licensing your dissertation under Creative Commons

When I wrote my dissertation, it didn’t dawn on me that using the Creative Commons license might be remotely controversial. There’s a template for dissertations at Berkeley and one of those pages is the copyright page. Initially, I edited the copyright page to match the CC license that Cory Doctorow uses in all of his books on the copyright page. Shortly before I was set to file, I talked to another grad student in my department who had just filed his dissertation. Much to my horror, I learned that he was the first student to file his dissertation at Berkeley under the Creative Commons license and that it had been a disaster. He went through many iterations before they accepted it, complete with the CC license as an Appendix. Not wanting to pick a fight, I copied his approach verbatim. I went to file my dissertation and hit a stumbling block. They told me they had never seen such a thing. I told them that Joe Hall had filed that way only a few months back. They told me that it would need approval from high up and that I’d have to wait a long time to get that approval. Frantic, I started texting and emailing Joe. Luckily, he had all of the emails on hand and forwarded them to me. As it turns out, the person that I was trying to file with as the one who filed Joe’s and when I showed her emails that she sent negotiating this process with Joe, she let me file. I suggested she might want to take note since there would be plenty more students like me and Joe.

Today, the Daily Cal ran a story about our adventures in filing. I was pleased to learn that the Dean of the Grad Division committed to making CC licenses available to students in the future. This is truly good news!

But I also want to make a plea to all of you grad students out there who are slaving away on your dissertations… Use Creative Commons. The forms you fill out when you file your diss under ProQuest encourage you to make sure to copyright your dissertation. While theft is part of the framing, it is also framed as being about you profiting off of doing so (and ProQuest brokering the sale of your diss). Realistically, 99% of all grad students are never going to see a dime directly from their dissertation. What’s the advantage of keeping “all rights reserved”? Why not let folks use it for whatever non-commercial purposes they deem fit (like teaching a chapter or two in class)? I mean… I would LOVE it if someone translated my dissertation. Or remixed it. Or turned it into a movie. That ain’t ever gonna happen, but still… why actively prevent it?

And while we’re at it… why not make it freely available? Part way through my dissertation, I realized that I had never read a dissertation. I was surprised to find that very few people make their dissertations easily available. Why? In some senses, the diss is quite embarrassing. It’s imperfect. You’re sick of it. But there are huge advantages to making it available. At the very least, it allows future students to get a sense of what they should expect. (There was nothing more nerve-calming than realizing that my mentors’ dissertations were totally sloppy at points.)

Anyhow, if you’re a student out there, consider licensing your dissertation under Creative Commons and making your diss freely available either on your website or through services like SSRN or arXiv. I’m sure that there are many others out there doing similar things, but perhaps our story and template can help you persuade your school to allow CC-licensed dissertations.

My dissertation: Taken Out of Context

Joe’s dissertation: Policy Mechanisms for Increasing Transparency in Electronic Voting

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

32 thoughts on “licensing your dissertation under Creative Commons

  1. Tim McCormack

    I’m curious as to why you decided to include the Non-Commercial clause. I’ve always thought of it as rather vague, since the degree to which I might profit by distributing your work is not discrete, but rather a continuum. For example, if I offer it for download on my site, and I have ads on the site, am I profiting from your work?

    I offer over 2500 photographs under a free license on my gallery site, and I made the decision to allow “commercial usage”, whatever that is. I just don’t see the material being used in an inappropriate manner, given that attribution and license must remain intact.

  2. zephoria

    Alas, there’s no way to distinguish between you putting it up on your site and making money off of links (which wouldn’t bug me one iota) and a publisher publishing it in paper form without me knowing about it. Since I’m working on turning it into a book, that’s the one thing that I didn’t want to be done without express permission. But there was no clean way to just list that and abide by the structure required by my university to get CC through (e.g., not modifying the license or clarifying in my copyright page).

  3. Alec Couros

    I released my dissertation under a CC (NC/ATT/SA) license in late 2006. The biggest issues I ran into was from our Library. I did it because I studied the open source movement, I believe in copyleft, and it was a natural for my work. The CC release was one of the best things I have ever done, and as you have done here, it is very important to promote these licenses for our academic work. The act of copyleft gets to the incredibly important question, as academics, why do we publish?

  4. Ewout ter Haar

    “I was surprised to find that very few people make their dissertations easily available.” Actually, in the natural sciences almost everybody makes their thesis available. I think you would be hard pressed to find a mathematician without a web site with all of his publications. Here is a link with recent PhD theses in just one sub-area of physics:

    I don’t think people use CC much though.

  5. Bertil Hatt

    Isn’t anyone interested in making a academic-compatible CC licence? With aspects like: you are not allowed to make money off it, but if you do, just tell every grad student about it, because *that* would be a miracle; you are not allowed to say any part of it is sloppy unless you first say that it is amazing work, are standing in an neon-lit room filed with sleepy grad students; you are not allowed to talk about it using jargon, unless it is jargon introduced by the author.

    About translating it, or adapting it in film (back to almost serious stuff): Google Translate is going an increasingly good job for academic work (I use it to show my colleagues’ papers around); I can’t imagine a single human reader going through your entire thesis, but you might want to set up a wiki with GT as a first draft. Adapting it into a short film is the direction PhD are encouraged to go now in France:
    and there’s already countless clips about Facebook & MySpace, so I do think adapting your work is very likely and would be enjoyable.

  6. Johanka

    @Bertil Hatt: Google Translate is definitely NOT a good starting point for translation, be it collaborative or not.

    danah, I’ve been actually toying with the idea of translating portions of your work (not just the diss) into Czech, those that would be most interesting and relevant to the Czech linguistic community. If I ever manage to get round to it I will make the extracts freely available on or on my pro site. Come to think of it, creating a mini-movie, consisting of presentation slides with pictures might be a good idea, too. 🙂

  7. Thom Hastings

    Creative Commons makes perfect sense for academic works of any nature. Every day it feels I read about a new journal that’s adopted some kind of open access policy. It’s a very exciting time.

  8. joe

    Well, I wouldn’t call my experience a disaster. Although, when you’re one week from filing and all sorts of stuff *has* to fall into place, this kind of thing can be more than a simple bump in the road. (Interested readers can find my version of the story on my blog, linked here from my name.)

    Also, Dean Szeri hasn’t committed to anything. I’m not trying to be critical of him, but I wanted to be precise. He’s said his staff is examining these kinds of options. So, until there’s a more formal move made to legitimize CC for dissertations, we’ll help who we can.

  9. alana

    My dissertation (including CC statement on the copyright page & license-as-appendix) passed the format review at my grad school last week without critical comment, but I haven’t submitted it for final approval. I’ll let you know what happens!

  10. Nata

    My thesis is also under CC license. Didn’t have any problem to do that at my university. The only thing I’m struggling is with the idea to make it digitally available before I manage to publish one chapter in a journal. Our library is trying to put all dissertions digitally available which is cool but I’m not totally sure if there is in fact a problem if you want to publish your thesis in a journal once it is already widely available.

  11. Mark

    Here at University of Toronto, the new standard dissertation template just issued last year by our School of Graduate Studies provides the option of Creative Commons licensing (but then again, we have an active Open Knowledge initiative in our Graduate School).

    As to your comment about never having read a dissertation, I’m quite surprised, actually. When I took the masters thesis seminar course (thesis seminar courses for both masters and doctoral students are mandatory in my faculty), one of the requirements was to go to the stacks, find a thesis you loved and one you hated. The exercise was to reflect on what aspects of the thesis – irrespective of topic – engaged and repelled you, respectively. The one I loved was so compelling that I sat down in the middle of the stacks and read it cover-to-cover in one sitting. That exercise was so remarkably informative to my own style of thesis-writing that I intend to use it with (hopefully) future thesis students of my own.

    Back on topic – I think there remains the socialized fear among “fogey” academics about one’s ideas being stolen, and the faint hope of making a fortune from the book (and movie rights, I suppose); hence the reluctance to publish a dissertation under anything other than “all rights reserved,” a.k.a. “all obscurity guaranteed.” Fear and greed – the short story of western civilization, such as it is.

  12. Andrew Schrock

    I think the old guard in academia prefers to generally separate “your” stuff from “theirs” as much as possible. This is a world where many live, (which may or may not be in a land far, far away) where professors are reluctant to even provide a PDF version of lecture notes. I have many friends in TT positions in the humanities who refer to “working on their manuscript” and converting their dissertation to a book form. Books and publishing deals take more time to develop in other fields, but if they come through, it’s serious academic capital to cash in for tenure. It’s a bigger race in other disciplines to remain contemporary and relevant. Still, I think it’s difficult to think up an argument against unrestricted non-commercial uses of a dissertation! Kudos for being a trailblazer.

  13. Sam Jackson

    I could rewrite your dissertation as an action-adventure coming of age tale movie; I know exactly how I would do it. If someone gives me a dare, I may in fact do so during downtime this summer (or trial-run short-form screenplay).

  14. m@

    I’ve considered doing this, I am generally pro-CC. But, per Sam Jackson’s joke above, is anyone really going to use my dissertation for any reason? As my adviser says, the only person who cares about your dissertation is you. So I’m not sure if it is worth the trouble or not. But it certainly is a good ideal.

  15. Monica McCormick

    Re: the issue of whether anybody cares about your dissertation or can make money off it — like so much else in academic life, this depends on your discipline. As someone who worked for more than 15 years as a humanities editor at a university press, I’d point out the following:

    Most scholars in the humanities and many in the social sciences need to publish a book to get tenure; for nearly all of them, the first book is a revision of their diss. Many of them will earn royalties for it. Some may even be lucky enough to have publishers competing for their work. Even where there are no royalties, it’s fair to say that for many scholars, a good dissertation is a significant piece of their potential hire-ability, tenure, job security, etc. So I would caution against the notion that there are no financial consequences to these decisions.

    There is much to be said about the pros and cons of working with a publisher (and good ones will help scholars revise their work into something far more polished than the diss) versus making your work freely available online, as well as submitting it to ProQuest and letting them sell it back to libraries as part of a dissertations database (plus many other options). This isn’t easy to sort out. As this comment thread indicates, there is certainly no one-size-fits-all argument. It’s not only fogey versus hip, or open versus closed. In academia, your intellectual property is the most important thing you possess.

    @Nata, I’d suggest you ask mentors or others in your field if they’ve had experience with the first freely available/then published model.

  16. simone

    you’d never read a dissertation? i’m not sure that’s an information dissemination problem, necessarily–the berkeley library keeps them (admittedly you have to page them), there’s a fairly new program that digitizes UC dissertations and makes them available free to UC users, you can get them through ILL . . . i’m not saying it would have been convenient to do, but the possibility was there.

  17. zephoria

    M – in most cases, it’s just as difficult to do regular copyright as it is CC, but by doing it CC-style, you help lay the foundation for future researchers. That’s what’s critical.

  18. Al Billings

    When I submitted my Master’s Thesis, I recall having to *pay* ProQuest in order to make it freely available. There was a $75 or $90 fee or somesuch so that if anyone found it searching in the ProQuest database, they would be able to download it. I thought that was pretty lame but I paid it anyway.

  19. minhaaj

    NC is probably good, but no derivate works from the original work is really a bad idea for dissemination of knowledge and further usage of it. Thats when we believe in the basic fallacy that creative commons is ‘opposed’ to copyrights or its not a ‘restrictive license’ itself.

  20. Jessica Palmer

    Ouch – glad you got that sorted out! Berkeley is unforgiving when it comes to dissertations. When I filed mine, they rejected it because my *dedication page* was not formatted according to their liking – seems I included too many names. I had to tell them those were all family members who died while I was writing up. They felt bad, but that didn’t stop them from telling me to reprint the list with different spacing.

    Anyway, another issue here: what about students reprinting figures and entire chapters that were previously published in journals? That is commonly done with PhD theses in at least some fields. For my dissertation, I had to get permission to include a paper on which I was a co-author. Because of that, I would be unable to copyright my thesis under a creative commons license unless I did it chapter by chapter. This is sort of the issue Nata mentions, but in reverse.

  21. nick s

    The ProQuest publishing racket is (I think) confined to the US. When I first saw the forms — for my wife’s diss — I was gobsmacked. It also reminded me that Oxford’s fairly loose thesis formatting regulations (at least for my faculty) made life so much less of a hassle.

    Monica’s right, though, that if you’re looking for an academic career along conventional lines, the thesis/diss-to-monograph transition is one that could be severely hampered by going CC. That $60 monograph might sell about 100 copies, but until the publication requirements of academia change, having it in print matters.

  22. Matt Brown

    It looks like you’re not allowing derivative works in your license. Doesn’t that mean that no one can create a translation of the work?

  23. zephoria

    Matt – due to the hiccups involved in Berkeley, I went with the no-derivatives license in order to be able to file on time. It was not my preference though. I decided that if anyone wanted to do a derivative, they’d ask, and I’d happily accept. I will even post any translation anyone does on my site.

    I’ve intentionally not registered the copyright. No US-based company is going to publish it for-profit against my will and I have no intention of going after any non-profit based usage. I also think that registering copyright is counter-productive when you’re talking about CC so it was a conscious choice.

  24. Peter T

    Interesting discussion — but my 2 main questions are not answered

    (1) on what grounds would a University not allow you as the author and hence (correct my if I’m wrong) owner of the copyrights to choose how to deal with your rights? CC is a licensing scheme, that means it does not override copyright. I can only think of one answer which would be that the University wants to claim all the rights on the thesis — that would be outrageous and I would call it piracy.

    (2) why would publishing your original text under a CC license impede your possibility of publishing as a book? One publisher in the UK has just made the move to publish academic books and set them online under a CC license! That’s the way publishing will be going, since what you need as an academic is not the royalties (forget the stories of making money from a book!), what you need is exposure and attention and being read, cited, translated. That’s so much easier with CC.

    And always remember: CC adds certain permissions (and obligations) for re-use while keeping the main requirement of copyright: to recognize you as the author. But you can allow any kind of re-use — under the condition of “non-commercial” and/or “share-alike” if you wish. And you can prohibit derivative works with the “non-deriv” clause. But that stops translations, too. Still, the normal copyright exceptions (or “fair use”) are valid, so you are allowed to cite even from an ND-licensed text.

  25. Shane Landrum


    Thanks for posting this. I’ve got 2 questions:

    – What did Berkeley and UMI/Proquest tell you about which publishing options to choose (i.e. Open Access or Traditional Access) when applying a Creative Commons copyright page? I’ve had some discussions with my graduate school’s relevant administrators, and they didn’t seem to know whether UMI/Proquest would accept a dissertation for traditional-access publication with a CC license.

    – Have you read anything about the various career implications across different academic fields of CC-licensing one’s dissertation? I’m mindful of the earlier commentor’s point about humanities dissertations often being the core of one’s first book.

  26. zephoria

    Shane –

    I’m not able to answer your first question, but you should ask Joe Hall.

    A CC license shouldn’t affect one’s book publishing contract. The author does not need to make the book itself CC just because the dissertation was CC. The author doesn’t need to make a CC dissertation publicly available. And an author probably shouldn’t allow commercial reproductions of their dissertation without permission so they’re the only one who can turn it into a book.

    That said, I am currently using my dissertation as the core of my first book. I’m working with Yale Press who has been wholly supportive. They will even CC my book (and make it available for public download).

  27. perilisk

    Just stumbled on your article and had a look at your dissertation… Made me think that if you’d like to make it even more accessible, you should also consider the technical point of view. Your PDF isn’t text-copy friendly, it’s image-like. It would be a bummer if I’d like to quote big parts of it, or remix its contents. Accessibility can be eased by the legal stuff, but the technical part is also important. Fine, I could find a way to OCR it, but maybe you could consider that when encoding your book’s PDF…

    A friendly advice 😉

  28. JC

    I’m considering the CC license for my dissertation (at another UC). I’m not sure that there has been one submitted under this license at my particular campus. Where would you suggest going as a starting point to explore this option? What about the possibility of some of this work reemerging in subsequent journal publications?

  29. Benjamin

    So, is it possible to submit a dissertation to Proquest under any Creative Commons License? Or is it limited to certain CC licenses (e.g., CC-BY-NC-SA)?

  30. S

    Has anyone been successful in using CC licensing at other UCs? (Notably UCLA) I tried to CC-license my Master’s thesis a while ago and it turned out to be a bigger headache than I thought. Hopefully it’ll work better for the dissertation…

Comments are closed.