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Sep 16 / scholarscooperative

Dissertations and Publication

In late July, the American Historical Association (AHA) made waves in the scholarly communication community by releasing a Statement on Policies Regarding the Embargoing of Completed History PhD Dissertations, in which it “strongly encourages graduate programs and university libraries to adopt a policy that allows the embargoing of completed history PhD dissertations in digital form for as many as six years,” avowing that “an increasing number of university presses are reluctant to offer a publishing contract to newly minted PhDs whose dissertations have been freely available via online sources.” This is in keeping with the folk wisdom in the humanities that open access to dissertations is an impediment to future publishing opportunities.

In the same month (and in contradiction to the AHA’s assertions) College & Research Libraries published Marisa Ramirez et al’s findings from a 2011 survey of academic publishers “that manuscripts that are revisions of openly accessible Electronic Theses and Dissertations (ETDs) are always welcome for submission or considered on a case-by-case basis by 82.8 percent of journal editors and 53.7 percent of university press directors polled.” Kevin Smith, Scholarly Communications Officer at Duke University, calls out the AHA for “purporting to defend the interests of graduate students” while modeling poor scholarly practice to its constituents by failing to factually support any of its claims.

Over against all of this is the basic principle, encoded for example in Harvard University’s Dissertation Guidelines, that dissertations must be made available as proof of achievement — a doctoral candidate “cannot have a degree for making a discovery that is kept secret.” Harvard Libraries, however, do indeed embargo their online dissertations, despite exhortations from Harvard’s Office for Scholarly Communication; not only that, they restrict access to the print dissertations based on the embargo settings of the electronic versions (see this opinion piece in The Harvard Crimson on the subject).

At Wayne State, our experience has been that embargoes for ETDs are requested most often for dissertations in disciplines (genetic research, for instance) where patent applications are common; humanities will also occasionally seek an embargo, along the lines of the AHA’s reasoning. Though PhD candidates retain copyright to their dissertations, the Graduate School’s Dissertation and Thesis Format Guidelines stipulate that students are “required to have the dissertation/thesis published so that manuscripts are available to the entire academic community,” a policy in line with Harvard’s “proof of achievement.” ETDs are published at Wayne State in two ways: through ProQuest/UMI’s Dissertations and Theses series, and through the library’s DigitalCommons@WayneState (DC@WSU), the institutional repository at Wayne State University ( It is the library’s policy that dissertations in DC@WSU eventually revert to open access; authors may request an embargo through the libraries’ ETD permission preference form, and can extend that embargo on a yearly basis by contacting the libraries directly. But no provision is made for a multi-year embargo, as indeed the print versions of previous dissertations were never restricted, and can be disseminated broadly through interlibrary loan and document delivery.

The questions remain whether the dissertation is (or should be) primarily a vehicle for publishing opportunities, and whether the archiving of a dissertation in an open-access repository like DC@WSU is an impediment to that goal. Ramirez et al offer evidence to the contrary, and the AHA has yet to substantiate its claims. There is a wealth of scholarship that supports the thesis that open access to scholarly publication increases the impact and reputation of the author. The Scholars Cooperative welcomes inquiry and discussion on this and any other topic pertaining to scholarly communication and open access. Drop us a line at