Sociologists: Don’t embargo your dissertation

Your work is important. Don’t hide it. (PNC video)

This post is about the practice of putting your dissertation under an embargo, which means your university library, and probably its agent, ProQuest, don’t let people read it for a certain amount of time, sometimes only a few months, sometimes many years. At my school, the University of Maryland, the graduate school is implementing a new policy that allows two-year embargoes without special permission (down from six years), and longer embargoes only with permission of the advisor and the dean.

Are you in this to advance knowledge? If so, don’t embargo your dissertation. By definition, a dissertation is a contribution to knowledge. By definition, keeping people from reading it stops that from occurring.

Many PhD graduates embargo their dissertations because it feels like the safer thing to do, because they’re vaguely worried about sharing their work, either because it’s so good someone will steal it, or it’s so bad it will embarrass them — or, weirdly, both. Many people don’t seriously think about it, don’t read up on the question, don’t discuss it with knowledgeable mentors (which your PhD advisor is very likely not, at least when it comes to this question). Lots of good people make this mistake, and that’s a shame. I’m writing this post so that, if you see it before you face this choice, there’s a chance my nagging voice will get stuck in your head.

Some graduate students think they’re being exploited and someone is going to make money off their work. Probably not. (You may have been exploited as a graduate student, and you might have good reasons for disliking your university, but this isn’t about making your university happy.) Maybe your dissertation will lead to an important book that lots of people will read — that is wonderful, and I hope it does. Of course, that’s a very small minority of dissertations, even among really good ones that make important contributions to knowledge. That’s just not in the cards in the vast majority of cases. But unless you already have a contract and a publisher telling you that without an embargo the deal is off — a situation that is vanishingly rare if it occurs at all, at least in sociology — making your dissertation publicly available will not hurt (and will probably help) your chances of accomplishing that goal. And if you’re going to publish articles based on your dissertation, no reputable journal will turn them away because they have overlapping content with your dissertation.

Some graduate students are afraid they will get “scooped” or their ideas will be “stolen.” This is profoundly misguided. You are doing the work so that people will read it. People are going to do what they do. You might be taking a small risk to your personal interest by making your work public, but consider it against the benefit of people reading it (which is, after all, the reason you should have written it). This is your finished work. It’s done. By definition it can’t be scooped. It can be plagiarized, like anything else. Would it be awkward or disappointing if someone published something similar that made similar contributions? Maybe. Will that substantially harm your career or personal interests? Very unlikely.* If you had a good idea, it will probably lead to more. Your ideas and your efforts in the dissertation are on the record now. Be proud of them, take credit for them, encourage people to engage with them, and hope that they will be inspired to do work that follows your lead. If your dissertation is good, it’s worth the risk — because you want people to read it. If your dissertation is bad, there is no risk anyway.

Will making your dissertation public hurt your chances of publishing a book? Almost certainly not. As an editor at Harvard University Press wrote:

“Generally speaking, when we at HUP take on a young scholar’s first book, whether in history or other disciplines, we expect that the final product will be so broadened, deepened, reconsidered, and restructured that the availability of the dissertation is irrelevant.”

And they quoted an assistant editor who went further: making your dissertation available improves your chances of getting a book contract:

“I’m always looking out for exciting new scholarship that might make for a good book, whether in formally published journal articles and conference programs, or in the conversation on Twitter and in the history blogosphere, or in conversations with scholars I meet. And so, to whatever extent open access to a dissertation increases the odds of its ideas being read and discussed more widely, I tend to think it increases the odds of my hearing about them.”

Or, as the editorial director at Columbia University Press, Eric Schwartz wrote in a tweet about sharing dissertations: “No problem. Book and dissertation are for different audiences.”

Of course there may be exceptions. If you have an editor on the hook who insists on an embargo, consider the pros and cons. If you have only a vague hope of publishing it down the road, don’t bother.

Do you want to win awards so everyone is talking about your dissertation? Don’t embargo it. Thanks to a 2015 change in policy at the American Sociological Association:

“To be eligible for the ASA Dissertation Award, nominees’ dissertations must be publicly available in Dissertation Abstracts International or a comparable outlet. Dissertations that are not available in this fashion will not be considered for the award.”

There are real, important principles at stake. Hate on your universities all you want, but some of their lofty rhetoric is true and good — and we should be holding them to it, not scoffing at it. Many universities, like the University of California system, have policies based on such high-minded statements as this:

“The University of California is committed to disseminating research and scholarship conducted at the University as widely as possible…. The University affirms the long-standing tradition that theses and dissertations, which represent significant contributions to the advancement of knowledge and the scholarly record, should be shared with scholars in all disciplines and the general public.”

Embargoing the work for years absolutely violates the spirit of such a principled policy, even if they do allow an embargo. Making your work accessible years later is clearly depriving the public of “significant contributions to the advancement of knowledge and the scholarly record” for the most important period in the life of the work — the years right after it’s done.

Here’s the statement from the University of Chicago:

“The public sharing of original dissertation research is a principle to which the University is deeply committed, and dissertations should be made available to the scholarly community at the University of Chicago and elsewhere in a timely manner. If dissertation authors are concerned that making their research publicly available might endanger research subjects or themselves, jeopardize a pending patent, complicate publication of a revised dissertation, or otherwise be unadvisable, they may, in consultation with faculty in their field (and as appropriate, research collaborators), restrict access to their dissertation for a limited period of time.”

Some people might skim through this policy and say, “Oh, cool, they allow an embargo,” and just check the box requesting it. But that’s making a powerful statement against the important principle articulated in this policy. If you don’t have a really good reason to embargo your dissertation — and you almost certainly don’t — the public interest demands that you make it public. Take the value of your work seriously. Not it’s commercial value, it’s actual value — which is to people who want to read it.

There is also an important accountability principle at stake. Should PhDs be awarded in secret, with no accountability beyond the committee room walls, until years later? For those of us on the faculty, how are we to evaluate programs and their candidates if we can’t scrutinize their most important works? How can we claim to be reputable programs if we shroud our work behind embargoes. Without at least this bottom-line transparency, there can be little accountability.

I write this post out of a certain sense of shame. I’m the director of graduate studies in our department, and I haven’t made it a priority to talk to students about this, because I didn’t know it was happening. When I looked at the dissertations from our department, which are archived in the Digital Repository at the University of Maryland (or, if they are embargoed, merely listed), I saw that among the last 19 dissertations, 12 were currently embargoed. The seven that were made public have been downloaded 1,200 times.

If you want to embargo your dissertation, or if someone is telling you that you should, the burden is on you (or them) to prove that the real benefits of the embargo — not just for you, but for the contribution to knowledge that your work represents — are greater than the harm of denying readers access to your research. The default must be to share our dissertations, with rare exceptions only when real (not imagined or rumored) circumstances demand that the public interest in access to knowledge be sacrificed.


* My dissertation, completed in 1999, although excellent, was not especially original. My major contributions were updating research on a longstanding theory to (a) use more recent data, (b) include women, and (c) use hierarchical linear models. My dissertation was titled, “Black Population Size and the Structure of United States Labor Market Inequality.” In 1997, as I was hard at work, and had a chapter under review at Social Forces (which I had already presented at two conferences), an article appeared (in Social Forces!) titled, “Black Population Concentration and Black-White Inequality: Expanding the Consideration of Place and Space Effects.” The authors used (a) the new data I was using, they (b) included women, and their (c) models were fancier than mine. I was crushed. And then, with my advisor’s help, I got over it. My article (with a citation to theirs added) got published the next year anyway, titled, “Black Concentration Effects on Black-White and Gender Inequality: Multilevel Analysis for U.S. Metropolitan Areas.” People read both articles. And then I went on to do a bunch more work in that area, with great collaborators, building up a body of research that drew from my dissertation but went much further in terms of theory, methods, and data. My article got cited plenty, partly because it was part of a group of articles that traveled together. I was “scooped,” but they didn’t get their ideas from sneaking a look at my brilliant work in progress, they were logical next steps in a 40-year trajectory of research on an established set of questions. Their publication strengthened the field in which I was working. (In fact, if they had stolen my ideas their paper would have been worse for them, and less damaging to me.)

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