exacerbated by irresponsible statements by major academic organizations—rule the roost here. Interestingly, however, peer pressure also appears to be a significant factor. Dissertation Reviews’ 2015 survey asked 351 respondents, “Did other people in your graduate program make the same decision about embargoing or releasing their dissertation as you did?” The majority (202) said they did not know. Of the remainder, 132 answered yes and only 17 answered no. Put another way, nearly eight times as many junior scholars admitted to following the pack in deciding the dissemination fate of their dissertation rather than making a contrary decision. There are discipline-specific reasons to embargo one’s dissertation (e.g., art historians may worry about publishing copyrighted images, and anthropologists may have ethical considerations in releasing research on human subjects). But such concerns do not fully explain why 38 percent of respondents followed the course of everybody else around them regarding dissertation embargoes, whereas only five percent made a different decision. A more likely explanation is that, like all human beings, academics are heavily influenced by peer pressure and exhibit conformist behavior – particularly in the absence of reliable information.

When junior scholars decide whether to release or embargo their dissertations, they are typically in a weak position. They have just defended their theses, are entering a brutal academic job market, and are frantically trying to publish. They are exhausted mentally and financially by years of PhD work. Increasingly, newly-minted PhDs are living with the very real knowledge that, despite their years of effort and excellent academic performance, they may never land a tenure-track job. In such circumstances, early career scholars are easy prey for misinformation and fear-based proclamations. But armed with more information, we can do better. Now that we know how we arrived at current academic practices regarding dissertation dissemination, we can proceed to consider anew the benefits and drawbacks of embargoes and the key factors involved in publishing revised dissertations.

Audrey Truschke
Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow
Department of Religious Studies
Stanford University