After reading a comment (now deleted) saying

My university's policies does not allow me to share my thesis PDF file completely.

I was wondering why some universities do not allow dissertations to be publicly available over the web? (by any means - free or through subscription)

This seems a fundamental right to the students (to share their dissertations) and to the community in general.

Thus, I thought I may get some inputs/examples, from different academic cultures, for possible reasons to not to have dissertations over the web (i.e. top secret?).

Update: The user whose comment prompted this discussion mentioned in a comment on this thread:

I consulted one of the professors at my university and he told me there is no prohibition on sharing my thesis's PDF file. It was my own mis-understanding of the copyright statement on the copyright page.

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    I would certainly be very interested to see an example of a university that, as described in the linked comment, has a blanket policy that dissertations must not be publicly available online, and learn about their reasons. My initial reaction is that this is indefensible. Oct 21, 2014 at 22:34
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    My initial reaction is that this is self-defeating. Every US university I've been part of has required students to put a copyright notice in their dissertations, asserting that the student owns the copyright. Authors can do whatever they like with their own copyrighted documents, including posting them on the web.
    – JeffE
    Oct 21, 2014 at 23:48
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    Let me second Nate Eldredge's comment. Can anyone give a link to a university policy that forbids public distribution of dissertations? (There are certainly policies that allow students to limit public distribution under some circumstances, but I've never seen one that forbids students to put their dissertations on the web.) Oct 22, 2014 at 0:15
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    I am appalled to learn that some Universities prohibit this. I can't think of one reputable University worth attending with such a horrendous policy.
    – Tommy
    Oct 22, 2014 at 2:18
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    Given that the user (@enthusiasticstudent) whose comment caused all this ruckus (a) has not posted a link to any such policy and (b) suggests in his answer below that universities DON'T actively prohibit public distribution of the thesis, I suspect that the question may be ill-posed. That is to say, there may be no such universities. Oct 22, 2014 at 8:26

4 Answers 4


As the one whose comment triggered this question, I figure I ought to answer: one of the foundational principles of science is that it should be freely and publicly available.

At the same time, there are a lot of human interests that push in the opposite direction. Some examples:

  • A nation may want to restrict high-technology in order to promote its own interests. For historical examples, consider the British empire's secrecy around timekeeping for navigation, or Bavarian secrecy on methods for making high quality optical glass.

  • Information may be considered dangerous to release to the general public, such as regarding atomic weapons or the DNA sequences of deadly pathogens.

  • Commercial companies invest in technology in order to gain advantage over their competitors.

  • A scientist may want to avoid publishing patentable research until after the patent is filed.

A lot of science that is done is thus never openly published, or openly published only long after it has been completed. The question then is, how should universities relate to this, particularly regarding dissertations?

To the best of my knowledge, in all of the high-ranked U.S. universities, a Ph.D. dissertation is required to be entirely public, as a matter of scientific principle and integrity. This wasn't always the case, particularly during the convergence of scientific research and military funding around World War II. As the country became more uncomfortable with that association, however, the elite universities began to remove classified research from their campuses and require that theses be publishable. In many cases, classified research still goes on in association, but through a separate entity, such as Lincoln Lab for MIT, SRI for Stanford, and LBNL for Berkeley. Likewise, sensitivities have developed around commercial research.

The general principle that is followed then, at least for elite U.S. universities, is that the research leading to a dissertation may involve unpublished or restricted information. The dissertation, however, must be public and substantial enough to stand on its own without depending on other non-public research that may have been done in association.

  • In Sweden the defences (Msc and PhD) are public by default, but the supervisor may make it private if it is deemed appropriate (most common, a company paid for the research and have an embargo).
    – Davidmh
    Oct 22, 2014 at 6:37

I'ts done to protect sensitive materials. As a rule, dissertations were made openly available at the Harvard Archives. This changed a few years ago, when the deans, responding to doctoral students’ fears, allowed embargoes broadly. As a result, as a search in ProQuest reveals, an unprecedented number of dissertations (almost one in three) produced at Harvard in 2012 and 2013 are embargoed. These dissertations are now secret and the authors can decide how long to keep them so. http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2013/9/10/Harvard-dissertation-secret/

Just wanted to add, that many universities partner with corporate firms where the research is funded, so probably either the university hopes to apply for the patent or the firm.

Colleges and universities own the ideas and technologies invented by the people who work for them, including professors and graduate students who are paid to do research

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    Allowing students to disseminate dissertations online does not impact a university's ownership of its intellectual property, just like allowing students and faculty to publish papers on their work doesn't. I don't know of any university (including those that retain rights to intellectual property created by students and faculty) with a blanket policy forbidding publications.
    – ff524
    Oct 22, 2014 at 10:57
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    That is a very disturbing a regressive development...
    – jakebeal
    Oct 22, 2014 at 11:23
  • @seteropere, Sadly this does happen and could spread if more isn't done to keep information free flowing.
    – StackBuddy
    Oct 22, 2014 at 18:06

Based on most comments on the question, I know this answer may seems odd but at least it may elaborate more details on the comment. As much this may be surprising, I was surprised when I saw online dissertations for the first time.

Where I study, only the hard copy texts are available in the libraries and students can read them, but they can not make a copy of them. Students can write down some notes in a paper and only take that note out of the library. Also the time you can access the dissertations is limited. As I have seen a lot, the copy right page where I live is something like this: All rights reserved to the respective initiatives and innovations resulting from research studies subject of this thesis is owned by X University. So the University thinks they are the ones who own the results not the student who generated them.

With this in mind some reasons may be:

  • You can easily copy the dissertation from another university and sell it in black market or foist it as your own work. The reason is dissertations is not available online is your adviser can't or won't bother to check every library in different universities or he/she has not enough information on your field. So, it would make it easy for the student to copy the results of others.

  • Some dissertations may have some flaws or weak results. If they publish it online, it would compromise the fake reputation of the university. So it is in best interests to not publish it online.

  • Sometimes, the student or adviser wants to publish the results in a journal but they have not decided when to do so. So they prefer to keep the results for themselves for the time being.

  • Only published papers in journals and conferences would help the scientific degree of a teacher, so why bother to publish it online when it is non-English and it won't be cited by elite universities in US or Europe.

Keep this in mind that these are irrational response of some universities in order to solve their problems.


Some universities have different opinion about ownership. For example:

... I pledge not to publish the results of this thesis without permission of my adviser and I am not allowed to disclose any information regarding of my thesis with anyone without permission of my adviser.

  • About the first point: I am saying it make it harder for students to plagiarize. It's like erasing the problem. If a student wants to plagiarize he/she will do it one way or another and of course as I can see, it hasn't helped both parties but it is an irrational response to this problem where I live.

  • About the third and fourth points: Again I reference to manuscript of another university not a person.

All the papers based on this thesis should have the name of X university.

So it is not just a decision of a person for his/her profits.

  • Allowing students to disseminate dissertations online does not impact a university's ownership of its intellectual property, just like allowing students and faculty to publish papers on their work doesn't. I don't know of any university (including those that retain rights to intellectual property created by students and faculty) with a blanket policy forbidding publications.
    – ff524
    Oct 22, 2014 at 10:52
  • Your first point is not logical: you say having dissertations online would make it easier for other students to plagiarize them. But then you say that not publishing them online makes it difficult to detect plagiarism.
    – ff524
    Oct 22, 2014 at 10:53
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    And your third and fourth points explain why an individual might choose not to put the dissertation online, not why a university would have a general policy forbidding it.
    – ff524
    Oct 22, 2014 at 10:55
  • I deleted the reference for the added part in order to stay anonymous.
    – user263485
    Oct 22, 2014 at 11:33
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    The notice you cite in the first paragraph does not claim copyright or ownership of the scientific results; it only claims the exclusive right to financially exploit said results. It is therefore an intellectual property, not copyright, issue, and irrelevant to the question of publication. (Such a blanket clause is very common with respect to any scientific results obtained while affiliated with a university, either as student or faculty.) Oct 22, 2014 at 11:42

Diploma mills (fraudulent "universities") will refuse to disclose dissertations because the dissertations do not actually exist or are obviously inadequate.

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