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PhD Candidates

Context for Dissertation Submission:

This page helps explain:

  • general background of submitting dissertations to libraries
  • important options you select when submitting your dissertation and their implications

The Graduate School sets policy regarding theses and dissertations. The University Libraries’ role is primarily archival, and by extension, informational. Neither the Libraries nor the Graduate School take a position on whether or not degree candidates should or should not make their work more or less accessible. The Libraries’ role is to facilitate the submission process, including informing students about the implications of the selections made by the degree candidate on the ProQuest form. Information provided on these pages is not intended to duplicate (and certainly not contradict) information provided by the Graduate School, but to contextualize the process, based on questions we have received from degree candidates.


Dissertations in Libraries and on the Web:

The awarding of a PhD traditionally is an acknowledgement of a contribution to knowledge by the degree candidate in the form of the dissertation. As such, the work should also be accessible. The requirement for accessibility was part of the rationale for the long-standing practice of dissertations being submitted to university libraries following completion and defense. While this was in some sense a form of publication, prior to the digital age, this typically meant only one copy in one library.

The practice of dissertation deposit in more recent years has coincided (or collided) with others that emerged around tenure-track faculty positions. Junior faculty members have only a limited time to establish a record of scholarly accomplishment in a tenure-track position. Partly owing to the constraints of the tenure-track clock, the production of a first book based on a re-working of a dissertation became fairly standard procedure for early-career faculty, especially in the humanities.

The electronic format now predominant for dissertations complicates the tradition on which the creation and submission of dissertations is founded: there is no direct parallel between the former print and the now current digital paradigms. Electronic submission of theses and dissertations, and subsequent exposure on the web, transforms the traditional practice of the deposit of theses and dissertations into libraries. While a great benefit to the wider public, the new paradigm also presents authors with more complications and options to consider.


How Submission Works:

The Graduate School at Washington University has selected ProQuest/UMI (as have many North American Universities) for the submission of dissertations. Submission of the dissertation to this repository is required, per Graduate School policy. The Washington University Graduate School has an overview of "The Dissertation" on its site which links to the following resources:

Doctoral candidates submit their work directly to ProQuest through an online form. The form has several options such as whether or not to embargo the work. (These options are discussed in more detail on a separate page.) According to ProQuest, once submitted "it can take 8-12 weeks before it is available online".

After files for a given degree award period (degrees are awarded at Washington University three times a year: May, August, and December) have been submitted to ProQuest and put online in their site, those files are then forwarded to Washington University, where the dissertations are ingested in the Open Scholarship repository. This process also typically takes 8-12 weeks following their receipt from ProQuest. The metadata received by Washington University about the dissertation also include options selected on the ProQuest form by the submitter. Options such as setting embargo dates and whether or not to allow the work to be indexed by major search engines will also be transferred to and honored in the Open Scholarship repository.

The Open Scholarship repository is designed to promote and disseminate the works in the repository effectively. Following ingest into Open Scholarship, authors receive automatically-generated emails with reports on the number of downloads their work has received.

While it is always preferable to explore publication options prior to submitting your dissertation, it is also possible to modify your options after the fact. To extend or remove an embargo on your work in Open Scholarship, contact Digital Library Services [digital at wulib dot wustl dot edu] and your request will be processed. Please note this change will not automatically pass back to ProQuest, so a separate request must be made directly to ProQuest Support. Similarly, if such changes are made to ProQuest after initial submission, Washington University is not automatically informed.


Submission Form Options:

The ProQuest submission form has several screens that cover multiple options. A preview of the form will be available soon as an example (the exact screens you will when actually submitting see may change depending on the choices made in the initial screens). Some of the options especially to be aware of in advance are:

  • Copyright/Registration your work
  • Open Access vs. "Traditional Publishing"
  • Embargoes of 6 months, 1 year, 2 years, or permanent
  • "Third-party distribution
  • Search engine indexing restriction

Copyright & Registration

One of the confusing aspects of submitting your dissertation is the extent to which this constitutes "publication." It is a form of publication, but the author retains more rights than he or she typically does in traditional publication. Publication in ProQuest and/or Open Scholarship does not require transfer of intellectual property rights from author to publisher. You retain all rights to the work as your intellectual property. You are only granting permission to distribute the work. As a general rule, any original work an author generates is automatically copyrighted at the time of writing. The copyright symbol © is not required for this to take place legally, although it is recommended as an additional precaution. See the Graduate School’s Doctoral Dissertation Guide on where and how to insert the symbol.

As a further step, you can choose to register your copyright. The ProQuest form has an option you can select authorizing them to act as your agent to register your copyright, for a fee (currently $55.00). You may decline that service and register your work directly with the U.S. Copyright Office prior to (or after) submission via the ProQuest form. At the time of writing, the fee for online copyright registration is $35.00.


"Third-party distribution"

In 2013 ProQuest eliminated third-party distribution as an option from ETD submissions. The Third-Party Retailer Option page on their website summarizes the decision.


Open Access vs. "Traditional Publishing"

The phrasing on the ProQuest form may be somewhat confusing, as "Open Access" means different things in different contexts, and the "Traditional Publishing" option ProQuest offers probably may not be best described as "Traditional Publishing." Broadly speaking, open access means scholarly content that is free to view, download, and re-purpose (or some combination of these, depending on the level of access). In the world of for-profit academic publishing, publishers sometimes offer "open access" publication as an option to authors for a fee (paid by the author or institution). However, since all dissertations submitted for degrees at Washington University can be made open access at no cost to the degree candidate through the Open Scholarship repository, it is not necessary for Washington University degree candidates to choose the "open access" publication option through ProQuest (and pay a fee) to make the work open access.


Setting Embargos

In the context of publication, an embargo is a restriction set on a work, typically to allow limited access to a work prior to wider dissemination. For example, a press officer for an organization will often distribute copies of a speech prior to the event to the press so reporters can familiarize themselves with the content, and these copies will typically be labeled with "EMBARGOED UNTIL DELIVERY." With reference to a thesis or dissertation, it similarly means limited access for a period, depending on a variety of considerations, followed by wider access thereafter. It does not mean no one will have access to the material at all. Theses and dissertations under embargo held by the Washington University Libraries may be viewed by a patron under controlled conditions that parallel conditions of print submission: they can only be read in a library reading room, and cannot be electronically copied.

One of the primary reasons to consider an embargo is the inclusion of material in the dissertation to which the author is not the (or sole) rights-holder. This might mean photographs taken by a third party for which publication rights have not been obtained. Similarly, if the work is based on collaborative work (i.e. in the sciences) the degree candidate must have permission from project P.I.s, faculty advisors or anyone with a claim to that intellectual property, to submit the work for publication. The ProQuest form requires the degree candidate to warrant that all material in the work is the intellectual property of the author, or if not, permissions for that material have been obtained.

While physical deposit in library stacks or electronic deposit into an institutional repository is a form of publication, it is understood that theses and dissertations are typically transitional works. While limited publication of some form is necessary to meet conditions for the degree, authors may want to limit access to the content while a revised (or extended) version is prepared especially for authors intending to seek publication later through more traditional means. The ProQuest form gives the options of 6 months, 1 or 2 years as embargo periods, but longer embargo periods may also be requested. Longer (or permanent) embargoes may also be requested for the copy in the Washington University Open Scholarship repository.

Many degree candidates consider embargoes specifically because they have heard that publishers will not consider publication of a book if it is based on a dissertation that is available in an online institutional repository. It is true that this is the case for some publishers in some disciplines, but it is not universally true. There are pros and cons to making your work immediately available with open access. The University does not make recommendations on this decision, but the linked page (when available) will provide information to help in your decision.


Search engine indexing restriction

The final option on the ProQuest form to be highlighted here is the option to prevent search engine indexing on the ProQuest site. Selecting this option means that, while your dissertation may be discovered through users browsing that site, it will not come up on searches. This option may be preferred if you wish to send URLs only to specific parties to point them to the work, but inhibit broader access.

As stated above, all options selected on the ProQuest form are honored when the work is ingested later into the Washington University Open Scholarship platform. However, the primary design consideration of the Digital Commons platform from BePress, which Open Scholarship uses, is the promotion and dissemination of the material in the repository, and uses search engine optimization (SEO) to assure that relevant material in the repository shows up in user searches in the major search engines, such as Google. Since the primary purpose of the platform is discovery, selecting the indexing restriction option on the ProQuest form effectively prevents ingest of that work into Open Scholarship. The works of authors who have made this selection (unless also embargoed) will still be available from a separate browse page, hosted on the Digital Gateway site, which will be accessible to the public but restricted from search engine indexing. Degree candidates who do not want their work indexed by search engines on the ProQuest site, but do want their work placed on the Open Scholarship site can contact Digital Library Services to make that request after submission.

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