On Not Publishing Dissertations

http://www.flickr.com/photos/michaelhenderson/866523877/Last July, the American Historical Association issued a statement suggesting that doctoral students be given the option to withhold dissertations from online public access for up to six years. The broad circulation of such work in databases like Proquest’s, it claimed, limits the ability of young scholars to secure publishing contracts for their dissertations in revised form. The AHA’s approach was criticized as running counter to the scholarly mission of sharing research. But what do university presses think of the embargoes? Laurie Matheson, Editor-in-Chief of the University of Illinois Press, shares her perspective.   —bM

Does the rise of ProQuest and similar online databases make it more difficult for scholars to publish books based on their dissertations? Most definitely.

Our library colleagues tell us that library acquisitions staff actively screen for telltale signs of the dissertation origins when considering purchasing a book: mention of the words “dissertation” or “thesis adviser” in the acknowledgments; same title as the dissertation; same table of contents and approximate length as the dissertation; same chronological span as the dissertation; and so on.

Robert_HodginAs library resources become scarcer, librarians want to make sure they’re not purchasing material that duplicates what they already have in their collections, whether in the form of a dissertation on ProQuest or an article in a journal or an edited collection (which is one reason that most edited collections sell so poorly that many publishers have ceased to publish them).

And it’s not only librarians who want to conserve their resources. Scholars doing research and finding a dissertation online are not likely to pursue purchase of a book that seems from its parameters to be very similar to the dissertation they can already access.

Even if the dissertation is embargoed for a period, as some authors are doing, libraries and scholars assume they will eventually have access to it, and/or to articles that may duplicate or greatly overlap with the eventual book.

Joanne_WoffindenFor these reasons, publishers prefer that a book contain little to no previously published material. We try to counsel authors to publish the articles they need for their portfolios by developing pieces that won’t be in the book, perhaps pulling out a self-standing chapter of the dissertation that’s an outlier to the book’s focus. It’s also wise to avoid publishing a “nutshell” version of the book as an article that a scholar can access on JSTOR instead of buying the book.

Even without the new complications introduced by ProQuest and its ilk, books that begin as dissertations are more of a risk for publishers to take on than second books or even first books that do not begin as dissertations.

It’s no longer sufficient (though it is necessary) for the revised dissertation to make a scholarly contribution. It must also make a contribution that is of interest to individuals a publisher can identify who might conceivably buy the book, rather than only to libraries who are buying fewer books every year (though we continue to rely on libraries for a critical core of book sales).

ProQuest or no ProQuest, embargo or no embargo, the fact always has been and remains that a dissertation is not a book. A dissertation serves a specific purpose and a very narrow audience, and it invariably bears the traces of its construction: the compiling and processing of data and theory; chapters that progress through the evidence and eventually arrive at conclusions, rather than structuring the evidence around an argument.

How much does a dissertation need to be revised? From a publishing point of view, the more the better.

Virtually every dissertation – I think I would be safe in saying every dissertation – benefits at the very least from basic (but not cosmetic or superficial) revisions. These usually include: developing the author’s voice, foregrounding the argument, creating a narrative arc or backbone for the book, writing an introduction and conclusion appropriate to a book, developing ideas systematically within paragraphs and across chapters, pruning and customizing detail to advance the argument, making selective rather than exhaustive use of examples, pruning the notes, pruning long block quotes, and broadening the context. And, of course, choosing a title different from that of the dissertation.

DettmerIn addition to carrying out these and other “basic” revisions, an author approaching a potential publisher is at a great advantage if he or she can say that the book is or will be different from the dissertation in some substantial ways.

Perhaps the dissertation was very long; the book will be a more publishable length, which necessitates cutting, revising, reshaping, perhaps restructuring. Perhaps the author will embark on some new research to expand the geographical and/or chronological scope of the work, or to bring in additional primary sources.

But even “basic” revisions will remake the dissertation into something much more like a book, more attractive to publishers, more likely to find a relatively painless path through peer review, and more likely to be published successfully.


lmatheson_edit-199x300Laurie Matheson is Editor-in-Chief of the University of Illinois Press. She holds a doctorate in music from the University of Illinois, and has worked in various capacities at the Press since 1996. Her acquisitions list includes the subjects of History, Appalachian Studies, Labor Studies, Music, Folklore.

The IPRH always welcomes your thoughts! Please forward comments and suggestions to Bonnie Mak, the guest blog editor for AY 2013/14.

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6 Responses to On Not Publishing Dissertations

  1. The American Historical Association did NOT recommend what is stipulated at the beginning of this essay: “the American Historical Association issued a statement suggesting that doctoral dissertations be withheld from online public access for up to six years.” This is simply not true, and anyone who follows a link to the AHA’s statement and reads carefully will recognize this. Our statement is clear: we recommend that universities give Ph.D. recipients A CHOICE as to how their dissertation is disseminated in the digital environment.

    A good historian does not impute intent without evidence. So I will not assume that once again someone has purposely misconstrued the statement. But a good historian also draws interpretive conclusions based on patterns of evidence, and one has to wonder when the same misreading occurs over and over and over and over. For those who have trouble reading a statement carefully, here is a Q&A: http://blog.historians.org/2013/07/qa-on-the-ahas-statement-on-embargoing-of-history-dissertations/

    My policy normally is to not comment on others’ blogs because it is impossible to comment whenever the AHA is referenced, and it is difficult to pick and choose. I comment here because it is so frustrating to see respected colleagues repeat this significant misrepresentation.

    James Grossman
    Executive Director, American Historical Association

  2. bMak says:

    The sentence has been clarified. Thanks for reading & responding!

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