Accidental Exposure

After another round of authors surprised to see their dissertations being sold online, ProQuest announces it will no longer sell them through retailers such as Amazon.

November 12, 2014

ProQuest will no longer sell the dissertations in its database through third-party retailers such as Amazon, the company announced on Monday, responding to confused scholars who found their research for sale online.

The change will hopefully put an end to the all-too frequent episodes when academics discover their work has been made available in ways they don’t recall authorizing. ProQuest acknowledged its third-party retailer program has been plagued by that issue in an email to Inside Higher Ed.

“The program with Amazon did run for a short time, but was eliminated because authors, graduate schools and the dissertations team at ProQuest didn't feel it matched the needs of the scholarly community,” Niels Dam, a ProQuest vice president, said in a statement. “Further, while the program was designed to support works only from authors who agreed to have their dissertations sold by third-parties, we discovered that the language in the contract was not clear enough about the scope of the distribution, leading to confusion when a dissertation appeared on Amazon.”

ProQuest has now stopped selling graduate work through third-party retailers, the company said Monday in nearly two dozen tweets to academics who had raised the issue on Twitter. The company will remove all the dissertations for sale on Amazon, and its program with the retailer will be discontinued, a spokeswoman said.

ProQuest has billed its tie-ins with companies such as Amazon and Google as a way to help academics disseminate their work, and also to earn royalties. In a letter to the University of Kansas (sent well before the most recent controversy) explaining its partnership with Google, ProQuest told scholars they could earn 10 percent in royalties on sales from Amazon and Google Scholar.

“Most scholars benefit from increased exposure to their published work, so the ubiquity of Google and Amazon should benefit most graduate students,” the company said in the letter. “Additionally, these new dissemination avenues broaden author exposure beyond the traditional research community.”

But for some scholars, prematurely disseminating their dissertations could be detrimental. Some higher education associations have urged members to embargo their dissertations to avoid being rejected by publishers over research that has already been published elsewhere -- which in turn could hurt their job prospects. While some scholars have questioned that line of thought, there is a wide consensus that individual graduate students should be the ones to decide who can sell their work.

ProQuest first told Jesse Stommel, assistant professor of digital humanities at University of Wisconsin at Madison, that it would remove his and others’ dissertations from Amazon. Stommel’s dissertation, like many others, was on Tuesday still listed for sale, retailing at $62.10. 

“I have talked to many recent graduate students that were shocked to find their dissertations on Amazon and are struggling to figure out how to get them removed,” Stommel said in an email. “I was very glad to see that ProQuest will no longer be providing dissertations to third-party retailers.”

Scholars had to opt in to the service, the spokeswoman said, but even with that safeguard in place, several academics appear to have signed up without being aware of it. Since some colleges or departments require their doctoral students to upload their dissertations to ProQuest, it is possible some students (“in a daze of serial late-night writing session,” Stommel tweeted) filled out the paperwork but forgot to specify the channels through which their work could be disseminated.

Regardless of whether human error or lackluster directions is to blame for the confusion, some still question why nonprofit institutions outsource dissertation management services to a for-profit company.

“This whole ecosystem -- this whole landscape -- around electronic dissertation publishing is something that a lot of people don’t understand the ins and outs of,” said Seth Denbo, director of scholarly communication and digital initiatives for the American Historical Association. “I certainly think ProQuest’s role in this whole thing is problematic, but I think it’s a good thing if they’re deciding not to sell [dissertations] on Amazon anymore. That should be up to the individual. ProQuest shouldn’t have blanket rights to do anything.”

While ProQuest is winding down its third-party retailer program, the company is still partnering with Turnitin to use hundreds of thousands of dissertations to detect plagiarism. Stommel said he has yet to hear how to remove his dissertation from Turnitin’s database.

“I am also concerned by the fact that some institutions are requiring that dissertations be run through a check against the Turnitin database before submission,” Stommel wrote. “This creates a culture of suspicion around student work that I find directly hostile to the enterprise of education.... Ultimately, I'm not opposed to people choosing to sell their dissertations, but I am opposed to institutions requiring graduate students to upload their dissertations to corporate platforms like Proquest and Turnitin.”


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