When The Chronicle of Higher Education published its “Cautionary Tale” about a dissertation discovered, by its author, to be available for sale on Amazon.com without his knowledge, it was bound to stir up another round of anxiety over how dissertations are distributed in a digital world.

In the particular case, the problem was that ProQuest, which creates the dissertation database once known as Dissertation Abstracts, now offers electronic copies of dissertations through outlets like Amazon.  Authors have the option of preventing this (it is the default) when they submit their dissertations.  To the article’s author, this was an unwelcome discovery.  But two comments should be made about this cautionary tale.  First, ProQuest, and its predecessor UMI, have always sold copies of dissertations; all that has changed is the format and the ease with which they can be found.  Second, the most basic instruction for any author, whether of a dissertation or a best-selling novel, is to read the contract for distribution before you agree to it.

The bigger question is whether or not these sales, and more especially the online distribution of dissertations in open access repositories, which is becoming the norm at many institutions, actually prevent authors from getting their first book published.  The author of the Chronicle piece seems to assume that it will, but such assumptions, without facts, seem to be the real problem.  There are many expressions of fear on this front, and even a few stories of actual rejection which seem to be circulated endlessly.  Fears, of course, are not facts, and students often repeat these fears and demand that universities cater to them  based only on the anxiety of others.  As for the handful of anecdotes, it is hard to know whether the rejection of a book in these stories really was caused by online availability of the dissertation, or by some factor internal to the work itself. To a large degree we are again dealing with FUD – fear, uncertainty and doubt – intended to frighten people.

It is not surprising that publishers would sometimes raise this specter even if they know it is seldom an important issue in actual editorial decisions.  The simple truth is that the academic publishing industry has a vested interest in discouraging any online distribution of scholarship that it does not control.  But it is useful to look at some of the sources behind the anxiety to see what they really say.

First is this statement from the American Historical Association, which actually is quite moderate.  Here is the key paragraph:

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 advisers should be aware of the possibility. Editors who had spoken about the topic at a 2011 annual meeting session and had subsequently been interviewed for 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 stated that they would be more likely to publish a dissertation that had attracted interest online.

This is hardly terrifying stuff; the Professional Division of the AHA goes on to recommend that universities have policies regarding embargoes for online dissertations, and that authors and advisers know what those policies are.  Perfectly sensible, even though it seems to ignore the first clause  in the quoted paragraph: “there is no conclusive evidence that electronic publication can make it more difficult to publish a revised version of a dissertation.”  Two phrases are key in that clause, I think: “more difficult” and “revised version.”

It is difficult to publish a scholarly monograph these days, and the market for books based on dissertations is shrinking all the time.  Is this because of online, open access dissertations?  I don’t think so.  I think it is because library budgets are shrinking, more of the money must go each year simply to maintain journal subscriptions, and dissertation-based books tend to be very specialized and very expensive.  I have never heard a librarian say that she would not buy a book because the dissertation version was in a repository somewhere; cost and the availability of funds are a fully sufficient explanation for the contracting market for revised dissertations.

Yet according to this survey done by some leaders in the field of online dissertations, some publishers do express a greater reluctance to accept a manuscript if there is an online dissertation.  Here I think the issue of revision is key.  Note that many more publishers in the survey say that it is the degree of revision that makes a difference for them, and I believe that the small percentage that said an ETD could be a large factor were answering the question based on a scenario where they were presented with an unrevised, or lightly revised, manuscript.  A much larger percentage, over 40%, either cited the difference between the two documents as a factor or indicated a case-by-case analysis; they recognized that the key factor was revision.

Revision of a dissertation before submission for publication is virtually a sine qua non today, and much more important than online availability (or suppression) of the original dissertation.  Because of the market described above, an unrevised dissertation, which is always directed to the interests of a very narrow group of specialized readers, stands little chance of being accepted, regardless of whether it is also online.  More importantly, there is no evidence, in my opinion, that a publisher would reject a well-revised dissertation that was otherwise marketable simply because an earlier dissertation by the same author and on the same topic was online.  Availability as an ETD is an excuse, or a boogeyman, far more often than it is a real reason for turning away a marketable monograph.

So what is a dissertation author to do?  First, relax, but plan to revise.  Second, take the advice of the AHA and know the policies that will apply to you at your degree-granting institution and that prevail within your discipline.  Third, use embargoes on your work when they really will help, both in ProQuest and at your local campus.  Finally, read what you sign before you sign it.  This last point is a life lesson that all scholarly authors should learn, not just those at the dissertation stage of their careers.


2 Responses to Dissertations for sale, or, scaring the children, part 2

  1. Marsha Harwell says:

    “This is hardly terrifying stuff”

    After reading your post and checking out the links you provided, I must agree that “this is hardly terrifying stuff.” I can understand the shock of finding one’s dissertation for sale without your prior knowledge, but, if I was the author, I would equally be shocked to realize I was the one who signed off to give a third party permission to sell it without notifying me! I like your way of seeing through the hype and translating it into a better representation of reality. Thank you, again, for a great post!

  2. Drew Kadel says:

    I entirely agree. It is the case that I often choose not to buy dissertations turned into books for my library, but that is not because of the electronic versions. As you say, they tend to be specialized, detailed and expensive, so they are likely to have little circulation. But also the dissertation is on deposit at Proquest and usually available on interlibrary loan from the home school as well. Even if the book is out of print, the dissertation will be available–electronic or not.
    But there is another aspect that I think is more important. The buzz around an interesting dissertation promotes the book when it comes out. The scholars who are jazzed by looking at the “raw” scholarship are the most likely people to promote the revised ed. by course adoption or at least asking their library to buy it. The one person I know who adamantly insisted that her dissertation be embargoed even from circulation and interlibrary loan, actually slowed down the sales of the book which nonetheless became something of a best seller.
    Of course the authors of boring dissertations that no one will want to read as books, may not think their book will be worth encouraging buzz about. But really, shouldn’t they get busy trying to get their institutions to change tenure rules so that publications aren’t so important? ;->