Publishing Your Dissertation Online: What’s a New Ph.D. to Do?

Early this week, the American Historical Association (AHA) released a controversial statement that strongly advised graduate programs and libraries to adopt a policy allowing the embargoing of the publication of completed dissertations online for up to six years. The statement has generated much praise and much criticism. Supporters of the statement argue that it protects junior authors, given that in the current academic climate a completed, published, single-authored monograph continues to be the standard for tenure and promotion in fields like history. Opponents of the statement counter with several arguments: that making the dissertation research public, rather than keeping it embargoed for years, allows the junior scholar to gain credit for his or her work; that the revision necessary to turn a dissertation into a book makes the two significantly different scholarly works; and finally, that the AHA should actively consider rethinking the book as a gold standard for advancement.

In the midst of all of this, I decided to openly publish my 2008 doctoral dissertation, Inventing Malayanness: Race, Education and Englishness in Colonial Malaya online, under a Creative Commons license.

Why did I choose to do this?

Let me state up front that I do not disagree with the AHA statement. I have heard of a number of cases where people have been denied book contracts because their dissertation is available online, which can be potentially disastrous if one requires a book for tenure at their institution. Whether or not a book is the best marker of tenure and promotion in humanities fields is an important and needed conversation to have. However, I cannot determine standards for advancement at all institutions, and so I would advise anyone who is considering making their dissertation available online to consider what they might need from their dissertation in their professional future. Through the many interviews I have conducted with presses and libraries in my “Digital Challenges to Academic Publishing” series here at ProfHacker, I have learned that there is no single industry standard or singular point of view for what makes things publishable or profitable. For example, while one acquisitions editor might look at a highly downloaded dissertation as a good indication of a market for a book, another editor look at the exact same dissertation and and decide that the availability of an online dissertation will compete with–and hurt sales of–any book that grows out of it.

To me, all of this means that whether or not you choose to publish your dissertation online is a decision that you should be free to make on an individual basis.

So why did I choose to put my dissertation online? I chose to make Inventing Malayanness: Race, Education and Englishness in Colonial Malaya available for several reasons:

  1. I have already placed for publication two articles from chapters of my dissertation.
  2. Because my current book manuscript diverges significantly from my dissertation, the online version of the latter will not compete with the former.
  3. I received tenure and promotion at Richard Stockton College a few months ago (hooray!), which means that I do not need my monograph to be published as urgently as I might in different circumstances.
  4. I was hopeful that this might encourage more people to read my research and to use it in their own work. There is a very small market for research that is narrowly focused on Malaysia and Singapore, and many of the books available on the international market are extremely expensive. I know from personal experience that texts which are freely available online are much more likely to be read (and referenced) than texts which are buried behind expensive paywalls.

If you would like to publish your dissertation online, you have several options. Here are a few (among many):

  • One option could be your campus’ own institutional repository, which might offer open access to your dissertation once you have signed a few permissions forms. Check with your campus library to find out if this is possible.
  • is especially attractive because it provides you with a DOI (Digital Object Identifier), which is a digital version of an ISBN (International Standard Book Number), effectively “publishing” your work for you. Furthermore, Figshare is compatible with citation managers like Zotero, Refworks, and Endnote.
  • has the most attractive reading interface in my opinion, and processes your dissertation into sections that make it easy for a reader to page through your text. Scribd also allows you the option to hide a portion of your dissertation from full view and to sell the full version at a price that you set (I chose the option to make my dissertation fully viewable online but to require users to pay 2.99 to download a copy for offline use). In an email exchange with ProfHacker, Scribd support stated that there is no conflict between the Scribd EULA agreements and the Creative Commons license that I used (CC-BY-NC-ND).
  • bases its platform on but does not allow you to limit downloads of your work. However, as it is an increasingly large social media network for scholarly exchange, may increase the findability — and the readership — of your work.
  •, an online repository that allows people to build software collaboratively. We’ve written a lot about Github on ProfHacker already. I chose not to use Github because I preferred the interface Scribd offered, but that may be a matter of personal choice.

When publishing your dissertation online, you have your choice of license and (depending on hosting platform) price.

  • I chose the CC-BY-NC-ND Creative Commons license, (which means that users are free to copy, use and distribute my thesis as long as they attribute it to me. However the license restricts my work for commercial use and I did not allow any derivations of the work.) Creative Commons has a number of different licenses, many of which are less restrictive. I was most comfortable with my particular license because it is the same license used by prior examples of other dissertations released under Creative Commons, but some people may prefer more open licenses which allow for the remixing of their work (such as my colleague Ernesto Priego (@ernestopriego), who released his dissertation on Figshare under the CC-BY-SA license.
  • I chose to charge a small amount ($2.99) for someone to download my full dissertation because I think that academic work is labor and author should receive some acknowledgement of this labor. I don’t get very much per download (I receive a dollar per download, I believe), but I think making a token gesture towards appreciation of that labor is not unreasonable. Furthermore, if someone is unable to afford the $2.99, this will not prevent them from reading my dissertation in its entirety, as it is still fully readable online in the web browser. I did not choose to charge a larger amount as I did not want to limit the number of people who might want to download it for their own purposes. This small amount is only for the downloading of the dissertation, the entire dissertation is also fully readable free of charge from a web browser.

Since I published my dissertation on Wednesday evening, I have been amazed by the response. My tweets about putting Inventing Malayanness online have been retweeted by many Asian Studies scholars or people outside academia who live in the region. I have received a number of responses from people outside of higher education who have told me that they have found the work interesting. This is a reaction that I would be lucky to generate with a traditional book publication. I am happy with my decision, and hope that this will make my research useful to both scholars and people outside of academia who are interested in the history and culture of Singapore and Malaysia.

How about you? Is your dissertation available online? If it is, has this decision benefitted you professionally? What influenced your decision either way? As a reader and researcher, have you made use of an online dissertation? Please share in the comments!

Image by Fred Seibert on Flickr

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