One day, a young doctoral student opens his inbox and finds a message that is, if nothing else, flattering. An online publishing house came across his thesis paper and wants to publish it – for free. Could this be a golden opportunity? Or is it a trap?
Every year, thousands of university graduates from all over the world are contacted by one of the 24 members of the German consortium VDM Publishing, which includes Éditions universitaires européennes (EUE), Presses académiques francophones (PAF) and Lambert Academic Publishing (LAP). These publishing houses use the on-demand printing approach, which means the author has no upfront expenses, but is responsible for the layout of the document. Once this is completed, the publishing house posts the thesis online.
A free book?
“For people who would like to have a copy of their dissertation bound for free but don’t have the means to publish it themselves, it may be a good option,” explains University of Ottawa student Tara Macdonald (who did not have her thesis published by one of the publishing houses in question). However, according to the latest information available, students now receive a free electronic version of their dissertation from one of these publishing houses, and not a hard copy.
Most publishing houses also offer 12 percent royalties on sales, “the going rate for royalties,” notes Ysolde Gendreau, a professor in the faculty of law at Université de Montréal and an expert on copyright laws, “but the calculation is rather convoluted.” According to VDM’s contract, the author ends up with only five percent to six percent of the sale price after deductions.
Moreover, VDM doesn’t pay out monthly royalties if they are under 10 euros. If the book earns the author royalties of 10 to 50 euros in a given month, the latter receives a purchase voucher. Australian Catholic University calculated that a graduate student would have to sell about 11 books per month to earn 50 euros in royalties, which would be deposited into the author’s bank account; and if he or she fails to provide personal banking information, the publisher will not pay out any royalties.
The possibility of having their dissertation posted on popular sites also appeals to students. “My master’s thesis would have only been posted on Proquest, but now it appears on several sites, and Google should find it more easily,” explains a Concordia University student who published with VDM.
Unfortunately, with thousands of new titles appearing every month, a thesis still risks getting lost in a vast sea of publications. In fact, on the Amazon site, we were able to identify close to 120,000 titles published by the most active members of the VDM group in Canada (VDM, LAP, EUE and, the most recent addition, PAF), in the last four years alone.
INRS-UCS librarian Marie-Ève Dugas agrees about poor visibility. “What does visibility or accessibility on Amazon give you? The thesis is already available free-of-charge on university websites.” Plus, the sale price ($100, on average) poses a major obstacle to accessibility.
Good for your CV?
In the academic community, which is increasingly competitive, it is tempting to publish quickly, so as to be able to add the work to one’s CV. But Philip Cercone, executive director of McGill-Queen’s University Press, warns students who may be thinking about going this route. “These publications are not peer-reviewed, and they do not undergo any type of editing process. They will not be given any credibility by university selection committees.”
Ysolde Gendreau of Université de Montréal goes even further, saying, “Students are being duped into believing that this type of publication adds value to their work.”
Online publishers say that because the source of the work is a university, there isn’t any need to edit the thesis. “But the fact that the work stems from a university is no guarantee of its quality,” Ms. Gendreau contends.
What are your rights?
Authors who do business with online publishing houses can, depending on the contract, republish certain parts of their dissertation (in the form of articles, for example). However, according to Mr. Cercone, most so-called traditional publishers won’t agree to publish a work for which they don’t have exclusive rights, or a thesis without some rewriting. Moreover, the author surrenders to the publisher the exclusive right to reproduce and distribute the work—anywhere and in any language. This means publishers can legally use excerpts from dissertations to make compilations or store them in databases.
Mr. Cercone says students need to exercise caution. “Once they let copyright go, they can’t get it back.”