Are theses prior publication? The postgraduate’s nightmare.

Recently the worst thing happened.  We heard of two articles, from the same author, rejected in two Elsevier journals because they were too similar to their thesis.  We’ve strongly argued against embargoes to theses just for publishing for a few reasons:

Timing – it took five years for that research to see the light of day (probably), and now we have to wait (potentially) for another year or two for it to be published.  That’s a lag of seven years for critical, groundbreaking research!

Distinctiveness – a journal article and a thesis are very different beasts.  One is packaged to deliver complex information in a condensed and efficient package.  The other is an expanded discourse outlining an entire stream of research.   As well as that, editors are great, and reviewers are great.  They can help take information and refine it further with deep knowledge in a field to sharpen, and increase the relevance and pertinence of an article.

Credit – By embargoing a thesis, the author is denied credit for it for another couple of years.  This causes issues for those wanting to refer to it in their early academic career, especially at other institutions.  Also, the rules of the PBRF (the NZ academic performance exercise) say that theses need to be publicly available to be counted – and embargoes explicitly deny public access.

Finally, you can’t cite an embargoed thesis.  Well, you can, but without permission from the author that’s a very naughty thing to do, and there’s a story there I’ll tell another day.

When we found concrete evidence that an author had been rejected on the basis of the material being in a publicly available thesis, we decided to do some digging.  We were really concerned that the landscape was changing and our advice that embargoes were unnecessary needed to change.

We sent the following letter to the editors of each journal:

Co-Editors in Chief

Dear Professors xxxxxxxxxxxx

A few months ago a postgraduate student at our university submitted a paper to your journal. The paper was rejected because it was based on her thesis that was online at our institutional repository:

Our crosscheck report demonstrates an elevated number of paragraphs with similarity with published reports / public information (see comments below). This MS cannot be considered for publication in XXXXXX in its present form. I suggest rephrasing the MS and either resubmit it to XXXXXX or submit it to other scientific journal. A new submission to XXXXX will be treated as a new MS.

Editor’s Comments to the Authors:

It seems that the MS is part of a PhD thesis, which has been published in UC Research Repository If so, kindly ask for an embargo (avoid public access until results have been published) to avoid the similarity detected by our crosscheck software.”

As owners of our institutional repository we are responsible for advising students on whether they should embargo theses when they submit them to us. We don’t advise them to embargo if they are trying to publish based on their thesis. This is because most publishers and journals don’t regard the author’s own thesis as prior publication.

We want to understand your thinking in rejecting this paper so we can advise our students wisely.

We note that the XXXXXXXX Author Information Pack (here: XXXXXXXXX), under the Submission declaration and verification section (p11) says “Submission of an article implies that the work described has not been published previously (except in the form of an abstract, a published lecture or academic thesis, see ‘Multiple, redundant or concurrent publication’ for more information)… To verify originality, your article may be checked by the originality detection service Crossref Similarity Check.” That ‘Multiple, redundant or concurrent publication’ link leads to the Elsevier website and says “Elsevier does not view the following uses of a work as prior publication: publication in the form of an abstract; publication as an academic thesis; publication as an electronic preprint. Information on prior publication is included within each Elsevier journal’s Guide for Authors”.

Both your journals’ and your publishers’ guidelines indicate that theses are not considered prior publication. This is in line with Committee on Publication Ethics guidelines, which your publisher is a signatory to.

We have two issues that need further clarification from you as Co-Editors in Chief of XXXXXXXXXXXX:

Please clarify, in light of your journal and publishers policies, why this paper was rejected. Was this a problem simply about inadequate paraphrasing, or about the content of the paper being substantially represented in the thesis?

How long have you been using this plagiarism software?

The reference number of the thesis referred to here is XXXXXXX, however I am more concerned with the process and the principle than the outcome of that paper.

In both cases the editors responded with an apology, saying that it was a mistake on their Assistant Editor’s part, and that it was not their policy to ever consider theses as prior publication.

This was a satisfying outcome (though it was a total nightmare for the author!) and further bolsters our opinion that theses should be let free in the wild, and shouldn’t be regarded as a barrier to furthering your academic career.


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