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Thesis to book: An overview of the issues

Scholarly publishers say expect major revisions to your dissertation

BY NICK TAYLOR-VAISEY | DEC 15 2008

Did you know that about a quarter of all McGill-Queen’s publications are borne of former dissertations? Or that 20 to 30 percent of University of Toronto Press’s output result from former theses?

Publishing a dissertation following graduation is just one option open to graduate students who, after working to satisfy their advisors and successfully defending their thesis, want to tell their story to a larger audience.

But the road can be long and riddled with editorial revision, according to some familiar with the process.

“Some people think about their dissertation from the get go as a future book,” says Nick Mount, an award-winning English professor at the University of Toronto and author of When Canadian Literature Moved to New York, a book based on his doctoral thesis.

However, he continues, “Not every dissertation is destined to become a book, and depending on the writing style and how you approach the reader, there will be more or less work to do.”

A doctoral dissertation is never meant for publication, Dr. Mount says, and its transformation into a book tends to take quite a bit of revision. It is an issue of audience, tone, and diction. Doctoral students write their dissertations with one purpose: to satisfy their advisory committee.

Students spend an entire introduction proving that they deserve to say something because they have read every other relevant text. As a result, large sections of the work serve only to satisfy those responsible for approving the scholarship.

Dr. Mount likens the literature review at the front of dissertations, the footnotes throughout, and the references to what other scholars think as props.

“A lot of the editing I did to turn the dissertation into a book was cutting away the props,” he says simply.

Siobhan McMenemy, an editor at the University of Toronto Press, says that just about every dissertation requires major revision.

“There are increasing efforts being made among certain fields to have graduate students at the graduate level who write theses that are designed to be published,” she said. “Even those that are written ostensibly to be published as is are rarely ready for a wider audience.”

Those eager to get their message out to the public must first understand their new audience, says Ms. McMenemy.

“Suddenly, you are no longer someone who needs to defend one’s self,” she says. “The audience expects you to be the expert. You are the authority, you are the author, and it is assumed that you know what you are talking about.”

Philip Cercone, the executive director and senior editor of the McGill-Queen’s University Press, believes that revision is necessary because sometimes, students deliberately leave things out of their thesis that can resurface in a book.

“In a lot of cases today, it’s even more significant that what’s good in the thesis is reproduced but also that the author goes beyond what is in the thesis,” he says. “Often, there are new conclusions that are added, sometimes a new chapter or chapters.”

Mr. Cercone says that revised theses also make them more attractive to publishers, because the original theses are available in university research libraries or even electronically.

“In some cases, students are put at a disadvantage because [their dissertation] could have been published — and not online, but as a book,” says Mr. Cercone.

In those situations, he adds, “their intellectual property is being reproduced, and they’re not getting any financial remuneration or credit for it.”

Lynn Fisher, U of T Press vice-president of scholarly publications, says that the online availability of dissertations is not a major factor in their publication.

“There are more and more dissertations made available online, but they haven’t gone through the peer-review process,” she says. “And because of all the work that has been done to it [after revision], it is different when it is a book.”

For those doctoral students who remain resistant to the idea their thesis will require such major revisions, Mr. Mount offers this cautionary note:

“In universities, there has to be scholarly publishing that is necessarily technical and above the head of just about everybody who is outside the field.”

“But I also think that kind of knowledge is fundamentally useless unless it can be translated for a wider audience.”

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