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I'm currently applying for PhD positions in the US, having completed a Master's degree in Engineering in the UK and then working in Industry for the past 13 years. I'm a bit confused as to the extent to which (if at all) a Master's thesis is considered to be 'published'?

To my knowledge, my Master's thesis was not officially published on the University website. However, I have seen some cases where Master's theses at some institutions are available online from the affiliated institution's website. To what extent are these 'available online' Master's theses considered to be published?

If they are not considered published then, if someone completes a Master's thesis and publishes it online, but doesn't follow-up by publishing it in a journal (perhaps they don't go on to do a PhD), then what is to prevent another academic taking those results and publishing them as their own? Is that considered 'fair game' in academia?

The background to this on my side is that my Master's thesis was a very successful project and was received very well at the time by the faculty in the Engineering school I studied in. It probably could have been turned into a research paper; however, given that I made the decision to start a career in Industry, I didn't push to publish the results in an academic journal at the time.

More recently, I have come across a paper that was published a few years later by researchers I am not familiar with at another institution, which seems very similar to my Master's thesis (I'd say ~75-80% the same content). Now, I am not accusing them of plagiarism - it's quite possible they may have discovered the same thing independently. However, I am just wondering, in general, to what extent a Master's thesis posted online is considered to be 'published' and how it is perceived in Academia if someone was to 'plagiarize' a Master's thesis.

I guess a follow-on question relating to my situation is: how much of this (if any) should I mention in my applications for PhD programs?

  • Since it doesn't address your main question, I'll post this as a comment: "If they are not considered published then, if someone completes a Master's thesis and publishes it online, [...], then what is to prevent another academic taking those results and publishing them as their own? Is that considered 'fair game' in academia?" -> If an unpublished Master's thesis is available online the proper etiquette is to ask the author for permission to use their work and cite it as "Unpublished Master thesis" (note that the author still holds the full copyright as the work isn't published). – eru-cs Nov 4 at 15:54
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To what extent are these 'available online' Master's theses considered to be published?

In academia, published typically means included in conference proceedings or a journal by a publisher in some format (typically a printed book) that has an ISBN. A thesis is not published, under that definition. Nonetheless, an unpublished thesis needn't be private, e.g., it may appear online and it may be available in university library.

what is to prevent another academic taking [someone's Master's thesis] and publishing them as their own? Is that considered 'fair game' in academia?

Such behaviour isn't prevented, but it would destroy a career, so it is uncommon.

to what extent a Master's thesis posted online is considered to be 'published' and how it is perceived in Academia if someone was to 'plagiarize' a Master's thesis.

Such a thesis isn't published, but that's not the main issue: Academic fraud is intolerable and fraudsters will suffer severe consequences.

how much of this (if any) should I mention in my applications for PhD programs?

I don't see any reason to mention any of it. Do you? (Perhaps add a comment if you do.)

  • Thanks for your answer. The reason I thought it might be worth mentioning that someone else published a paper that is similar to my thesis is because I have read that getting 'scooped' can be viewed as a good thing, because it shows that a PhD candidate has the ability to do high-quality research. However, I'm not sure if I should mention it in a statement of purpose. – Time4Tea Nov 4 at 16:08
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    You could say that it wasn't peer reviewed and published in a journal, but that subsequent published work "confirmed" or "extended" the work, if those descriptions are warranted. – Cameron Brick Nov 4 at 16:12
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    Actually, I think that if you make the thesis available on a publicly visible web site it is considered "published". I.e. made available to the public. This is especially true if you don't have the ability to change that web site yourself. So, if your university library puts it online, it is published. Not peer-reviewed, of course. And any sort of peer review gives it more credibility beyond that of the faculty that approved it. – Buffy Nov 4 at 16:59
  • @Buffy is correct, see my answer clarifying this – Spark Nov 4 at 17:17
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    @user2768 agreed. At this point I feel we might be debating semantics, I believe I agree with you on the high level idea – Spark Nov 5 at 10:18
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Let me clarify that published may be a bit ambiguous. When your thesis is accepted and your degree is awarded, it becomes part of the university’s archives. A few decades ago that meant a dusty copy in the university library. Nowadays it’s a publicly available repository that anyone can access. So in that sense, yes: your thesis was made public and has undergone peer review by your advisor and committee.

This is usually considered less prestigious than having your results published in a reputable journal or conference but it makes the results no less yours. Taking them and publishing them as one’s own is gross academic misconduct that’d cause serious damage to one’s career if found out.

Independent discovery is common, especially if you didn’t publish your results in a high profile venue. So someone else coming up with similar findings shouldn’t surprise you too much (great minds etc.).

I would not mention this in the CV as it’s not an achievement you can reasonably claim (someone thinking of a similar idea and publishing it is hardly a feather in your cap).

That said, it may be worthwhile to mention it if the other paper turned out to be impactful or published in a well respected venue. In that case I’d say (in the research statement): my thesis was about X; interestingly, Smith et al have independently discovered my approach, and recently published the result in Nature. Their paper has since been cited 1423 times according to favorite metrics site and has given rise to a whole research field studying the effects of X.

  • “Interestingly, Smith et al independently discovered my approach and recently published the results in Nature” What if you’re applying to become one of Smith’s PhD students? – nick012000 Nov 5 at 0:21
  • In that corner case, it really depends on how you phrase it, but if I were Smith, I'd be happy to take this student honestly - they already know my research, think it's worthwhile, and are obviously interested enough to write a thesis on it. – Spark Nov 5 at 0:53

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