Britain’s oldest PhD graduate criticises thesis publication rules

Open access publication of PhD theses makes it difficult for studies to be published as books, says 93-year-old Shakespeare scholar

June 7, 2020
Source: YouTube/University of Birmingham

Having your PhD thesis published as a book is an ambition held by scholars of all ages. And, just seven years short of her 100th birthday, Joy Leslie Gibson is no different.

Last year, the Shakespearean scholar became one of the UK’s oldest PhD recipients when, at the age of 92, she was awarded a doctorate from the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute, which is based near her home in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Although delighted to be able to call herself “Dr Gibson”, the 93-year-old told Times Higher Education how she is frustrated that a condition of gaining her doctorate is placing her thesis – on forgiveness and repentance in early modern drama – on the university’s open-access thesis repository.

That has made it almost impossible for her 72,000-word thesis to be picked up by a commercial publisher, said Dr Gibson. “If you ask publishers about this, they all say: ‘No PhDs’,” she explained.

“I wouldn’t mind if they gave you five years before putting it online, but if it goes up immediately then you can understand why publishers are not interested,” added Dr Gibson, whose published works include a 1986 biography of Sir Ian McKellen and Squeaking Cleopatras, published in 2000, which examines how boy actors were used in Elizabethan drama to play female leads.

“You don’t make much from publishing academic books, but I get about £100 a year in lending rights from my book on Elizabethan boy players,” explained Dr Gibson, who believed her situation raised an important issue of “intellectual copyright”.

Hundreds of PhD theses published since 2009 are currently hosted on Birmingham’s online portal, with some being downloaded tens of thousands of times. The UK’s EThOS e-theses service, run by the British Library, hosts more than 500,000 theses.

Despite this quibble with her institution, Dr Gibson has praised its Shakespeare Institute for its “superb” support during her doctorate – which caps a remarkable university education that has seen her gain six degrees, including two MPhils and an MLitt, since the age of 59.

“I was offered a place at the London School of Economics when I was 18, but it was 1945 and at the end of the war the government said all university places should go to ex-service people,” explained Dr Gibson, who instead took a diploma in music and drama before embarking on a career as a journalist, where she wrote for Vanity Fair and various women’s magazines.

“I always regretted not having a degree and, when I was in my 50s, my mother suggested I do an Open University degree,” she explained. “I eventually took a BA at North London Polytechnic [now London Metropolitan University] and an MA at Sussex University before doing my MPhil,” she added.

“Thanks to my Shakespeare studies, I met people from all over the world and have friends in their 20s,” said Dr Gibson, who has divided her time between the library and the theatre, where, until recently, she has taken part in several plays and worked backstage and in the box office.

“It has given such joy and interest to my last 30 years,” she said.

jack.grove@timeshigherducation.com

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Reader's comments (8)

Congratulations to Dr Gibson, whose achievements are both impressive and inspirational. I am interested, though, in her comment that publishers aren't interested in picking up PhDs and turning them into monographs. The implication is that these works are not commercially viable because people can get them for free. But there's another reason for a lack of enthusiasm about theses, and that is because they are usually written for a narrow readership of academic experts: from the publisher's perspective it's not that everyone can read them online, but rather that few people are interested in reading them in any format. It sounds as if this may not be true in Dr Gibson's case, given her previous successful track-record in publishing books, but it may explain the publisher's reaction. My personal experience is that if a work is available in electronic format it doesn't stop me buying a hard copy: just last week I decided to buy an expensive book that I'd been reading online, because I'd sampled enough of the content to know I wanted the nicely bound and printed version. So I don't think it's safe to assume that online availability will dent sales of a hard copy. The main argument in favour of making theses openly available is that the work becomes available to a much wider community of scholars, including those who might not be able to afford to buy a book. Dr Gibson may be frustrated that her thesis isn't available in a beautiful format that she can put on her bookshelf, but in the longer term, her work will have potential for much broader impact if people worldwide can access it easily.
Huge congratulations to Dr Gibson! As Deevybee rightly points out though, most publishers will not publish a PhD thesis directly as it will need to be redrafted and rewritten for a different audience. The thesis is written as an academic manuscript. The monograph is written as a book, and will need some redrafting. As such, the open access of theses will make no difference to this. Additionally, it is likely that as with many of us, thoughts about the research move on following the viva and develop, which can produce a more rounded, thoughtful piece suitable for publication as an academic monograph deriving from the PhD. I'm sure many publishers will be delighted to pick up Dr Gibson's monograph proposal reworking the main findings of her thesis, and I wish her all the very best in this.
I agree with deevybee. Now, with so many advances in searchability and retrieval of online content, Housing a PhD in a formal repository is similar to publishing with a publishing house. OK, you don't get your <£100 royalty check each year, but it is still a formally published work that people can access and build on.
Congratulations to Dr Gibson on her doctorate. However I am surprised at Dr Gibson's claim. Birmingham, like most university repositories, allows for embargoes to be put on e-theses for a reasonable length of time: https://intranet.birmingham.ac.uk/as/libraryservices/library/research/thesis/access-options.aspx She could have had an embargo the electronic version (limited to 12 months if UKRI funded) according to the guidance from UoB's library.
Since the University of Birmingham receives significant sums from the taxpayer, who pay for (for example) Dr Gibson’s access to the extortionately priced subscription journals she no doubt needed to do the research for her PhD, it seems only fair that the taxpayer is allowed to read the results of this investment in her education rather than a commercial publisher benefiting from it.
As Isobel has said, embargo periods are allowed for thesis, and whilst most universities recommend that these are for a period of no longer than 12 months, if felt justified, and was wanted - a five year embargo period would not be unusual. Open access does allow greater visibility of the thesis, with the readership of most increasing from a handful of people to thousands! Most publishers have a statement in relation to the use of works previously published in a thesis being used, and many allow reuse of work from thesis.
I doubt I have ever referred to my PhD thesis since I submitted it. It was a thesis to get a PhD, and sits on my shelf unloved and unread. I actually hope no one has read it. It formed the basis of a book which was about 6+ months of further work, which as far as I can tell is well regarded and is still in print, and a few articles. A thesis is a thesis. A book is a book. So the publishers I think are doing the right thing in making a distinction. Unless I am making a mistake here and the university is not allowing the thesis to be revised for a book?
In the social sciences, it is normal practice for PhD graduates to turn their PhD into a book. The book is not the PhD published as a book but a revised version. Publishers turn down proposals because of quality and viability but not because the thesis is available in a repository. PhD thesis in the UK have always been available - before digitalisation and institutional repositories a bound copy of every PhD had to be lodged with the British Lending Libary and in the library of the University where the PhD was awarded. The thesis were then available on inter-library loan.

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