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Some time ago, a recently-graduated PhD has sent me a physical (book) copy of his dissertation. The graduate works in a somewhat-related field, but is personally entirely unknown to me (I have some loose connections to the advisor, though). I was reasonably confused by this - I personally have never heard of a custom of sending physical theses to anybody besides maybe parents. I was 100% convinced that I received the dissertation in error (also because the mailing was addressed to my name, but using a wrong department name).

Last week I by chance got hold of the graduate and told him that he sent me his thesis by accident, and asked whether he wants to have it back. He seemed confused and a little bit annoyed that I wanted to give his thesis back - it turns out he actually sent me the book on purpose, assuming that I would be interested in his work. He told me that he thought it is customary to send a finished PhD thesis to people that he thought might profit from its results.

So, is this a thing, at least in some fields? If so, why not just send the core papers or a link to a digital version of the thesis? Mailing out printed copies seems extremely expensive, and also (at least for me) very unlikely to result in anything else than me having another book gathering dust in my office shelf. I am honestly very unlikely to read an entire thesis, especially if I only have it in a dead-tree book version.

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Customary or not, you are certainly under no obligation to do anything with an unsolicited manuscript. Including returning it. Or even acknowledging it, though a quick "got it, will have no chance to look at it any time soon but thanks for thinking of me" note might not be a bad idea just so they know not to expect any other response. –  keshlam Feb 18 at 1:33
    
I was told to do this for my Ph.D thesis (which I did in Canada) and I didn't do it. :| –  Irwin Feb 18 at 19:58

7 Answers 7

up vote 29 down vote accepted

This is not uncommon in the country where I did my PhD (the Netherlands). There you have to print a reasonably large amount of hardcopies anyway, typically people get around 200-300 copies in my field. It is not uncommon to send some copies to researchers that you genuinely believe may be interested in the work, usually people that you have been in contact with before, or are in contact with your advisor.

The cost of the thesis printing and mailing is generally reimbursed by the university (of course, all within reasonable limits). In countries where printing the thesis is not so common, I can imagine that the practice of mailing around copies is not common.

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Two hundred copies is not "reasonable." –  aeismail Feb 16 at 14:09
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Yes, the graduate was from VU Amsterdam, so I guess that is indeed common. I was completely unaware that they literally print hundrets of theses there. I guess it makes sense that I might be among the 200 most related researchers to the guy, FWIW :) where I graduated, we usually print 5 to 10 copies, at costs northern of 25 USD per copy. –  xLeitix Feb 16 at 14:31
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@aeismail 200 copies appeared to be around the normal amount in the Netherlands, at least as far as I am aware. Of these already a sizable number (50 or so) go to libraries, the thesis committee, etc. And then it's commonn to give the other students a copy, all faculty, etc, so it adds up quite quickly. –  Pieter Naaijkens Feb 16 at 15:46
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A number around 200 is the norm in Sweden and as far as I can see in Norway, Denmark and Finland as well. I think aeismail comment is premature and unfortunately lacking insight. What is "reasonable" will depend on the system. –  Peter Jansson Feb 16 at 20:45
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I agree with Peter Jansson's last comment: I don't see the point in participating in this site without a spirit of openness about the rich variety of academic practices across different disciplines and locations. What is "reasonable" for one group will not be so for another: we should not be so quick to criticize. –  Pete L. Clark Feb 17 at 1:07

In some countries you print a large number of copies (as stated by Pieter Naaijkens), in some only a single digit number which should then be distributed to a specific set of recipients. Regardless it is not unusual that a person might distribute copies to people that might have some interest in it. It is, however, not a must and the recipients is up to the author. When you send a thesis I think it is wise to write an accompanying letter explaining why the thesis is sent to the specific person. To send them without such a personal note may come across as a little odd and can of course be misunderstood.

I did my PhD in the US and made a larger number of cheap copies (do not remember how many) to distribute among friends. I sent a few to others whose research I had built on. This was outside of the, at least then, mandatory five bound copies. In Sweden, where I now reside, printing of about 250 is mandatory and the student can print additional copies at their own cost. We recommend students to think about sending their thesis to people they can imagine would be interested in it. Since the life time of a thesis is usually quite short, most will soon be properly published, it is a good way to advertise your PhD and your work right after you have completed the work.

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+1 for mentioning a covering letter. Had the grad in the OP's example done that, OP would have been much less confused. –  starsplusplus Feb 17 at 11:38

I have, so far as I can remember, physical copies of three PhD theses that were not written by my own students. (I do not have a physical copy of my own PhD thesis.) Two of these were indeed PhDs from the Netherlands, where they bind the theses in an attractive way and clearly send them out rather broadly. One of them is from an older student in my department, whose work was very influential to me.

I have certainly been happy to have all of these theses. The one from the student in my department I have certainly consulted at length. The other two less so, but a colleague of mine once borrowed it (and then duly returned it). I am not aware that any of these three theses are freely available on the internet, so it is not purely an empty gesture.

Last week I by chance got hold of the graduate and told him that he sent me his thesis by accident, and asked whether he wants to have it back. He seemed confused and a little bit annoyed that I wanted to give his thesis back - it turns out he actually sent me the book on purpose, assuming that I would be interested in his work.

As you've probably realized by now, your behavior was a bit rude. What are the chances that someone sent you a PhD thesis by accident?? Offering to give back something that someone sends you without first inquiring into the circumstances in which they sent it is really not great behavior. When someone gives something to you -- in circumstances other than a bribe or some similar kind of implicit quid pro quo -- the polite thing to do is say "Thank you." It would be a classy move to apologize to the person whose thesis you tried to give back.

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Why is it the OP's fault for not knowing the author's cultural custom? If anything, I would think it is the author's fault for not taking into account that not everyone follows his culture's custom of mailing theses. –  Austin Henley Feb 17 at 19:52
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@AustinHenley The funny thing is that I live 90 airplane minutes away from Amsterdam, so you would think that the "culture clash" would be minimal, but I was in fact completely unaware of this custom (but I do agree with Pete L. Clark that an apology from me is probably in order the next time we meet). –  xLeitix Feb 18 at 14:20
    
@Austin: I don't think this is an interesting instance of a "cultural custom": that would rather be an instance in which one is apparently being given something but is not actually supposed to keep it. In general, the idea that when someone gives you something, they meant to do it and want you to accept it seems rather "globally standard". Anyway, it's not really a matter of fault: obviously the OP did not intend to offend the person who gave him his thesis, and it seems like he did, a little bit. So an apology is probably in order. It doesn't mean anyone did anything so terrible... –  Pete L. Clark Feb 18 at 15:40

This varies by country and probably by field as well, which means I can only speak from my own experience in physics, in the US. What my experience says is that it is exceptionally rare to do this. Typically, a student will have one copy of their thesis printed and bound for their adviser, one for themselves, one or two for the university library if required by policy, and perhaps one or two for the student's parents, if they're interested. Each one of these copies costs $50 or more, and costs are borne by the student, so there is a large incentive to print as few copies as necessary.

More recently (in the past few years), I believe a lot of universities have switched to electronic archival of theses, which means the campus library no longer requires a printed copy. In these cases, a finalized PhD thesis might never get printed at all, depending on the preferences of the student and the adviser.

Certainly, to me, it is unheard of to send unsolicited printed copies of the thesis to other researchers. Of course, in physics some PhD theses are uploaded to arXiv for electronic distribution, so interested researchers can get access to them that way.

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Perhaps it could be of interest that in some countries of Central and Eastern Europe there exists a tradition of sending to many places in the country where the Ph.D. studies are done (especially major libraries and universities) not the full Ph.D. thesis but the so-called thesis summary ("autoreferat"). The sending is usually done by the institution where the Ph.D. studies are done and takes place before the viva, so that, at least in theory, the interested parties may visit the viva and ask the questions to the author of the thesis.

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I sent printed copies of my thesis to the people I mentioned in the acknowledgment section (PhD in Switzerland). That is about 20 persons. I obviously didn't think they would read it, and in fact the content was already obsolete at the time it went through the printer, it was more of a way of marking the event, and well, letting them know that I thanked them in my preamble.

I would not be surprised, however, that someone would get puzzled if I sent them a copy and they had no direct tie to my work. I mean, I don't send pdfs of my articles to people I think would be interested in reading them...

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Totally uncommon to me. I'm doing my PhD thesis and if I were that student, I'd send first an email asking whether there is an interest or not. In any case, I'd not expect that someone will read my thesis (book) just for fun or because that might interest you. Even PhD supervisors complain reading PhD theses that look like books!

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