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Dissertations, Theses, and the Scholarly Record: Earning a Ph.D. is hard work. No one is likely to disagree with that thesis statement. Regardless of the discipline, doctoral students devote an enormous amount of time researching their topic, examining their data, collecting their thoughts, writing a dissertation, and defending it before a panel of professors, often in the presence of their peers. Librarians are there to help with the process.

"Dissertation" is the word most often used to describe the final written product of a Ph.D. student. The word "thesis" is applied to the culmination of master's-level research studies and, sometimes, at the bachelor's level, although the term "capstone project" is also common for those earning a bachelor's degree. These terms can vary by institution and geolocation, so if a database says it contains dissertations, it's best to ascertain what the database producer means by that.


The database librarians (and students) think of first when it comes to finding this type of literature is Dissertations Abstracts. Tracing the lineage of the publisher of Dissertation Abstracts resembles an exercise in corporate genealogy. First there was University Microfilms, Inc., soon shortened to UMI, founded by Eugene Power in 1938. It was in 1951 that the Association of Research Libraries approved UMI as the provider of dissertation services, which inaugurated Dissertation Abstracts.

If one follows the corporate genealogical bouncing ball, one encounters Bell & Howell, which bought UMI from Xerox in 1985. It changed the name to Bell & Howell Information and Learning and, due to another acquisition, to ProQuest Company, and then, in a somewhat retroactive move, to ProQuest Information & Learning. When Cambridge Information Group bought ProQuest in 2007 and adopted the ProQuest name for the company, it inherited the dissertations database. The UMI nomenclature lingers as ProQuest UMI Publishing, the arm of ProQuest to which students submit their dissertations and theses.

Dissertation Abstracts, aka Dissertation Abstracts International in print and ProQuest Dissertations and Theses (PQDT) online, focuses primarily on Ph.D. dissertations granted by U.S. universities. The printed version dates from 1938, but the online database has a retrospective file that dates back to 1861. It began adding selected master's theses in 1962 and has included citations for dissertations from 50 British universities since 1988. The U.K. ones are sourced from The British Document Supply Centre. Dissertation Abstracts and Theses also has a limited number of dissertations from outside the U.S. and the U.K., but that is not its strong point historically. It is now concentrating on building up its international scope.

Dissertation Abstracts and Theses, as of the end of 2019, contained some 5 million citations, with about half of those in full text. It is available only on the ProQuest (as Dissertation Abstracts and Theses Global) platform and the Dialog Solutions (as Dissertation Abstracts and Theses Professional) platform, both of which require a subscription. However, a subset is available for free.

PQDT Open ( contains a little more than 48,000 dissertations and theses published between 1951 and 2019. The drop-down menu for date begins with 1951, but the oldest one in the database seems to have been published in 1964, with two in 1970 and one in 1971. Basic search shows a single search box and gives you the ability to limit by date. Clicking on More Search Options allows for limiting by author, title of dissertation/thesis, publication number, school/institution, advisor, and keywords/description. Results can be sorted by relevancy, most recent, and oldest first.

A few dissertations show up in specialized databases. GeoRef contains master's theses and doctoral dissertations from U.S. and Canadian universities in the field of geology. Global Health has some non-English-language dissertations on public health issues. Both INSPEC and PaperChem include some dissertations in their specialty areas. OCLC's WorldCat database has a Thesis/dissertations option to limit by Content as part of its advanced search.


EBSCO has a free dissertations database. EBSCO Open Dissertations ( or dis sertations) stems from a print index, Doctoral Dissertations Accepted by American Universities, published by the H.W. Wilson Co., and launched in 2014 as an EBSCOhost database, American Doctoral Dissertations 1933-1955. In a collaboration between EBSCO and BiblioLabs, the database has grown to 1.2 million records.

The interface is the standard EBSCO one, probably familiar to most librarians and students. Searching by date demonstrates that thousands of records in the database date back prior 1933. It also reveals problematic dates. Those purporting to be published in 0018 by the University of Alberta were undoubtedly published more recently. For the full text of the dissertations, Open Dissertations provides a link to the institutional repository that holds the electronic version.

ProQuest and EBSCO are not the only ones interested in making dissertations and theses available for free. Individual institutional repositories are now the norm for depositing ETDs (electronic theses and dissertations). When the library world moved from print to digitized dissertations, plain black (usually) bound books confined to the shelves of just one library transformed into electronic forms, easily able to be widely shared. This coincided with the move to open access (OA) by publishers that has been welcomed by the library community.


OpenThesis ( is another place that houses OA theses and dissertations. It invites authors to upload their dissertations, noting that this will encourage people to read and use the information contained in the documents.

Launched in 2010 (, its About page ( claims its mission is to "increase the availability and utility" of these documents and notes, "Historically, theses and dissertations have not been freely accessible through a powerful, centralized database." That's a true statement only if you assume that, by "accessible," OpenThesis means the full text of the documents, since the ProQuest subscription database is a "powerful, centralized database." It is, however, most definitely not free. On the Dialog Solutions platform, a citation costs $8.28, while the full text of a dissertation sells for $125.89.

OpenThesis goes on to say, quite accurately, about theses and dissertations, "they have been available at individual College and University web sites (if at all), often via the respective school's ETD (Electronic Thesis and Dissertation) program. While these ETD programs are very important (indeed, they provide the bulk of the data used to create, the lack of a free, centralized database means that a global search of theses and dissertations has often not been possible."

Advanced search on OpenThesis offers field codes for abstract, advisor, author, document language, document title, document type, full text, keywords, publication data, and school, along with syntax examples that explain how to use the codes in a search. Results can be sorted by relevance or chronologically. Limiting to specific dates can exclude relevant results, since a surprising number of documents have no date affixed to them.

What is not transparent about OpenThesis is ownership. The website registration information is almost entirely redacted for privacy reasons. Erik Reeves, quoted in the 2010 press release as the CEO of OpenThesis, is also the co-founder of Free Patents Online, which became AcclaimIP in 2010 and was acquired by Anaqua ( in 2016.


More transparent are the universities that have opened up repositories of dissertations and theses--and not only from just their institutional repositories but opening up to other schools as well. The Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations (NTLTD; links out to 47 global sites that, in turn, either link to or contain theses and dissertations from their respective countries. For the United States, it's EBSCO's Open Dissertations.

NDLTD can trace its heritage back to 1987, but it wasn't until 1996 that, spearheaded by Virginia Tech, it became a reality. Currently a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, NDLTD is also responsible for the International Symposium on Electronic Theses and Dissertations, the 22nd of which was held in Portugal, Nov. 6-9, 2019.

The NDLTD database is up to almost 6 million records, but not all of them are dissertations or theses. The database also contains conference proceedings, conference papers, poster presentations, and even salary surveys. The advanced search functionality includes the ability to search by subject, title, creator, description (not all records have a description included), publisher, and language. The syntax is those words followed immediately (no space) by a colon, then the search term in parentheses. An example is subject:"libraries" (this retrieves 3,457 results). It also allows for Boolean searches using AND and NOT. Results can be refined by source, publication year, and language. There is no sort capability and no apparent way to screen out non-theses or dissertations.

The Z. Smith Reynolds Library at Wake Forest University in North Carolina hosts It lays claim to a bit more than 5 million theses from 1,100 worldwide institutions. This is an index database--it refers searchers to the individual repositories of those 1,100 institutions for the full text. OATD makes the point that it contains only OA material, whereas NDLTD has both OA and non-OA content.

OATD's search screen simplifies the Boolean search that underlies its search engine. From the left-hand search box, searchers can choose All of these words, Any of these words, This exact phrase, or None of these words. The middle search box is for the search terms. Fields appear in the right-hand search box and let you search by title, author, abstract, university/publisher, subject/keywords, department/discipline, or date. Each of the three box search statements can be combined using AND or OR. You can further refine by language, country of publication, and date range. You can also limit results to only ETDs with Creative Commons licenses.

Results can be sorted by relevance, author, university, or date. Facets for date, university, department, degree given, level of degree, language, and country appear to the left of search results, allowing for further search refinements. OATD has some nice visualizations, created in 2014, that show countries of publication, language (almost 50% English), and field of study (a very dense graphic).


At the heart of dissertations and theses is the local university that grants students a degree. Fiction writers, particularly those who write best sellers, might shop their manuscripts around to several publishers. This doesn't happen in academia. A student enrolls in a university, does coursework there, writes a dissertation there, and receives a degree from there. Until relatively recently, students didn't even own the copyright to their work.

Because of this localization, universities are the primary source for the full text of theses and dissertations. For older materials, the full text may well not be digitized, so that only a citation is available in electronic form. Earning an advanced degree is a worldwide endeavor. Thus, universities from most parts of the world maintain their own institutional repositories. Additionally, however, regional bodies have sprung up to gather the repositories from countries in the area to create specialized, geographically oriented databases.

Canada is an interesting example. Its Library and Archives Canada announced in 2016 that it would add no new material to its Theses Canada database until 2019 ( In 2015, it added 11,200 theses, but only 3,720 in 2016, and none since then. The archival database, which includes dissertations and theses from 70 Canadian universities, began in 1965. It allows for searching by keyword, author, title, subject, abstract, OCLC number, ISBN, degree, university, degree date, and language.

SEALS, the South East Academic Libraries System (vital. has only four member libraries from South East Africa. Its repository contains almost 30,000 dissertations and articles. You can browse the entire collection; look at recent additions; or search by title, creator, and subject. Additionally, SEALS provides information on the most accessed papers, items, and authors.

The British Library sponsors EthOs (, which has more than 500,000 doctoral dissertations from 147 participating institutions. When no full text is available, the British Library offers several digitization options, with differing payment alternatives.

From Ireland comes RIAN: Pathways to Irish Research (rian. ie), a database of OA research publications that includes dissertations. It has a robust advanced search page, with standard Boolean search capabilities, plus the ability to filter by item type (there are options for both doctoral theses and master's theses), peer-review status, institution, funder, and language.

The rerodoc Digital Library ( contained 6,779 dissertations and 3,653 theses as of November 2019. In this database, note that dissertations are at the master's and bachelor's levels, while theses represent the doctoral level. It is not exclusively dissertations and theses, since it has an additional eight concept types, including books, maps, music scores, and images.


The world of dissertation content is not without controversy. Dissertations have certainly become more accessible as the OA movement has taken hold. But not every author of a dissertation wants to make his or her work public. Particularly in the humanities and social sciences, where newly minted Ph.D.s contemplate book publishing as the next step on their career path, having the dissertation on which they plan to base their book openly accessible is viewed as a detriment.

Cassidy R. Sugimoto, an Indiana University librarian, writes in the opening of her article "Toward a Twenty-First Century Dissertation," "Nineteenth century dissertations are anachronistic in the twenty-first century" ( She believes that the notion of scholarly dissertations is evolving, probably for the better. Recognizing the power of openness and the value of collaboration, she suggests decoupling doctoral education from the necessity to write a thesis.

In some ways, this evolution of post-graduate scholarly research is a direct line from what Eugene Power hoped to accomplish with his initial idea of publishing Dissertation Abstracts. It was to call attention to this form of literature, to make it more widely accessible, and to make it meaningful outside the narrow confines of the university where the research occurs.

The explosion in the number of websites offering free access to dissertations and theses, coupled with the traditional ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database, demonstrates the increased interest in this type of information.

By Georgina Devar

Georgina Devar ( is a freelance writer and qualified librarian.

Comments? Email the editor-in-chief (

Notable Library Science Dissertations

For the past 4 years (2016-2019), American Libraries, the magazine of the American Library Association, has selected the most notable Ph.D. dissertations in the field of library and information science. The full text of the articles describing the research conducted for the dissertations and the authors can be found by searching notable dissertations in the search box at the magazine website (
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Author:Devar, Georgina
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Date:Jan 1, 2020
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