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Ask an Editor: Dissertations versus Books

Ilana Gershon asked seven editors for their insights on questions that authors commonly ask. Five are press editors (Berghahn, Chicago, Indiana, Princeton, Stanford) and two are series editors. This month’s column explores the following question:

Dissertations are often made available online through, for instance, Proquest. How does this potentially impact the publishing process (of books based on dissertations)?

Fred Appel: The availability of “raw” dissertations online via Proquest does not concern me or my colleagues at Princeton University Press, and this has no bearing on our decision-making. There’s a big difference (or there should be) between a dissertation and a book. Lots of work goes into the book, post-dissertation: peer review, the interventions of your editor, book production and design, and so on. It’s a qualitatively different and often superior product. This is the “value added” of scholarly book publishing.

Jennika Baines: It’s important to keep in mind that a manuscript is fundamentally different from a dissertation. Although most people probably know that there’s a revision process between dissertation and manuscript, many people might not know that this process should go beyond just trimming the literature review and cutting extraneous footnotes. The audience for a dissertation is a committee who is going to be looking for very specific elements in the work. These elements include a facility with the technical language in the field, an awareness of the larger body of work on the topic, and a contribution that speaks to the scholarly strengths of the department. But what is your book’s audience going to want? Will they be looking for a compelling narrative? Clear and convincing arguments? Language that doesn’t exclude anyone who isn’t already an expert? Probably all of those things. So after the revision process, the manuscript should look very different from the dissertation.

In terms of the details of institutional repositories, the copyright will still rest with the author and you would be able to reassign it as you see fit. However, our rights manager would like me to point out that you should be mindful that if you need to get permission to use third party material in your dissertation you will need to get it again for your monograph. It might be the case, too, that the third party would have different requirements for (and be less generous with) a monograph than for a dissertation.

Berghahn Books: This will increasingly become a big problem for those monographs that stem from dissertations, that is, pretty much the first book any academic writes, which is a market already under pressure. Proquest is not only the primary dissertation repository, but it is also the biggest ebook library supplier—they have sophisticated platforms and it is just a matter of time (if not already) before libraries have access to those dissertations as easily as they would the later ebook. So, given library budgets, you can imagine what that does to a publisher’s ability to sell the later monograph to its core market—those same libraries already access the dissertation version, possibly on the very same platform. This means that despite most publishers’ expectations that the dissertation be significantly revised, this the need to substantially differentiate the book from the initial dissertation will only increase.

Dominic Boyer: Not at all. The number of people who will read the average Proquest dissertation can probably be counted on one hand.

Alessandro Duranti: It does not impact much because publishers do not want to publish a dissertation or something that reads like a dissertation. A dissertation is a license to be in charge of one’s own career in the academic world, that is, to apply for jobs and be seriously considered. And usually the dissertation is not a book yet. One learns from writing a dissertation. Then you need to rethink the whole thing. It will probably take time. That’s why it is better to start by making chapters of the dissertation into articles to be published in refereed journal. From that submission process, one can get ideas about what is needed to rewrite the dissertation or write something quite different, perhaps based on the same data or on additional data.

Michelle Lipinski: In an ideal scenario, the dissertation material would not be available in repositories like ProQuest at the moment of the book’s publication and any time thereafter. Naturally, this is also in the author’s best interest given the constructive peer feedback and further development work that went into the published book.

That said, the publishing process should not be impacted if your dissertation is stored in one of these databases in perpetuity, because a book that emerges from the research completed for a dissertation should be completely revised and rewritten. At Stanford, we do not publish revised dissertations, we publish fully formed books. This sounds like a semantic distinction, but I assure you it is not. By the time a book is published, it’s a new work, in a new genre, with an engaging narrative that will reach a much wider audience. The shape, argument, and overall tone will have changed. The more cosmetic aspects of the project will also have changed, including the title and chapter titles. (This brings up another bit of advice: first-time authors do themselves a disservice when they make the significant effort to reshape their research but don’t bother to change the original titles of their work. Submitting a book proposal with the same title as their dissertation may lead an editor to assume the author has done no more than lightly “revise” the dissertation.)

I cannot stress this enough: dissertation and book are two completely separate entities. There is so much more to say about this, but in the interest of brevity here, I recommend Germano’s From Dissertation to Book, Second Edition.

Priya Nelson: Incalculable value is added during the process of revising a dissertation. I don’t fret much over Proquest. But I do fret over the quality of the books under submission. I cannot think of a book that did not differ substantially from the dissertation by the end of the process, even in cases when an author announced to me at the outset that they had written the dissertation like a book. It’s simply a different creative endeavor.

Fred Appel is executive editor and acquisitions editor for anthropology and religion at Princeton University Press.

Jennika Baines is an acquisitions editor at Indiana University Press, who acquires books in global and international studies, anthropology, Middle East studies, and Russian and East European studies.

Berghahn Books—answers were co-authored by Miriam Berghahn, Vivian Berghahn, and Chris Chappell, all press editors at Berghahn.

Dominic Boyer is a professor at Rice University and edits a series for Cornell University Press, Expertise: Cultures and Technologies of Knowledge.

Alessandro Duranti is a professor at UCLA and the series editor for the Oxford Series in the Anthropology of Language.

Michelle Lipinski is an editor at Stanford University Press who acquires books for their anthropology and law lists.

Priya Nelson is an editor at the University of Chicago Press where she acquires books in anthropology and history.

Cite as: Gershon, Ilana. 2019. “Online Dissertations.” Anthropology News website, February 19, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1095