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A colleague of mine had an excellent PhD project and she published good papers during her PhD. When I asked her to give me her PhD thesis, she told me she can't because her PhD project was confidential (commercial, military, ...).

I wonder if a PhD thesis can be confidential? Isn't it available in her university library?

Can a funding organization set this limitation for the data included in a PhD thesis?

Anyway, what if her future employer asks for her PhD thesis?

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There are two ways that a PhD can have restricted access.

First, many people will pay to keep access to their thesis restricted so that they can try to publish it. The policies vary depending on the company the university uses to publish the theses. Usually, however, the time is 3 years or less.

Second, the government can classify the thesis in part or in whole. This happens when something discovered or revealed in the thesis is considered to be a matter of national security. Even though the information may not have originally been classified, and your friend may not even have access to classified material, in many countries—and certainly the U.S.—the government retains the right to restrict information through the classification process ex post of any information that it deems threatening to national security. The level of classification depends upon the level of threat, and your friend could be subject to legal repercussions from sharing that information with you.

  • Do you have any evidence of this? MIT specifically says no confidential theses. Colorado School of Mines allows for a thesis to be confidential for a 1 year period. Purdue potentially allows theses to remain confidential indefinitely, but you must renew the request every 2 years. – StrongBad May 4 '16 at 19:52
  • Of what specifically, the hold on theses that can be published—which does vary from school to school—or the classification by the government? – The Pompitous of Love May 4 '16 at 21:37
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    @StrongBad -- which part? In the US, things are classified based on what they contain, not just because someone puts a stamp on it. It's not up to the university to decide whether a PhD thesis may be considered classified or not. If the government decides that it is, the university may not distribute it. – Wolfgang Bangerth May 4 '16 at 21:37
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    @WolfgangBangerth the university may not be able to decide if a piece of work is confidential or not, but they can decide if it is a thesis. Every US policy I can find says no confidential theses. Presumably odd things can happen if the information becomes confidential after the degree is awarded. – StrongBad May 4 '16 at 22:07
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    Sorry, I don't have the laws at my disposal right now. I am transitioning jobs, otherwise I would look it up. I do know that it happens, although it never happened to me. When it does, it can frequently include things like "Security Letters" and perhaps the FISA court. The people to whom I know it happened had to be very hush, hush because of NDAs/Gag orders. One day, you couldn't see that section of their thesis anymore, and they couldn't tell you why, really. – The Pompitous of Love May 5 '16 at 13:59
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This can certainly happen. I sometimes "supervise" M.Sc. theses at my employer. (The "academic" supervision is done by a professor at a university, of course, but I'll do the day-to-day supervision, and the student will usually sit at a desk in a cubicle close to me.)

Usually these theses involve my employer's Intellectual Property. Usually the student uses data from a client (and retailers are utterly paranoid about their sales data). Consequently, we need to have both our clients and our own legal department on board with this, and usually this means that all or part of the thesis will not be publicly accessible. Of course, the department and the student in question needs to be OK with this, too, but we haven't had any problems with this so far.

The supervising professors will then need to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA). Again, I have never seen a professor balk at this. They usually leap at the chance of having one of their students do a thesis in industry.

You ask: "what if her future employer asks for her PhD thesis?" Simple. The same thing happens if a prospective employer asks me about samples of my work at a previous employer, which I cannot disclose because of an NDA. I tell them that I have signed an NDA and cannot go into details, then give a rough sketch of what I can talk about. This is commonplace in the workplace, and no serious employer should bat an eye. (Even a future academic employer should be understanding.)

This might work differently for a Ph.D. thesis, where you actually expect to generate publications, which will usually be the exception for M.Sc. theses. However, I'd expect that it would be possible to have parts of a Ph.D. thesis not available to the public, again with NDAs. And if the industry partner pays part of the Ph.D. student's salary, I'd expect most professors to be happy with the arrangement, assuming a good relationship between the professor and the industry partner.

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    Every US school I look at forbids perpetual confidentiality. Would love to see a school statement that says a thesis can be confidential. – StrongBad May 4 '16 at 19:53
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    @StrongBad: interesting. My experience is with German universities. I don't know off the top of my head whether our confidentiality agreements are only for a set amount of time, but I don't think so. Our clients would certainly not agree to releasing their data or even plots of their data into the open after five years, so such stipulations would simply cut students off from doing their theses with us. I don't think that's a better outcome. YMMV. – Stephan Kolassa May 4 '16 at 19:57
  • My experience in the US is that MS Thesis and PhD dissertations are published (typically through the library.) At some institutions students can do a master's project instead of a thesis where the project doesn't have to be presented and published. – Brian Borchers May 4 '16 at 19:59
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This can definitely happen. It depends on your university's policy, or the nature of your research project.

  1. Some American Universities, like my alma mater which is a public university in Texas USA, allows the students to embargo their dissertation or thesis indefinitely !!! It is because my university believes the dissertations' copyrights belong to their authors, and the authors have the right to decide whether they want to make it public or not. While some other universities, like Princeton or Harvard, seems to only allow the students to embargo their dissertation up to 5 years maximum.

  2. If contents of a dissertation are related to military, government, national security, or something like that, it will not be public.

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