Why Shouldn’t Your PhD Thesis be Accessible to Everyone?

A PhD thesis is the result of many years of hard work, and the author generally hopes it will be the start of a successful academic career. But quite often, it is only read by the authors themselves and their supervisors. Who should be allowed to access it, and how? Our colleague Catherine Brendow discusses the main reasons why PhD students are generally reluctant to make their thesis open access.

Does open access reduce the chances of publishing my thesis as a book?

Many graduate students fear that if their thesis is open-access (OA), academic publishers will probably not be interested in publishing it as a book. It seems logical: if it is available free, why would anyone buy it?

The main flaw in this reasoning is that publishing a thesis as a book requires rewriting it completely: a book, even published by an academic press, is totally different from the original PhD thesis, as it is targeted for a different audience. It is not the same document, and scholars often prefer reading and citing the published work rather than the original dissertation. 

Moreover, a thesis going open access makes your work more visible, including for potential publishers. They may also be interested in the download statistics to gauge the interest of readers for the subject.

What about the risks of plagiarism?

Under Swiss law, the copyright originally belongs to the author. No registration is necessary. You have the right to make your work available in the manner and at the time you choose. Sharing works under an open license such as CC BY or CC BY-NC-SA does not mean you are at more risk of plagiarism.

The academic world is highly competitive, and many PhD students fear being plagiarized. The mere fact that the thesis is easily accessible is actually a good way to prevent sloppy plagiarism, which will be detected by anti-plagiarism software. The date the thesis file was put online is an acceptable proof of anteriority.

The case of “smart” plagiarism is more complex: unscrupulous scholars can steal ideas or arguments and blend them into a unified whole where the original elements will be more difficult to distinguish. But even in this case, a scholar of the field (sometimes the author of the thesis themselves) would be able to recognize the stolen material. Once again, the time stamp on the file would prove the anteriority of your thesis.

Besides, your doctoral research will seldom be completely undisclosed, since the whole point is to make it visible by presenting your findings at symposia and conferences, or through publications. You should consider this an opportunity rather than a risk!

The situation at the Graduate Institute and elsewhere

The Graduate Institute library keeps 2 printed copies of each PhD thesis in its reading room. They can be borrowed, including by faraway patrons through the interlibrary loan.

We also keep a record with an attached pdf file in the institutional repository. The default situation, for the great majority of the theses, is an access restricted to the Graduate Institute community: anyone with a Graduate Institute login, student or staff (it does not include alumni, nor the authors themselves once they have left the Institute).

Authors can also ask for a 3-year embargo. In that case, it will be only accessible to the administrators of the repository. Open access is not the default option at this time, and is actually quite rare here, but you should definitely consider it!

In other universities, the proportion of open-access theses is much higher. In France, for instance, 74% of the PhD theses available online are open-access. Of these, 60 % are made OA immediately, and 14% after an embargo period. Of course, it depends on the academic field: 85% of STEM doctors make their thesis OA, while this number goes down to 51% in the humanities and social sciences. The most “restricted” fields are history (37%) and law (39%). Closer to us, 66% of the PhD theses recorded in the “archive ouverte” of the University of Geneva are open-access.

Get out in the open

Of course, some theses may include sensitive or personal data which could not be anonymized and make it impossible to publish the thesis in open access. But if this is not the case, remember:

“Those who choose to restrict access to their dissertations are hiding them not just from bad attention but also from good attention. If a dissertation is not OA, then it is much less likely to be read by those who might provide useful feedback, offer career-boosting opportunities, cite it in their publications, bolster the author’s scholarly confidence, or silently appreciate the work.” (Cirasella, Jill, and Polly Thistlethwaite. “Open Access and the Graduate Author: A Dissertation Anxiety Manual.” In Open Access and the Future of Scholarly Communication, edited by Kevin L. Smith and Katherine A. Dickson. Rowman & Littlefield, 2016, p. 213.)

Oh, by the way: this quote is taken from a resource I was only able to read because it was open access. Think about it.


Check our open access libguide for more information on open-access, and let us know what you think!

Illustration: Open Access logo, CC BY-SA Mike A. Morrison (WikiCommons)

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