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Context

It's becoming common in the natural sciences for grad students to include papers they have previously published as part of their dissertation as a "sandwich thesis" or "stapled thesis". Some joke about merely "stapling three papers together with an intro and conclusion" and calling it a dissertation. This allows grad students to focus on doing research rather than writing a monolithic document in addition to any other publications.

My Concerns

This practice -- though I love the intent -- concerns me because I care about copyright issues. If I've published a paper, the publisher has the copyright, so I may not be able to use my own work in a dissertation that gets published.

My Question

Assuming that this practice is approved of by one's dissertation committee and university, how might one go about doing this correctly? What legal requirements might there be?

Although the following list of questions might be best split into multiple questions on this site, my intent is to clarify what kinds of procedures I'm asking about.

  • Which Creative Commons licenses would permit this?
  • Would one need to ask permission from the publisher(s) of the paper(s)? (I assume so....)
  • Does it matter whether or not the manuscript(s) are published under an open-access license?
  • Does it matter how the dissertation is published?
  • If this is allowed under any circumstances, how much modification is appropriate? Would the paper(s) need to be reproduced in their published form (i.e. with the publisher's typesetting et al.), or could the author copy-paste the text into their dissertation with new formatting?

I acknowledge that this question is similar to Can I use the work in my journal/conference publications as chapters in my dissertation?. Whereas that question broadly asked whether such a practice was permissible, I'm asking more about how to handle copyright issues — assuming one's committee and institution are okay with it.

  • 3
    I have never signed a copyright agreement that didn't explicitly assign back to me the right to use the paper in a thesis of mine as part of its standard text. Is that not usual? – Michael Homer Sep 28 at 23:53
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    Why are you asking us, instead of consulting the journal's copyright agreement? – Anonymous Physicist Sep 29 at 1:52
  • @AnonymousPhysicist Because I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one with this question. Sure, the journal’s copyright info is critical, but even if it’s permissive, there may be other obstacles. – jvriesem Sep 29 at 13:42
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The copyright issues are the same as always. If you don't hold copyright on something, say you have given it to a publisher, then you need permission from the copyright holder to reproduce it for publication.

But you also need to be clear, if you just include copies of old work (copy paste) that you cite the original to avoid claims of self plagiarism. Claiming old work as new (or seeming to) is normally treated as an ethical lapse, similar to treating the work of others as your own. Cite and be safe.

To me, a "stapled dissertation" should be exactly that. An introduction, some material tying everything together, a conclusion, and literally stapling copies of the old papers. I doubt that very many would agree with me, but if that is what it is, then present it as such. Those places that permit such dissertations believe that a doctoral should be awarded for a body of work not necessarily for a single major work. The philosophy is sound, though I've never used it. That is to say, the "joke" isn't really a joke. It is fine if permitted by your committee and university.

Creative commons doesn't apply if you have all rights to your own work. Any license or no license would be fine. But it is the permission of the actual copyright holder that is needed. If they have licensed it generally under Creative Commons then it is likely that you can rely on the generally permissive nature of those licenses in your work. But if not, you can request permission (an individual license) to do what you want to do. I think that most reputable journals and conferences would be happy to give you back any required permissions, while they still hold the copyright.

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Stop worrying about this. No legitimate academic journal is going to come after anybody for reusing material from their own published paper in a thesis. Doing that is just a normal part of the research process.

  • I have taught hundreds of students the importance of academic integrity and obeying copyright laws, and hope to teach thousands more the same. It doesn’t matter whether or not you get caught. I’m not about to disregard all that I’ve taught. – jvriesem Sep 29 at 13:45
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    @jvriesem it's not about getting caught or not, it's that a publisher that decided to disallow students from using their published work in a thesis would basically be putting themselves out of business, because they would be avoided like the plague. – jmite Sep 30 at 6:25
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Here’s part of the copyright transfer agreement from IOP Publishing which relates to residual rights of the authors.

3.2 The rights are:

...

3.2.2 To include the Final Published Version of the Article (all or part) in a research thesis or dissertation provided it is not then published commercially;

3.2.3 To make oral presentation of the Final Published Version of the Article (all or part) and to include a summary and/or highlights of it in papers distributed at such presentations or in conference proceedings; and...

so you’d be covered there under 3.2.2. I could hunt down the agreements for other publishers but I can’t recall any publisher being at great variance from what is above.

Of course it is better to check ahead of time but I would be amazed to find an instance where permission is NOT granted: no sane thesis director would publish there with any student, and the journal would loose out.

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Copyright issues are significant when doing a hybrid or a thesis by publication. In the early 2000s, there was the suggestion to focus on journals that are open-access due to copyright fears. Now that advice is not as relevant as most publishers accept the importance of e-theses and storage at an institutional repository (as ZeroTheHero suggested). It was only recently that the Elsevier changed their sharing policy on etheses to support PhD student publications.

Theses and dissertations which contain embedded PJAs as part of the formal submission can be posted publicly by the awarding institution with DOI links back to the formal publications on ScienceDirect

Realise that PhD students are a major player in the academic publishing world. I heard a speaker say that nearly 50 to 60% of articles are written by students, PhD/Masters etc (google is not coming up with evidence for me). So no surprise that if PhD students are starting to avoid journals with their significant research, then journals will react to protect their impact factor.

Another issue, hybrid theses has evolved over time as well from the 1990s. In general, it is no longer acceptable to cobble together a thesis - "stapling three papers together with an intro and conclusion and calling it a dissertation". Hybrid theses now need to adhere to a coherent narrative throughout. Publications that don't add or fit the narrative tend to go into the appendix now.

a research thesis is a coherent and cohesive narrative describing a body of scholarly activity that adds to knowledge. At the University a collection of published papers is not a thesis, neither is a publication on its own sufficient to warrant the award of a research degree - Sydney Uni theses including publications

  • "The suggestion is to focus on journals that are open-access even if they are lower ranking due to copyright fears. " Suggested by whom? I never heard about a single case where a non-open-access journal took action against someone who reused material from a paper for their PhD thesis. – lighthouse keeper Sep 29 at 10:26
  • There has been instances where publishers have refused hence advice like this is given - "If permission has not been obtained at the time your thesis is submitted, please remove the materials for which permission was not received from the public version of your thesis. In the place of the redacted materials, you may include a short statement, such as: "Publication has been removed due to copyright restrictions” - openresearch.anu.edu.au/contribute/contribute-your-thesis - hearsay and feelings should not be the basis of advice for PhD students unfortunately. – Poidah Sep 29 at 10:38
  • This 2011 study was referred to in the ANU link found that 4.5% of publishers would refuse e-theses or repository submissions and 13.5% of publishers would want substantial changes. I couldn't find a recent survey, but you are probably right and all journals would accept etheses re-publication and repositories now. My comment was more a discussion about the history of hybrid theses. – Poidah Sep 29 at 10:56
  • That source doesn't support the suggestion to focus on open-access journals. Also, it's arguably a poor suggestion: There's hardly a point in submitting to a lower-ranked journal, when there's higher-ranked non-OA journals that support e-thesis republication. -> Downvoted – lighthouse keeper Sep 29 at 12:16
  • The point is that assuming that a non-OA publication will support e-publication due personal experience is a very poor choice. Not checking and not getting a case by case decision by the editor and publisher can render the article useless in a thesis by publication. Open access was the advice especially ten years ago. No longer relevant now as the big publishers have moved to recognize and accept e-publications. – Poidah Sep 29 at 19:08

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