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I think that many unpublished theses are available in libraries etc and reading relevant theses is a normal part of research and does not involve asking the author's permission. But suppose a humanities PhD student has seen a thesis title (2008, so presumably in electronic format), that is relevant to their PhD subject and they want to read the thesis but unlike most theses it is not available in the student's libraries or online etc, probably due to the author's geographical location. The author is now a lecturer with a page on the university website. Should the student just email the author and say "Hello I am a PhD student in your field, can I please see your thesis?" Is this a big deal? Are there any do's or don'ts in making this request?

Thank you...

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    I consider it a normal academic contact. However, I suggest you explain a little bit of your research work and why you are interested to his/her thesis. – user4511 Jul 14 '13 at 13:40
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    The first thing to do is to check whether a version of the thesis has been published in some other form (for example, as a book). – Anonymous Mathematician Jul 14 '13 at 14:22
  • @Anonymous Mathematician it does not show up in author searches (Amazon etc) and on the the author's university page it is listed as a thesis but not as a published book. – Juc1 Jul 14 '13 at 15:08
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    I was pleasantly surprised recently to learn how many "unpublished" PhD dissertations in math are available through MathSciNet ams.org/mathscinet. This is a service of the American Math Society. It does require a subscription, but most major universities (at least in the US) subscribe. One thing I like about getting theses this way is that the authors must choose to "opt out" rather than "opt in", so I've found pretty good coverage. (I realize the original question was about humanities, but I think this information could be useful to others.) – Dan C Jul 14 '13 at 20:30
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    Asking for thesis or other publications is an accepted behaviour in academia. Sometimes people are even willing to share the raw data that went in their publication. – mythealias Jul 24 '13 at 9:39
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A PhD thesis is usually a published work, and is normally archived in a university's library. Almost all dissertations are available via reprints. So you could ask your own library how to order a copy of the thesis.

Alternatively, as you suggest, you can contact the author directly. As Anonymous Mathematician suggests in his comment, you can ask for a copy of the thesis, but you should definitely explain why you're interested in the thesis. However, it may be possible—and even more so for a humanities thesis—that the author is currently preparing it for publication, and may therefore be reluctant to share it via electronic means. However, it is just as likely that they're willing to share it.

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I don't think it is a big deal, unless as discussed in other answers they have reasons not to respond, however "Hello I am a PhD student in your field, can I please see your thesis?" is maximising your chances of not getting a response. Remember you are asking for a favour from a busy stranger you need to give him a reason to treat you as worth responding to. Write a polite, well-subjected, but not too long e-mail, e.g.

Subject: Request for a copy of your PhD thesis

Dear Dr. X,

I am writing to you today to request an electronic copy of your thesis - "Boring yet strangely intriguing title".

My name is Bill Bloggs, I am a PhD student at the university of stuff and things. I have seen your thesis referenced by XX and I was wondering whether you would be willing to send an electronic copy of your thesis to me so that I can read it as it seems relevant to my own work in blah and bimble.

Thank you for your time,

Yours sincerely,

Bill Bloggs.

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  • Thanks to all for your replies. Just to update you - I wrote a nice email to the author's two different addresses. I know for sure the email sent to the correct addresses but I got no reply - which is maybe a bit rude! But luckily the holder library scanned the paper version for me - expensive but at least I got it... – Juc1 Sep 8 '13 at 19:28
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If you are worried about contacting the author directly, the ProQuest Database might be a place to start if the person whose dissertation you are looking for has already graduated and submitted to the final copy the their university, which appears to be the case in the scenario you mentioned.

In most countries once the dissertation is submitted to the university it comes into the public sphere (still copyrighted but its existence and content can no longer be thought of as private) so there should be no problem with contacting either the author or the Library of his or her PhD institution and requesting a copy politely.

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4

In my field in the social sciences, scholars are divided into "article people" and "book people," depending on the nature of their projects (and of course, many people work on both, but there are differences in preferences and focus).

Oversimplifying a bit, article people tend to write their dissertations on something like a 3-paper model, where they combine published or publishable articles, and add on a front and back end. The book people simply write, for their dissertations, something that looks like a book.

The issue that the "book people" have, is that it generally takes longer to actually turn the dissertation into published book through a contract with a proper academic or university press. (and in my field, unlike what some of the previous posters said, a dissertation is NOT considered "published," it is considered an "unpublished dissertation manuscript" and should be cited as such.).

Because these book projects take much longer to complete (often will take a whole 4-5 years more), many PhDs working on books request a "dissertation embargo" with their school library so that their dissertations will not be made public immediately.

If you are having a hard time, finding a recent dissertation, this embargo might be the reason. You can of course email and ask the author, but some are worried about getting "poached" and other issues regards to dissertations that are being developed into proper books.

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