Copyright and Publication

Publishers are concerned about the relationship of ETDs to other forms of publication. Often a dissertation becomes the basis for a scholar's first book. While most of those works are considerably revised for publication, some are published with relatively few changes. Even though paper theses and dissertations are available, most academic presses are not as concerned that they represent prior publication, probably because of the barriers of time, distance, and cost. However, the prospect of having full texts available on the World Wide Web, given that the market for scholarly books is very small, may worry some publishers. On the other hand, greater access might be seen as a way to induce readers to preview a book. According to a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education (Winkler, 1997), some academic publishers consider online publication to be "great advertising": "For each of our electronic books, we've approximately doubled our sales," says Marney Smyth, electronic-productions editor of the MIT Press. "The plain fact is that no one is going to sit there and read a whole book on line. And it costs money and time to download it."

The National Academy Press has already put nearly 2,000 of its books online, and has found that the electronic publication of some books has boosted sales of paper copies often by as much as two to three times previous levels.

Universities in other countries are also looking at copyright as they move to put theses and dissertations in electronic formats and publish them online. Kerstin Olofsson, head of the Teacher Education Library at Umea universitetsbibliotek in Sweden, writes,

[T]he copyright issues are the most complicated part of the project. I guess you have the same problem in the States, that the author of the thesis or dissertation also sells the rights to it to a commercial publisher as well. So you would have to negotiate with every publisher for each commercially published thesis. Then you have the problem with the other type of dissertation, mostly in science and medicine, which usually are made up of articles already given to scholarly journals. (Olofsson 1997)

To address potential conflicts over copyright, Virginia Tech has established a system where access to an ETD can be delayed temporarily to allow an article or book to be the only source of the author's material. Holding back electronic publication of an ETD can allow the paper publication to come out first. Too, access to an ETD from outside the author's university can be blocked, ensuring the economic incentives required by many publishers (Fox et al. 1997). Those solutions, while not entirely foolproof, nonetheless offer a protection for both authors and publishers concerned with the risks of electronic access to ETDs. Another concern is the use of copyrighted material in an ETD. Scholars had sometimes included graphics and other copyrighted material in their theses and dissertations without acquiring permissions unless the work was accepted for commercial publication. If ETDs are published on the Web, however, authors will need to ensure compliance with copyright law and fair-use guidelines. That may include acquiring permission to use copyrighted material, which can sometimes be costly. Although UMI and other services have long made theses and dissertations available to the public, the access was limited enough that inclusion of copyrighted materials did not seem to have been an issue in most cases. However, copyright issues and fair-use guidelines are being debated hotly in light of the explosion of electronic publishing. (See, for example, the list of pending copyright legislation at ETD authors must consider the impact of that debate on their ability to use copyrighted materials.

"Most students already prepare their theses or dissertations electronically, using computers and word-processing software."