• April 19, 2014

Dissertation for Sale: A Cautionary Tale

Careers First Person Illustration #2

Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

A Google search brought me to a link to BarnesandNoble.com, where with one click I soon discovered that my dissertation was being sold. It took a minute of staring at the computer screen to fully accept that my work could be purchased for (at the time) $32.34 as an eTextbook for the Nook reader. I thought the price was a steal. Literally.

I had graduated about a year earlier with a Ph.D. in sociology. Although I had hoped to turn my dissertation into a book one day, I had not yet started that process. I hadn't even secured a contract with a publisher.

As I sat transfixed before the screen, I felt violated that my work could be sold without my knowledge, confused as to how this could happen without my consent, and, I admit, slightly excited that something I produced was listed for sale on such a well-known commercial site. I know many newly minted Ph.D.'s hope to turn their dissertations into works accessible to the general public. However, I had never heard of anyone's getting an actual dissertation published in such a nontraditional manner.

Like any doctoral student, I had put several years of work into my dissertation. Seeing it listed for sale without my knowledge raised an immediate concern: Would I now be unable to publish my research in the format I had envisioned?

In my dissertation, I studied how survivors of a building fire had escaped danger, to determine whether the concept of panic was a valid framework to categorize emergency egress behavior. My findings were intended to better inform computer-simulation modelers of mass departures from buildings during a crisis. After spending close to three years prepping data for analysis, conducting my study, writing it up, and then defending my work, I had developed an attachment to the project, and an idea of how I wanted it to be presented to the public.

I thought a book on dispelling media portrayals of panicked people in a crisis could be a good and popular sociology book. But now my work has already been sold in a rough cut. Although I appreciate the fact that someone found it to be perhaps "off the shelf, good enough" to be sold this way, as one particularly optimistic researcher said to me, it still was not the "book" I would like to create based upon my dissertation.

I began investigating how it could have come to be for sale. Like many graduate students, I was burned out after defending my dissertation. My immediate thoughts were not about which publisher I should contact but about whether I would be able to afford rent and food in this economy. My final weeks of graduate school had been a bit foggy, and I couldn't recall the specific publication options I had selected when I submitted the dissertation to my university as a degree requirement.

So I dug out my copies of handouts from the Office of Graduate Studies, describing my options for publication with ProQuest (the university's publisher of theses and dissertations). Reading through the papers, I could find nothing on all the possible ways my dissertation could be sold.

Then I logged into my account on the ProQuest site and saw that when I had submitted my dissertation electronically I had chosen an option for third-party selling. At the time, I was unsure what that meant, and in my end-of-graduate-school haze, I had neglected to find out. I assumed it meant that some other academic company could sell my work to individual researchers, typically few in number, who would have to exert great effort even to discover its whereabouts. I never thought it meant it could be sold, in its entirety, on the same site where one can purchase calendars and the complete series of The Sopranos on DVD.

Upon looking into the matter, I was told by lawyers at my university that while I remained the copyright holder of my dissertation, it was quite legal for Barnes & Noble to sell my "book," because I had selected the third-party-seller option.

So a cautionary tale: If you are a doctoral student, investigate the publication options you are given when submitting a dissertation as part of your degree requirement. Talk with your adviser as well as other faculty members with whom you have a good rapport, and ask their opinions on whether your dissertation would be better transformed into a book or a series of articles.

If you feel confident you have the material for a book and want to pursue that, then investigate your publication options and how they may influence your ability to develop a book out of your material. Register a copyright for your dissertation; it is good to have in case someone uses your work without your permission.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I had serious reservations about writing this essay and making it known to the academic world that I was uninformed (and naïve) about the publication options I chose when I submitted my dissertation. As a researcher, I try to be meticulous and pay attention to detail when collecting data and conducting analysis.

However, if my experience can act as a warning to others on the verge of completing and submitting their dissertations, then that is a silver lining.

Manuel R. Torres is a senior research analyst in the University of Delaware's office of educational assessment.

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