Sorting out Your Dissertation’s Electronic Publishing Options

The giant pile of paper (i.e. three copies of my dissertation) that I had to lug over to the Grad House. In the midst of preparing all of this, I neglected to research my Open Access options.

The giant pile of paper (i.e. three copies of my dissertation) that I had to lug over to the Grad House right before my flight home. In the midst of preparing all of this, I neglected to research my electronic publishing and copyright options.

Not so long ago I defended my doctoral dissertation (hooray!) and readied copies of my manuscript for the College. I had reviewed the requirements the few weeks prior to preparing my manuscript so that I could be ready to turn it in soon after I defended. I went to turn in my copies the morning that I had my flight out of town Of course, since I was in a bit of a time crunch, I hit a few snags: I had the wrong month on the title page and had to fix it and re-print it (d’oh!); I hadn’t finished the survey of earned doctorates and had to rush through answering questions about what year I finished my qualifying exams and got my MA (uh, a few years ago?); and probably most importantly, I hadn’t really taken the time to research the available publishing options.

Don’t worry, I still made my flight with plenty of time to spare, and made decisions I’m still happy with in regards to the publishing and copyright options available. Here’s what I found useful to know about these options when making my decisions.

What Are the Options When You Turn in Your Manuscript?

There are several things that a W&M student should know about before turning in a dissertation manuscript. I’m going to refer specifically to dissertations, but for theses some of this still holds true, but it is optional for W&M students.

As far as I could tell, there are three major items that one should bear in mind before filling out and turning in the form from ProQuest that W&M requires. (ProQuest provides the services that W&M uses with regard to publishing and copyrighting dissertations.) These items are:

  • Copyright with the US Copyright Office (and therefore the Library of Congress).
  • Embargo — how long you want to hold off on publishing your dissertation. The options are six months, one year, and two years.
  • Open Access Publishing, which determines whether your full text dissertation will be available online.

Copyrighting Your Work

This option lets you copyright your work, registering it with the US Library of Congress. I didn’t hesitate to pay the fee and do this for my dissertation. W&M uses ProQuest for this service, and they do all of the applications and what-not to have this done. One thing that I noticed on the form that you turn in with your dissertation manuscript is that ProQuest says, “regardless of whether copyright registration of the Work is sought, ProQuest may make a copy of the Work available to the Library of Congress in digital, microform or other format as required by the Library of Congress.” So, keep that in mind.

At the top of the ProQuest form, they also make it clear that you as the author own the your work, and that ProQuest gets only non-exclusive rights, depending what choices you make.

Embargoing Your Dissertation

I’d heard a lot of graduate students and faculty talk about embargoing your dissertation once it’s done, especially my History Department colleagues and faculty. Last year, the American Historical Association (AHA) caused some waves by arguing that completed PhD dissertations in history should be embargoed from full-text digital publication for six years (the same amount of time it usually takes to get tenure, which often requires the publication of a monograph — usually based on the dissertation). Their argument is that academic book publishers were reluctant to publish books based on works that were easily available online.

I embargoed my dissertation for the maximum two years, which means that the full text won’t become available for that amount of time. Since my dissertation is in a humanities field where publishing a book based on one’s dissertation is important for tenure, I thought it would be best. If you’re getting a PhD in the social sciences or sciences, you might want to make a different decision, because disseminating your research findings right away may be important to you or, publishing practices may be different. If you’re unsure, you should ask your advisor or dissertation/thesis chair for their advice about what the advantages and disadvantages would be for embargoing your work in your discipline.

Publishing Your Dissertation with Open Access

ProQuest’s Open Access publishing options let you decide whether or not you want the entire text of your dissertation available in the ProQuest database. Their form (of course) makes a case for doing this, as you would be agreeing to the following:

I want the broadest possible dissemination of my work, and I want to provide free global access to the electronic copy of my work via the internet.

Well, the wording of the above makes it seem like the greatest thing ever, doesn’t it? I balked at this option, though, because ProQuest as a business is of course invested in getting me to pay the fee (at W&M, it’s currently $95) and let them use the full text of my dissertation. I chose not to have my work available via Open Access, though, just because my abstract would already be available, and I didn’t want ProQuest having control of the full text of something I worked so hard on. There are also lots of ways that I could make my intellectual work available for free on the Internet that don’t require an academic publishing giant.

Again, this is something that you may want to do, depending on your preferences, but for myself I decided that I didn’t want to relinquish any control of the text of my dissertation to ProQuest. If you don’t mind about this sort of thing, then you should go for it!

In Retrospect, I’m Happy with My Choices

Now that a few months have passed since I turned in my dissertation and made my decision about publication, I’m glad about all the decisions that I made. I’ve gotten more ideas about what I would do to revise chapters and possibly try to publish them as articles, either through academic journals or via self-publishing on the Web. And hey, I must’ve answered all those survey questions correctly because I got this in the mail the other day!

It's official! Got this piece of paper in the mail, and it doesn't get any more real than this.

It’s official! Got this piece of paper in the mail, and it doesn’t get any more real than this. (Don’t worry, I can’t read it, either.)

So, keep in mind that your choices about electronic publishing and copyright will probably be different than mine, but I hope that this post helps you figure out how it all works. And if you’re looking at this post because you just defended and need to turn in your manuscript soon, then congratulations, from one doctor to another!

About Kim Mann

Kim Mann is the editor and a writer for the Academic Technology Blog. She earned her BA in English from the University of Minnesota in 2003 and her MA in American Studies from William & Mary in 2009, and her PhD in American Studies at the College in 2014. Her research is on technology, the interface, and the body in mid-twentieth century science fiction.