To Embargo Your Dissertation, or Not?


To Embargo or Not to Embargo? Strategically Disseminating The Dissertation

This is the final article of a three-part series on dissertation dissemination and publishing for humanities and social science scholars.

View part 1, on open access and dissertation embargoes, here.

View part 2, on academic publishing and dissertation embargoes, here.

In a 2015 survey run by Dissertation Reviews, a majority of early career scholars (184 out of 336 respondents) said that their intention to publish a book based on their dissertation factored into their decision about whether to release or embargo their thesis. In a prior article, I debunked the fear that a widely accessible dissertation will significantly reduce the chances that a university press will publish a revised version as a monograph. Pointing out the lack of evidence for a link between embargoes and publishing does not answer the question, however: should graduate students, in fact, embargo their dissertations? Perhaps because of the preoccupation with publishing, academics have devoted comparatively little attention to other arguments concerning dissertation embargoes.

There are good reasons for some graduate students to embargo their dissertations immediately upon deposit, and there are also a separate set of reasons for scholars to consider an embargo later on or even a full out takedown (if those latter two are available options). But there are also significant costs to embargoing a thesis. Many early career scholars experience tangible benefits from releasing their dissertation online, especially for the first several years directly following its completion. Too often we only consider the negative arguments against dissertation embargoes and the possible harms of disseminating one’s scholarship on the internet. Rarely do we consider the benefits of putting a dissertation online and the potentially extensive downsides for an academic who holds back her work.

For nearly all scholars, putting the dissertation online or keeping it under lock and key will not single-handedly shore up or destroy the cornerstones of early academic success: landing a job, publishing a book, and getting tenure. But there are nonetheless serious professional stakes and career-boosting possibilities tied to the strategic dissemination of one’s dissertation. Most graduate students in North America face the decision whether to embargo their thesis. In what follows I offer grounded information on which to make this choice, including giving due weight to the positive reasons for widespread sharing of dissertations.

The Case for Putting The Dissertation Online

Everybody’s situation is different, and PhD candidates need to consider a host of factors when thinking about dissertation dissemination, including the options made available by their university, their advisor’s opinion, and conventions within their discipline. While recognizing that there is great diversity, the best option for most humanities and social science scholars is to release their dissertation immediately upon completion both to ProQuest, where many academics can easily access it and find it when searching for scholarship on a particular topic, and also to an institutional repository or personal website, where the thesis becomes freely available to the world. A few key reasons undergird this recommendation, chief among them visibility in one’s field, the resulting professional opportunities, and the inherent value of openly sharing scholarly work.

Releasing one’s dissertation online increases the visibility of an early career scholar. Several tenure-track and tenured professors who took Dissertation Reviews’ 2015 survey noted this benefit, writing that “allowing others to read the dissertation is a way to let others know what you have done” and “My advice is to get work out as soon as possible to ‘mark territory’ and enter the conversation.” Junior scholars confirmed having received greater visibility as a result of declining to embargo their dissertations. One recent PhD attested, “Visibility [from releasing the dissertation] has gotten me some opportunities (attention from senior scholars, networking).” Graduate students also provided evidence that releasing one’s dissertation stakes out academic territory; one said that “easy access to recently defended dissertations” lets her “know what people are working on.”

When scholars have access to recent dissertations, this can lead to substantial opportunities for an early career scholar, including publishing prospects. Most junior scholars think that putting their dissertation online is far more likely to harm than enhance their chances at landing a book deal. As I wrote about here, this fear is largely unfounded. In addition, there is evidence to suggest that an online dissertation may actually spur publisher interest.

In 2013, Harvard University Press published a blog post where they point out that their editors are constantly scouting for good ideas and talent—including dissertations—online. The post cites HUP Assistant Editor Brian Distelberg who says: “I’m always looking out for exciting new scholarship that might make for a good book, whether in formally published journal articles and conference programs, or in the conversation on Twitter and in the history blogosphere, or in conversations with scholars I meet. And so, to whatever extent open access to a dissertation increases the odds of its ideas being read and discussed more widely, I tend to think it increases the odds of my hearing about them.” Anecdotal evidence backs up these claims. For example, an associate professor of history at New York University wrote about how an editor at Johns Hopkins University Press sought her out and signed her book after reading her dissertation online.

In addition to making one’s work discoverable to acquisitions editors, it is worth considering the fluid world of series editors and the importance of visibility and networking for this crowd. Major university presses run dozens of books series, many of which are edited by full-time scholars. These scholars need to hear about new, innovative work if they are going to potentially include it in their series. For such purposes, it can be incredibly helpful if a dissertation is online, preferably discoverable in an open access forum.

For scholars that bar access to their dissertations, it is difficult to gauge the opportunities they may have foreclosed. Academic visibility is an amalgamation of many factors beyond releasing one’s dissertation, including conference appearances, invited lectures, and publishing articles (opportunities for all of which may well be spurred by the visibility that results from releasing the dissertation). Nonetheless, some academics who embargoed feel that they may have missed an opportunity to raise their scholarly profile. For example, one recent PhD who took Dissertation Reviews’ 2015 survey lamented that he embargoed his dissertation (on the advice of his advisor), writing, “I have enough friends/acquaintances who have expressed interest in the final product that I feel I’m denying them by embargoing for two years, and I would like people to see my work.”

Of course, there are limits to the benefits of visibility. As a recent PhD survey respondent put it, “[visibility from releasing the dissertation] is still not helping me get anywhere in my search for a US TT [tenure-track] job–despite having given invited talks in Vienna and Oxford and published a number of articles in both journals and edited volumes.” Releasing your dissertation is an important part, but only one part, of cultivating a significant scholarly profile.

In addition to visibility and its accompanying professional benefits, there are some higher order reasons to consider making one’s dissertation available online. In Dissertation Reviews’ 2015 survey of 420 scholars, 73 percent agreed that “Academics ought to disseminate new scholarship to as wide of an audience as possible,” and 78 percent assented that “The internet is a tool for disseminating scholarly work.” I do not believe that junior scholars ought to harm their professional careers merely for the sake of lofty ideals about open access to scholarship. However, most of us have these ideals, and it is fair to consider them as a possible basis for action.

Those academics who believe that scholarship should be freely available ought to consider that releasing their dissertation online is one of the best chances they are likely to have to practice that value. Once a scholar publishes a book, unless it is a rare open access book, she will not be able to post a copy online. Most academic articles are governed by contracts written by commercial companies that restrict the scholar’s ability to post the articles online (especially initially). Book chapters will be subject to the rules of individual presses who are necessarily concerned with selling copies of the book. The dissertation is a special thing: a piece of unpublished scholarship over which a junior scholar has full rights and which she can disseminate online without it constituting a prior publication for later publishing purposes.

One group of scholars especially benefits from others releasing their dissertations on open access archives, rather than only on ProQuest and the like: scholars working outside of the formal Western academy. Many of us, especially academics who work on the non-West, have colleagues in Asia, South America, the Middle East, and elsewhere. These colleagues, unless they are at satellite campuses of Western institutions, are far less likely than academics based in North America or Europe to have access to ProQuest or another closed access database. They are also less likely to be able to acquire books published by a North American or European press. Additionally, independent scholars who lack a formal affiliation generally do not have access to ProQuest archives. Releasing one’s dissertation on an open access archive or personal website is the only way to enable many colleagues to have access to the work.

Many junior scholars who decide to embargo claim that they will send their thesis to anybody who asks for it, as if this openness was the equivalent of releasing the dissertation online. The two activities are not comparable. Much of the value of releasing and disseminating one’s dissertation is precisely that it will become discoverable to people who would not otherwise have known about the research. There are cynics who will mutter that many online dissertations are little downloaded and read. If so, then there is no harm to releasing the thesis online. But, for many early career scholars, there are serious benefits to online dissemination, especially in an open access archive that leads to maximal exposure. These prospective gains ought to feature more prominently in the consideration to enact a potentially deeply harmful dissertation embargo.

The Case for Embargoing the Dissertation

PhD candidates ought to carefully consider whether they have sufficient cause to embargo their dissertation given the possible costs of this course of action. As I detail above, many professional benefits can stem from releasing one’s dissertation online, especially in an open access forum. In contrast, as the University of California-Berkeley argued in a December 2013 memo, “The potential disadvantages of releasing the dissertation at the time of deposit, or after a short embargo, remain anecdotal.” While UC-Berkeley’s position is largely substantiated by my research, there are a few specific circumstances under which an embargo might be helpful.

The precise terms of a dissertation embargo will depend on university policies. Some United States institutions only allow dissertation embargoes for a maximum of one or two years, whereas others permit a six-year or even an indefinite hold. Additionally, each school offers different options regarding whether the dissertation will eventually be made available on ProQuest (a closed access database), an institutional repository (often open access), or both. A few universities continue to offer an option where the dissertation is only available in a paper copy. For many scholars, including several that took Dissertation Reviews’ 2015 survey, the increasing lack of control afforded to graduate students regarding how to disseminate their dissertations is a serious issue of academic freedom. I take no position on this debate here but rather encourage junior scholars to decide among the available options with an eye to benefiting their own careers and the academy overall.

Some graduate students include sensitive materials in their dissertation that it may make sense to keep out of public view in the short term. For instance, some anthropologists work with human subjects and might feel an ethical obligation to only release their dissertation after publishing the polished, finished version of their work on these individuals (whether that is in later articles or a revised monograph). For other graduate students, their thesis might have commercial ramifications, and so they want to secure a patent or other intellectual property protection before sharing their work.

More commonly humanities and social science PhD candidates delay releasing their dissertations out of concern that their research is underdeveloped. In Dissertation Reviews’ 2015 survey, nearly 25 percent of early career scholars cited “concerns about the quality of my work” as a factor in deciding whether to embargo their dissertations. Many academics view the dissertation as a work in progress, and this status can prompt anxiety. As one survey respondent who embargoed his dissertation wrote: “Mainly, though, I was worried about the quality of the dissertation. After all, it’s a work in progress, and many who read it before having written one themselves might not understand that.”

Nearly all dissertation embargoes expire as a matter of university policy, and so an embargo will only delay rather than solve concerns about the thesis not being the best instantiation of one’s research. Additionally, many graduate students may not realize how difficult it can be to solicit constructive criticism on one’s scholarship after receiving a PhD. Once one is no longer a student, nobody is obligated to read one’s drafts, and releasing the dissertation can be an effective way to garner additional readers and thus feedback on work that a junior scholar hopes to improve.

While not all graduate students who embargo do so because they lack confidence in their dissertations, those that embargo for other reasons ought to consider that many colleagues will assume that a dissertation is poor precisely because it is embargoed. As a tenure-track literature professor commented on Dissertation Reviews’ 2015 survey: “If I see that a dissertation isn’t available I generally (though perhaps wrongly) assume that the writer, and perhaps her/his advisor, thinks that it’s not very good.”

Some graduate students are worried about plagiarism and copyright issues pertaining to their dissertations. On the one hand, art historians and others may include images in their dissertations for which they have not secured reproduction rights. On the other hand, academics in many fields worry that other people may plagiarize their work, and this concern came up repeatedly on Dissertation Reviews’ 2015 survey. In both cases, a temporary embargo is only a temporary solution.

A final reason to consider a dissertation embargo is if a university press editor requests it in order to maximize the sale of one’s book. In this instance, a junior scholar does not need to embargo her thesis upon deposit. Rather, she can release her dissertation upon completion and gain many of the benefits of doing so. Then she can request an embargo several years later when she publishes a revised version as a book. Some universities may not permit an embargo later on, although most will honor a publisher-endorsed request for a full takedown of the dissertation.

While a publisher request is certainly a solid reason to consider restricting access to one’s dissertation, especially once it has already been in circulation for a few years, scholars should feel empowered to push back against such a suggestion if they so desire. Many junior academics defer almost programmatically to senior scholars, editors, publishers, and others in authority positions. Pushing back need not be confrontational or unpleasant. In some instances, all that is required is clarifying whether a publisher request for an embargo or takedown is a demand or merely a preference. For example, Stanford University Press told me that they request authors of revised dissertations to take down their theses upon publication of their monographs, but, if an author disagrees, they do not try to compel her.

Positioning The Dissertation for Publishing Success

Many junior scholars think that embargoing their dissertation is a crucial step towards ensuring the publication of their first book. As I wrote about last week, this is generally untrue. However, there are a few major factors that graduate students are well-advised to think about when crafting their dissertation in order to set themselves up for publishing success later on. Most early career scholars do not reflect on how to transform their dissertation into a book until they actually begin this process. But it makes sense for prudent, career-minded academics to plan or at least consider this transformation well in advance.

First, consider future publication goals when formulating a dissertation topic. Early career scholars are likely to hear similar advice from university press publishers. For example, Katherine Boller, Editor at Yale University Press, told me that the question of whether a dissertation is online does not arise in her conversations with prospective authors. However, she does encourage junior scholars to pick a dissertation topic with an eye to how it might be adapted and expanded, whether that be as a monograph or a series of journal articles. A dissertation is typically more focused and narrow than a book, and if an author wishes to develop a book based on her thesis, then she ought to choose a topic that can be appropriately expanded.

For some scholars, thinking about publishing and career prospects may mean selecting a book-friendly dissertation topic. As a graduate student who is currently writing her dissertation put the case rather astutely on Dissertation Reviews’ 2015 survey, “I also find that the tenure system as it is basically requires you to publish your dissertation as your first book because you don’t/won’t have time to create another from scratch while an assistant professor.” Not all humanities and social science disciplines weigh books over articles to the same degree, and scholars also take different roads to tenure and pursue other paths within the academy. Accordingly, some graduate students may prefer to transform their dissertation into a few key articles rather than a book. Either way, this is an issue that benefits from consideration early in one’s career, at the stage of formulating the dissertation.

Second, write the dissertation as a dissertation, not as a book. Many senior scholars give the exact opposite advice these days. For instance, The Professor Is In, a popular academic blog, proffers as its first piece of guidance for turning a dissertation into a book: “Write the dissertation as a book to begin with.” Overall, university press editors think that this recommendation is infeasible. More than one editor openly laughed when, after they outlined their press’s policy of publishing only revised (as opposed to unrevised) dissertations, I asked, “Well, what about a dissertation that was really written as a book in the first place?” From the perspective of most acquisitions editors, there is no such thing as a dissertation that was written as a book.

In many respects, a dissertation and a book are entirely different beasts. A dissertation shows mastery over a field, helps a scholar develop certain skills, and convinces a committee of three to five people to induct a new member into the academic ranks. A book makes a powerful argument that speaks to a wide academic audience and, ideally, changes the course of a scholarly field. As one editor put it to me rather pointedly: “A haiku and a dissertation are different. A dissertation and a book are not quite that far apart but nearly so.”

In small respects, university press editors will likely demand that the dissertation and the book are different. Few editors will allow an author to use the same title for both works, for instance. Save the good title for the book. The literature review that is a fixture of humanities dissertations is generally cut for the monograph. But there are also more substantive differences between a thesis and a book, and rather than try to messily collapse the two categories, junior scholars may be better served by embracing the differences.

In addition to the different goals and conventions for dissertations and books, it may well be in an early career scholar’s professional interest to have the two pieces of work be rather different. As I outline above, there are distinct advantages to disseminating a dissertation online. Despite these arguments, many junior scholars will still fear that sometime down the line, an online dissertation may harm book sales or may displease an acquisitions editor. If the dissertation and the book are substantially different, however, then the two will not compete with one another. On a practical level, few embargoes will hold back a dissertation forever. The best protection against creating any conflicts between a dissertation and a book is to make the two substantively distinct from one another. Write the dissertation as a dissertation, and write the book as a book.

Last, junior scholars should strategically consider how much of the dissertation they publish as academic articles if they also intend to publish a revised version as a book. Articles grant a junior scholar visibility in her field according to Ken Wissoker, Editorial Director of Duke University Press. Priya Nelson, Associate Editor at the University of Chicago Press, says that editors may even hear about a junior scholar’s research through an article and then become interested in signing their first book. However, unlike a dissertation, articles count as prior publications. Some presses may be reluctant to adopt a monograph if too much of the manuscript has been previously published as articles. Anne Routon, Senior Editor at Columbia University Press, offered the guideline of not publishing more than two articles out of the dissertation, which she said is a change in the press’s policy in the last three years.

The Informed Scholar’s Choice

Early career scholars should take heart that none of the university press editors whom I interviewed said that they required dissertation embargoes or takedowns. Several editors actually spoke quite passionately about how this set of decisions ought to be made by academics and not by publishers. Some universities, however, have limited the range of choices for young academics. Many schools are pushing for greater dissemination of dissertations online, both by mandating deposit in open access institutional repositories and by limiting the length of embargoes (also sometimes by discouraging lengthy embargoes by requiring graduate students to apply to an internal board for this option rather than merely select it).

Nonetheless, most graduate students at North American institutions still have substantial control over how to share the dissertation, the most substantial piece of scholarly work that a PhD candidate has likely produced. For junior academics looking to effectively navigate the treacherous waters of the academy, the moral is this: educate yourself and make an informed decision. Rather than be coerced into automatically holding back scholarship by scare-mongering or by current trends, early career scholars ought to approach dissertation dissemination strategically and thoughtfully.

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

Image: Humanist button. Flickr.