VOLUME 14 NUMBER 1
FALL 2012

Frequently asked: eTDs and Prior Publication

Image of some books Free image courtesty of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Among the many anxieties that swirl in the mind of the graduate student - poised to click the SUBMIT button and deposit her dissertation - are these:

Can I incorporate material that I have already published as part of my dissertation?

If I make this dissertation openly accessible, will a potential book publisher decline it because it is already published?

These are both good questions and getting it right can have important consequences for the dissertation writer.

The first question is more easily answered than the second. It arises fairly often, as graduate students are encouraged to publish, and some actually craft a dissertation out of their published articles.

If you have published a journal article and want to incorporate that into your dissertation, your right to reuse the material will depend largely on the contract terms that you signed at publication. Most graduate students are understandably thrilled to get a publication contract and don't think about negotiating the terms. They may sign away all their rights in a particular article to the journal publisher.

The good news, however, is that many journal publishers have policies allowing the use of a published article in the author's own dissertation.

Elsevier, a publisher of many academic journals, often maligned for its rights policies, includes the following FAQ for authors:

What rights do I retain as a journal author?
...the right to include the journal article, in full or in part, in a thesis or dissertation.

The current American Chemical Society journal article publication contract, although quite restrictive in other ways, contains this language:

1. Reuse/Republication of the Entire Work in Theses or Collections:
Authors may reuse all or part of the Submitted, Accepted or Published Work in a thesis or dissertation that the Author writes and is required to submit to satisfy the criteria of degree-granting institutions.

Don't wait until you are ready to click the submit button to wonder if you can include your previously published material in your dissertation. Read and understand your publication contract, and make sure you have retained the rights you need. Many publishers' websites also explicitly state what rights authors will retain.

If you neglected this step and the publisher does not automatically allow publication in the dissertation, you can still ask the publisher for permission to include the article. Your ability to embargo access to the dissertation for a period of a year or two may be helpful in getting the publisher to agree.

Will making my dissertation accessible make it difficult to publish?

There are powerful reasons to make a dissertation openly accessible. Making the work available for anyone to read can raise the scholar's visibility, increase citation counts, add to the knowledge in the field, help in finding a job, enhance the reputation of Boston College, equalize access to knowledge in the developing world - the list goes on.

Still, this question is of great concern to students and it is important to make the decision based on the actual practices of academic publishers and their likely impact on the student's career. In 2011 five librarians surveyed the attitudes toward prior publication among 130 members of the American Association of University Presses and 616 high-impact journal publishers. The respondents were heavily weighted toward publishers of humanities and social science materials.

In the article presenting their findings, the authors wrote:

The key question was: Which of the following statements best reflects the editorial policy or practice governing your enterprise? "Manuscripts which are revisions derived from openly accessible electronic theses or dissertations (ETDs) are..."
  • Always welcome for submission
  • Considered on a case-by-case basis
  • Considered ONLY IF the contents and conclusions in the manuscript are substantially different from the ETD
  • Considered ONLY IF the ETD has access limited to the campus or institution where it was completed
  • Not considered under any circumstances
  • Other

The findings are presented in the aggregate, but also separated for university press (mostly monographs) and journal publishers. Of the AAUP members, approximately three-fourths said that eTDs were always welcome, welcome on a case-by-case basis or welcome if very different. Only 7 % indicated that eTDs would never be welcome.

Journal editors were more enthusiastic about receiving eTDs, with approximately 90% saying they were always welcome, welcome on a case-by-case basis or welcome if heavily revised.

The authors of this article interpret the comments received from publishers to indicate that quality, revision and fit with the publisher's audience are the most important factors in determining whether an eTD will be republished as a book or journal article.

Statements from publishers on this issue are varied. Elsevier, usually considered conservative in its policies, states:


Elsevier is liberal with respect to authors and electronic preprints. Unlike some publishers, we do not consider that a preprint of an article (including a prior version as a thesis) prior to its submission to Elsevier for consideration amounts to prior publication, which would disqualify the work from consideration for re-publication in a journal.

The very conservative American Chemical Society evaluates the material on a case-by-case basis but offers caution:

Students and their mentors should be aware that posting of theses and dissertation material on the Web prior to submission of material from that thesis or dissertation to an ACS journal may affect publication in that journal. Whether Web posting is considered prior publication may be evaluated on a case-by-case basis by the journal's editor. If an ACS journal editor considers Web posting to be "prior publication", the paper will not be accepted for publication in that journal. If you intend to submit your unpublished paper to ACS for publication, check with the appropriate editor prior to posting your manuscript electronically.

In a recent blog post, Kevin Smith, Scholarly Communications Officer at Duke University, pointed out that perceptions of the prior publication problem are based more on fear, uncertainty and doubt than on evidence. He quoted the American Historical Association's fairly moderate statement on the issue:

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 last sentence refers to the fact that online publication may make it easier for a student submitting a revised dissertation to prove that there is substantial interest in the work, as evidenced by the number of downloads.

Smith expresses this opinion:

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.

In a recent communication to me, Ellen Faran, Director of the MIT Press, stated a similar view, with the caveat that MIT might not be typical and that there may be disciplinary differences:

We see publishing as about connecting authors with readers, and book readers as different from the intended readers of a dissertation. We think that the major obstacle for publishing dissertations is not open posting but rather the question of audience, adapting the work for the appropriate book-buying audience. We usually do not consider a dissertation unless it has been thoroughly reworked into being a book rather than a dissertation. Many dissertations can't be so adapted. Thus we think that open posting may be less of a concern than PhD students might think, because the book they can actually publish will have to be so different from the dissertation anyway.

Universities are uniformly struggling with what advice to give students about this issue.

Here is an excerpt from Duke's advice:

Usually, a thesis/dissertation must be significantly revised as part of the process of creating a publishable monograph. Most book publishers insist on extensive editorial revisions before a thesis/dissertation is suitable for publication, and many publishers also state clearly that electronic distribution of your thesis/dissertation does not count as previous publication such as to prevent later publication of a monograph or journal articles. But publisher policies vary a great deal, and it is wise to become familiar with the policies within your field as you consider how you can best exploit the work you have put into your thesis/dissertation... If potential publishers in your field do object to prior distribution of your work on the internet (and this is more likely if you wish to publish chapters as journal articles without significant alterations), you will probably want to embargo your electronic thesis/dissertation until those portions have been submitted and accepted for publication.

Three often-repeated themes in university advice on this issue are:

  1. A book created from a dissertation is usually heavily revised and becomes a quite different work.
  2. Publishers in different fields have different views on prior publication, and you should become familiar with the policies in your field.
  3. If you are in doubt, select a reasonable embargo period for your dissertation, keeping it in the dark until you have had a chance to negotiate with potential publishers.

We agree with this advice and suggest that students strike a balance between the desire to have their work read, cited and added to the world's knowledge base, and the need to enhance potential appeal to publishers.

If a book based on your dissertation is part of your career plan (and for many it is not), investigate some publishers' policies in your field. If in doubt, select a reasonable embargo period to allow yourself time to negotiate. But, base your decision on informed research, not on unfounded fear, uncertainty and doubt.

A sampling of other universities' advice regarding prior publication of eTDs:

Jane Morris
Scholarly Communications Librarian