In the blog series “Researcher questions” the Artes Research team shares some common and/or pertinent questions that we get from researchers at the Faculty of Arts. The goal of the series is to share the advice that we give more broadly, as it might be helpful to others as well or make you consider something you had not thought about before.
Sometimes, researchers ask us to close off access to a dissertation that had initially been made available in Open Access through our institutional repository Lirias. The main motivation for this is the fear that publishers won’t be willing to publish the material if it can already be freely consulted online. This fear stems from a general anxiety that characterizes the dissertation process: the idea that developing your dissertation is still something you mainly do alone, without publicly sharing too many details, driven by, on the one hand, a feeling of insecurity to already share your work before it’s “ready” and, on the other hand, the worry that your ideas might be “stolen”. However, more collaboration can only help to improve the project. In this blogpost I will address some common concerns and show that sharing your dissertation in OA offers various advantages and does not contradict the ambition of publishing your work.
Am I obligated to make my dissertation available in Open Access?
At KU Leuven, OA for your dissertation is a choice, not an obligation. While you are always required to archive the electronic version of your PhD thesis in Lirias (practical guidelines about how to upload your dissertation can be found here), opening it up publicly is not mandatory. We offer the following accessibility options:
- Public access: if you select this option your dissertation will be placed under a temporary embargo of 12 months starting from the date of your defense. This means that during those first 12 months, only internal KU Leuven users (staff and students) will be able to access your work. After the expiration of the embargo, the dissertation will become openly available so that everyone can find and read it. Of course, you can also choose to make your dissertation immediately available in Open Access. Just contact the Open Access Support Desk and they will gladly remove the embargo. The other way around is also possible: if you prefer a longer embargo period (e.g. 2 or 3 years) just ask them to make the change.
- Permanent embargo: this means that your dissertation is indefinitely only available for internal KU Leuven users.
- No access: while this option is available it is actually only recommended for material that has to remain strictly confidential (e.g. for economic or political reasons) as it means that nobody, except for a few repository administrators, can consult the file. Even you and your (co)supervisor(s) cannot access the dissertation anymore.
Most KU Leuven researchers go for the public access license so that they have 12 more months to either decide to close their dissertation off longer, or let it become publicly available.
I want to stress here that the choice you make when uploading your dissertation is not permanent. It might not be the best time to decide about the accessibility of your work when you are about to defend. I know from experience that this is a very stressful time and that you are not up to dealing with practicalities. Maybe you aren’t really familiar yet with how repositories and Green OA work and don’t have time to figure out the details. And you probably haven’t decided yet if, let alone where, you wish to publish your research, meaning that you can’t take publishers’ policies regarding the matter into account. Therefore, a solution might be to initially share your dissertation in OA, so that others can engage with your work while you are still exploring your options. Once you have signed a contract with a publisher and they prefer you to (temporarily) restrict access to your dissertation, you can always ask the Open Access Support Desk to change the availability.
Why would I publish my dissertation in Open Access?
Making your dissertation available in OA has various advantages. First and foremost, it cannot be denied that OA will increase readership and boost citations as your work will be easily findable and accessible to interested readers both inside and outside academia. This in turn promotes active debate about your research, and the feedback can be a great help when revising your manuscript. Moreover, your work can be picked up much faster on a global scale, which increases your chances of collaboration and puts you on the radar in the international job market.
While it might seem contradictory, the fact that your work is out in the open can also help to bring it to the attention of publishers. For example, back in 2013, Harvard University Press stated that thanks to OA the odds increase of them picking up the dissertation under the slogan “If you can’t find it, you can’t sign it”. Open Access is also interesting for publishers from a marketing perspective. Thanks to the open availability the work can already attract readers and instigate discussions, the same audience will most likely also be interested in reading the reworked publication.
What you might need to verify before publicly sharing your dissertation is if you are using material that is protected by copyright licenses (e.g. images, archival sources, etc.), or if you are working with personal data of living individuals. It’s best to already solve these kind of issues at the start of your project, but if you still have some uncertainties about this, just reach out to us or our colleagues from the Copyright Support Desk.
Will a publisher accept my manuscript if the dissertation is available in Open Access?
Unfortunately, a resource or up to date index that collects publisher policies concerning this issue does not exist. In any case, such a resource would be hard to maintain since policies are not set in stone and can change over time. Presses also do not provide much data about OA dissertations that they publish and it has been a while since surveys last asked publishers about the possible impact of OA on their willingness to publish dissertation-based books. Nevertheless, we can gain some valuable insights from older surveys about this topic.
Most notably is the study conducted in 2011 on the policies of arts, humanities, and social sciences journals and university presses. They found that fewer than 5% of total respondents would never consider to publish a dissertation that is already available in OA. In other words, the great majority of the journal and university press editors surveyed were open to publish such a dissertation, on the condition that the original content was substantially adapted. Needless to say, their decisions to publish were made on a case-to-case basis (just as with any type of publication). The survey also revealed that publishers are much more concerned with the quality of the work than prior access to, what they qualify as, an unpublished dissertation. A similar, smaller-scale UK survey conducted in 2015-2016 surveyed 23 university and commercial presses, again in the field of arts, humanities, and social sciences. Their findings revealed that none of the respondents would outright refuse to publish a monograph derived from a dissertation available in OA.
From these studies, and from our own experiences and anecdotal evidence we have gathered along the way, we can conclude that most publishers consider, without prejudice, submissions derived from openly available dissertations. Publishers most often expect you to significantly revise, rewrite, and reframe your dissertation when turning it into a monograph or article. As they consider major edits to be inevitable, they don’t particularly mind that the dissertation is openly available and won’t reject your manuscript on the grounds of prior publication. However, publishers’ policies naturally differ; there are still publishers that may object to the open availability of your dissertation. More broadly speaking, there are also publishers that do not publish monographs that are too close to a PhD thesis in general, regardless of the dissertation’s OA status. Don’t be afraid to just contact the publisher you are considering and, if need be, alter the availability of your dissertation with just one email to the Open Access Support Desk.
Does OA facilitate plagiarism?
Besides the fear that OA will prevent future publication, another common concern is that OA increases the chances of your work being plagiarized. This fear is unwarranted: OA can actually help to protect your work, as plagiarism is much easier to detect when the original work is freely available. Furthermore, if you are aiming for a book publication, it will take some time to rework your PhD into a monograph. If your work can be consulted online in the meantime, you create a transparent public record of your research. This can serve as proof that you formulated certain ideas first, protecting you from scooping rather than enabling it. This way, OA can deter plagiarism and idea theft.
While I wanted to demonstrate in this post that OA is not something to fear, but to embrace, I do want to underline that you always have the final say in how you wish to share your work based on your own experiences, prospects, and what you feel comfortable with. The key takeaways I want to leave you with are:
- KU Leuven has an opt-in policy for OA when it comes to dissertations, and you are free to select your preferred availability.
- OA can help bring your work to the attention of interested scholars, possible future employers, and potentially even publishers.
- The chance that a publisher will reject a manuscript based on an openly available dissertation is minimal, but you can always just contact them to clarify the matter. If they do make objections, remember that the availability of your dissertation can always be altered.
- OA deters instead of enables plagiarism.
If you still have concerns or questions about the availability of your dissertation or any other digital scholarship-related matters, do not hesitate to contact the Artes Research team!
 Kathleen Fitzpatrick has described this unease with publicly sharing the dissertation process and puts forward digital scholarship as a way to eliminate such anxieties: Kathleen Fitzpatrick, “Dissertating in Public,” in Shaping the Digital Dissertation: Knowledge Production in the Arts and Humanities, ed. Virginia Kuhn and Anke Finger, 2021, 19–23, http://www.openbookpublishers.com/books/10.11647/obp.0239.
 “Can’t Find It, Can’t Sign It: On Dissertation Embargoes,” Harvard University Press Blog (blog), accessed August 19, 2022, https://harvardpress.typepad.com/hup_publicity/2013/07/cant-find-it-cant-sign-it-on-dissertation-embargoes.html; also cited in: Jill Cirasella and Polly Thistlethwaite, “Open Access and the Graduate Author: A Dissertation Anxiety Manual,” in Open Access and the Future of Scholarly Communication: Implementation, ed. Kevin L. Smith and Katherine A. Dickson (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2016), 206.
 Cirasella and Thistlethwaite, “Open Access and the Graduate Author: A Dissertation Anxiety Manual”, 210.
 Marisa L. Ramirez et al., “Do Open Access Electronic Theses and Dissertations Diminish Publishing Opportunities in the Social Sciences and Humanities? Findings from a 2011 Survey of Academic Publishers,” College & Research Libraries 74, no. 4 (2013): 368–80, https://doi.org/10.5860/crl-356.
 Christian Gilliam and Christine Daoutis, “Can Openly Accessible E- Theses Be Published as Monographs? A Short Survey of Academic Publishers,” The Serials Librarian 75, no. 1–4 (2019): 5–12, https://doi.org/10.1080/0361526X.2019.1589633.
 Cirasella and Thistlethwaite, “Open Access and the Graduate Author: A Dissertation Anxiety Manual”, 206; Fitzpatrick, “Dissertating in Public”, 22-23. A study conducted in 2018 alsoconcluded that onlya small percentage of dissertations are published as books with relatively few changes: Karen Rupp-Serrano and Jen Waller, “Dissertation-to-Book Publication Patterns Among a Sample of R1 Institutions,” Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication 6, no. 1 (2018): 1–23, https://doi.org/10.7710/2162-3309.2187. If a publisher is right to see the dissertation and the monograph as two completely distinct species, or whether we should approach the dissertation more as an already finished product that could be published as such, is another discussion that I won’t address here.
 E.g. “Publishing Your Book with MUP,” Manchester University Press, accessed August 19, 2022, https://manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/resources/publishing-your-book-with-mup/.
 Peter Suber, Open Access, MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012), 23–24; Cirasella and Thistlethwaite, “Open Access and the Graduate Author: A Dissertation Anxiety Manual”, 212.