Thing 19: Open Access and Your Thesis

Image: “Open Access (storefront)” by Gideon Burton via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“By making my PhD thesis Open Access, I hope to inspire people around the world to look up at the stars and not down at their feet; to wonder about our place in the universe and to try and make sense of the cosmos.” (Stephen Hawking on the release of his 1966 PhD thesis)

Making your thesis publicly accessible requires consideration of a number of concepts: institutional policy; attitudes of prospective publishers; 3rd-party copyright; and indexing in search engines, including the effect on citation and impact of your work. This installment of 23 Research Things aims to shed some light on these considerations.  

Institutional Policies

All universities have policies and procedures for enabling public access to higher degree theses. The specifics of the University of Melbourne policy are laid out at My Thesis in the Library and Preparation of Graduate Research Theses Rules. Advice elsewhere will reflect particular institutional requirements.  

Over the last 20 years universities have supplemented public access to print copies of theses on library shelves with online access via institutional repositories, such as Minerva Access. 

How Are Theses Discovered?

Theses are a link in the scholarly communications chain and the provision of public access to them is long-standing university practice. Discovery of print theses in university libraries has been facilitated by discovery services like Google Books, Google Scholar and Trove. Online open access extends this discovery and access, but comes with particular challenges and opportunities.  

Why Make Your Thesis OA – Impact, Engagement and Profile

Why is OA important?  An online thesis is one way you can establish your profile in a subject area, bringing you to the attention of potential collaborators, colleagues and employers. Theses indexed in Google Scholar will include citation data if referred to in other publications. Repositories provide counts for downloads and views, indicating both volume and location of your readership. Some institutions have begun to track “alt-metric” counts for theses, providing further indications of impact and engagement. You may never reach the dizzying heights of Stephen Hawking’s thesis download or altmetric count but you can always dream!  

Should You Embargo Your Thesis?

So, if OA theses are both personally rewarding and a social good, why would you choose an embargo? In fact, embargoes are a legitimate response to institutional and individual concerns around immediate OA. 

While there can be commercial and legal issues, or issues of cultural sensitivity which demand embargo, most often the concern is around the perceived threat to subsequent publication from the thesis. Is such concern warranted? A 2014 survey of science publishers found that over 80% would, with some qualification, accept article submissions from work based on OA theses. A 2017 in-house survey of 50 key business and economics journals found none would outright exclude a publication stemming from an OA thesis. Two of the 50 commented they would reserve the right to refuse if there was considerable duplication between the thesis and the submitted journal article, however it was also noted that it would be rare for a thesis to simply be repurposed as an article without substantial changes!   

What about books? Some publishers, based on their public statements, see OA theses as advantageous, allowing for the early identification of viable new publications. Another large-scale publisher survey found that 50% of university presses in social sciences and humanities would accept submissions based on OA theses. However, a substantial minority would not or would do so on a case-by-case basis.  

Copyright and Your Thesis

In most parts of the world, including Australia, an OA thesis is considered to be “published” which means that using copyright material created by other people – “third party copyright” such as text, images and graphs etc – requires not only explicit acknowledgment but may also require permission from the copyright owner. However, there are some circumstances where permission may not be required, for example for purposes of criticism or review [or for satire or parody]. For more information about these circumstances, see here.

Reusing your own, already-published work in your online “thesis-by/with-publication” may also require permission from other copyright owners. Publisher author rights policies generally support the use of the author-accepted-manuscript (see Sherpa/Romeo). However, for OA papers published with a Creative Commons Licence, and subscription papers from some publishers like Elsevier, there is no problem using the final published version. 

Learn More

This post was written by Stephen Cramond (Manager, Institutional Repository) and Jenny McKnight (Research Consultant (Open Access)).

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