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Caltech Theses: Copyright Considerations

Ph.D. theses must be submitted in electronic form as part of the graduation requirements for Caltech. This guide serves as a stepping-off point for this process.

Important Copyright Considerations

What if I want to have a journal article as a chapter in my thesis?

If you have published an article or articles before you turn in your thesis, and you wish credit for that for your graduate requirements, you have a number of options. These should be discussed with your committee, and possibly with your publisher. First, you can simply cite that publication in your references. Second, if the publisher has the publication online, you can link or point to it (with permission of the publisher, who usually has protection so that paying customers or subscribers are the only ones allowed access). Third, if the publisher gives you a signed release, you can include the publication in your thesis as allowed in that release. If the publisher restricts access in that release, say to the Caltech community, you may want to have 2 versions of your thesis or dissertation--one with and one without the chapter (e.g., published article) in question.

This matter may be avoided if your thesis discusses your research in a very different way from the published article. That often makes sense, since articles are typically short, and your thesis or dissertation may be the only place where all the details, data, tables, and other aspects of your research are made available.

Remember that preparing a thesis is part of your graduate experience, one aim of which is to prepare you to be a part of the world of research and publication. We hope you will treat your thesis submission as part of your educational experience, and will take steps when you deal with publishers to help other students gain the widest possible access to your research.

What if I want to write a book related to my thesis?

We realize that some students, especially in the humanities, prepare books related to their theses. In general, it appears to be the case that electronic release of early versions of a book leads to greater sales of such books. Indeed, having an electronic work made available on the Internet, and telling a publisher that there have been a large number of electronic accesses to that work, may help you land a book contract.

Usually, books that relate to theses turn out to be significantly changed as part of the editorial process. This makes it likely that those interested in your work will buy your book when it comes out, even if they have reviewed your thesis.

However, since publishers vary widely in their policies, it may be wise to share this documentation about the electronic thesis initiative with publishers to which you are likely to submit your work.

What do I need to know about signing agreements with publishers?

When you have your research published in a conference, book, or journal, you usually sign some type of agreement with the publisher. You should read that agreement carefully before signing, making sure you understand AND AGREE with the terms and conditions. If you don't, you may want to change the agreement in connection with discussion/negotiation with the publisher, and possibly with advice of legal or other counsel. The agreement should be explicit about what future rights of use you retain. If you want to include the materials in a dissertation or to reuse the materials for teaching or a book chapter, say so.

As the author you are entitled to discuss your plans with the publisher. We encourage you to obtain an agreement that allows you to include your research in a freely available electronic thesis.

During these negotiations you may want to discuss matters of timing and revision. You have the right to negotiate with a publisher to reduce access to your thesis to the Caltech community only for a limited amount of time, if they request this as a condition on publishing your article. However, most publishers consider a thesis to be quite different from a journal article. Typically the article is much shorter than the chapter or full work, has been revised as a result of the editorial process and peer review, and sometimes has several authors, resulting in many publishers having no concern regarding fully accessible theses.

More on publishers' agreements and retaining your rights

The library's web page on Author Services gives more useful information to consider when thinking about retaining your author rights.  The SPARC Addendum, in particular, can be useful if and when you want to amend a journal publisher's copyright agreement.

"someone wants to publish my thesis"

You have just received a letter or an email from a publisher offering to publish your thesis for you.  What now?

We would caution you to look carefully at such solicitations.

The companies that have contacted you, unsolicited, may be a vanity press or belong to questionable and highly suspect publishers. 

Vanity Presses

Vanity press publishers do not ask you to pay them up front.  They are in essence a a print-on-demand publisher.

The most well-known "publishers", all based in Europe, are:

  • Lambert Academic Publishing
  • Scholars' Press
  • VDM Publishing

It is good to know that Lambert Academic Publishing, for example, uses the same phrases in their email solicitations as "Scholars' Press", which shares the same address as VDM Publishing.

You Need to Know

Most thesis and dissertation authors seek to publish at least part of their thesis or dissertation -- usually substantially re-worked from the strict thesis/dissertation format -- in a peer reviewed journal (article length) or by a university press, learned society, or well established commercial publisher (book length).  These vanity publishers might not impress a tenure review board, especially if you are planning a career in academia.  I suggest you do a simple search engine search (google, bing, yahoo) and draw your own conclusions.

This article is highly recommended reading, and explains matters pretty well: http://www.universityaffairs.ca/publishing-your-thesis-online.aspx. Another source of information is this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education: http://chronicle.com/forums/index.php?topic=45997.15

If you're still not certain, your thesis advisor is an excellent resource for more specific advice. Caltech's Office of the General Counsel is another great resource, as they deal regualry with Intellectual Property matters.