Thing 13: Your Thesis and Public Sharing

“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)

Once upon a time, theses could be found in the stacks of the library, but now they are being made available online in university repositories for the whole world to read. Naturally, this brings up many questions for graduate researchers: does it count as prior publication? Can I include third party copyright? How do I track citations and impact? In this post, Dimity Flanagan revisits Thing 19 from 2017 to shed some light on these considerations.

Getting started

Earlier in this blog series, Thing 03 discussed the benefits of Open Access (OA) for research publications. But increased discoverability and wider dissemination are just as important for theses, so here are some key points for the graduate researchers amongst our readers.

Institutional policies

At the University of Melbourne, PhD theses are made openly available in Minerva Access, the University’s repository. The efforts to promote the visibility of our theses align with the University’s Principles for Open Access to Research Outputs at Melbourne, a public commitment to disseminate research as widely as possible in order to foster innovation and societal impact. The specifics of the University of Melbourne thesis policy are laid out at My Thesis in the Library and Preparation of Graduate Research Theses Rules.

How are theses discovered?

Unsurprisingly, most users discover Unimelb theses from a search in Google or Google Scholar – in fact, 70% of total traffic to the repository is generated through them. Other sources include library catalogues, such as Trove, social media and through direct links. Of course, once your thesis is in Minerva Access, you can promote the link any way you like: you can blog about your researchtweet it, or provide it to prospective employers.


Why make your thesis open?

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 altmetric 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 never know how popular your work may become. The most popular item in Minerva Access is a Masters Research thesis with over 73,000 downloads!

Should you embargo your thesis?

If OA theses are both personally rewarding and a social good, why would you choose an embargo? There can be commercial and legal issues, or issues of cultural sensitivity which demand an embargo, or in exceptional cases require your thesis to be restricted long term. A very common question is whether having your thesis openly accessible undermines future publication opportunities. The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) states that where a thesis contains unpublished work it should not be considered prior publication. This condition applies even if the thesis is freely available via a university repository. A 2017 in-house survey of 50 key business and economics journals found none would outright exclude a publication stemming from an OA thesis. Statements confirming that theses are not considered prior publication can often be found on publisher websites, such as ElsevierWiley, and Sage.

What about publishing your thesis as a book? A 2019 in-house survey of 20 book publishers found that only one publisher (Elgar) stated that an external embargo would be preferable. The key point raised by most publishers is that considerable work goes into transforming a thesis into a monograph, so the end result is quite different to what is in the repository. If you do have concerns, get in touch with prospective publishers or talk to your supervisor.

Copyright and your thesis

While a publisher may not consider an online thesis as prior publication, in terms of copyright law, your thesis is a published work. This means that using copyright material created by other people (third party copyright), such as text, images and graphs, requires not only explicit acknowledgment, but may also require permission from the copyright owner. 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, see the University Copyright Office’s advice on Copyright and your Thesis.

Reusing your own, already-published work in your online ‘thesis by/with publication’ may also require permission from the publisher. 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

About the Author

Dimity Flanagan is the Manager, Scholarly Communications, at the University of Melbourne. 

The original 2017 post was written by Stephen Cramond and Jenny McKnight.


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