my thesis had 1000+ readers in the first four months of online access

Until recently, academics said that a doctoral thesis had a readership of five – the candidate, their supervisor, their two examiners and their mother. (I had two supervisors, but my mum didn’t read [skimmed] it (1). Still, one of my examiners’ supervisees read it, so I guess my thesis had a readership of six.)

As Antiochepedia‘s Christopher Ecclestone commented,

I have tried to find some old theses (originating a few decades back) and it is well nigh impossible to extract them from the academic institution where they were published.. Their authors have gone on to drive taxi-cabs and cannot be contacted. Even worse if they have died because then one needs to find their estate to get approval to access the document.

But now, electronic theses and dissertations (ETDs) are quite common, sometimes standard; and they can be ‘100 times more likely to be circulated than print theses and dissertations [PTDs]’.

To give an idea of the difference (assuming one person checks out/downloads one thesis once), if there were 100 PTDs in a library, only 26 would be read; but if there were 100 ETDs in a library, each of them would be read 461 times.(2)

Online access to my thesis

In the first four months of online access to my PhD thesis, it was downloaded around 185 times from Sussex Research Online (SRO); it was downloaded 16 times from Conflict Antiquities; and it was used 835 times on Scribd.(3) So (minus any repeat visitors to Scribd), it had more than 1,000 readers.(4) That affirms my commitment to free public access to my research findings.

Even ignoring the Scribd users, it was downloaded around 200 times. (Downloading could signal “deep” thought about the political and ethical dilemmas, as opposed to one-click views to check facts.) To put that in context, there are only about 100 Cypriot professional archaeologists and archaeology students; or, including international archaeologists and students, about 400.

It’s genuinely reassuring and encouraging to know that other archaeologists and cultural heritage workers, and members of local and diaspora communities, are reading my research and engaging with my arguments.

Widening access to knowledge

And it’s difficult to overstate how different, and how significant, open access is.

Printed theses

Printed theses are “grey literature”: they are published, and theoretically readable and citable; but there may only be one or two copies of the document, available in one or two places (in the same country, maybe the same city), accessible under strict conditions; and the documents will probably be unpublicised, possibly not even catalogued in detail.(5)

They may only exist on microfiche, only readable with reader machines; then, still more difficult to search and read than paper; and any photographic evidence quite ruined.

Electronic theses

Even if they’re not open access, electronic theses are still (generally) easier to access, use and distribute than printed ones; but they are (generally) only shared within the academic community. If the would-be reader knows they exist, they can be e-mailed around the world. (However, would-be readers may be dependent upon the author replying to their request; and upon the author not refusing to provide a copy to a critic or political enemy.)

Open access theses

Online, open access ETDs share information on a radically new level.

My fieldwork research was done in Cyprus (and my library research and writing were done in Cyprus, Greece, Turkey and the UK); but there is only one printed copy of my thesis, and it is stored in Sussex University library, outside Brighton (UK).

(By chance, my examiner’s supervisee took the examiner’s copy of the thesis to Cyprus with her, finished reading it there, and left it in the library of the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute (CAARI); but that is not really a model for enabling local access to research.(6))

Now, not only well-informed or well-connected academics in the UK can study and use my research; and open access publication does not merely mean that a greater number of academics in the UK can read my thesis.

Researchers with poor institutional access, or without any institutional affiliation (like me); archaeologists and other cultural heritage workers in Cyprus, Greece and Turkey, and elsewhere with violence, destruction and looting; and concerned local and diaspora communities can use my research too; and simply curious members of the public can read my thesis.

(Notably, open access completely bypasses the academic black list/boycott of the northern Cypriot archaeological community.)

Widened access to knowledge, increased potential for change

Because all of these people can access my research, they can correct or discuss it on my blog (or take it away and tear it to shreds in community forums); thus, they can improve both research methods and methodology, and public knowledge of their own communities.

Furthermore, they can use my research to reform archaeological policy and practice (7); they can use it to campaign for protection of their cultural heritage; they can cut out and keep bits about their village; they can laugh at a gadjo’s blunderings; or they can ignore it and go about their day.

So, open access naturally advances both scholarship and social change.

1,000 blog visits

Pleasingly, this post also drew enough readers that the blog passed 1,000 visits. Embarrassingly, I forgot to link to my thesis.

[Update, 26th January 2012: now more than 1,000 people have read/used my thesis via Scribd.]


1: Evidently, she did read this.

2: Obviously, these numbers are not true statistics – one person could check out/download more than one thesis; and more than one person could read a checked-out/downloaded thesis. Also, the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University numbers seem to show how many PTDs were read at least once, but not how many times each PTD was read (so if 100 people read a PTD, they would be counted as 1).

3: The University of Sussex put my thesis online on the 26th of August 2011; the next day, I made the PDF available on Conflict Antiquities and elsewhere (and a month later, I produced a slim, black-and-white print copy).

4: Of course, there’s also immeasurable circulation. I know that my examiner’s supervisee left an examination copy of my thesis in the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute (CAARI) library; but I don’t know if/how many people have read it. And I know that the official PDF of my thesis is circulating via e-mail; but I don’t know how many recipients have read it, or passed it on to others.

5: I’m not saying “paper’s bad”, or that electronic publication/storage should replace physical archiving; I’m just looking at access to, and the spread of, information at the moment.

6: It’s worth noting that CAARI’s library is cheap, but still pay-to-access; and there is not even a copy in the library of the Archaeological Research Unit (ARU) of the University of Cyprus (UCY), let alone one in the library of Eastern Mediterranean University (EMU).

7: I’m not saying they will; I’m just saying they can.

[Ecclestone’s comment inserted, and post extended to discuss wider implications, on the 8th of January 2012; blog hits noted on the 11th of January 2012; links to thesis added on the 13th of January 2012.]


13 Responses to “my thesis had 1000+ readers in the first four months of online access”

  1. That is a fantastic measure of the difference between the old and new way of doing things. The more one is out there the more likely one is to be quoted/referenced and thus the potential to have more of an impact. I have tried to find some old theses (originating a few decades back) and it is well nigh impossible to extract them from the academic institution where they were published.. Their authors have gone on to drive taxi-cabs and cannot be contacted. Even worse if they have died because then one needs to find their estate to get approval to access the document.. if the opposite of fame infamy?

  2. You’ve inspired me to get myself in gear and put the now finalized dissertation up! I’ve had the masters up for a while, but here goes. Watch out internet!

  3. I’m working on it (and being a bit shy). They are a few places now and, suffice to say, once I have them up on my website tomorrow I will put them to the blog!

  4. You equate numbers of downloads with numbers of readers. I am not so sure about that. I understand that many institutions crawl the web and download academic papers to scan the text, with the sole purpose of spotting plagiarism in their students’ essays. My thesis has remained at Number 4/5/6 in the Top Ten downloaded theses from the Sydney University eSCHOLARSHIP REPOSITORY since 2006, and I still don’t know why. Around 7,000 downloads (or ‘views’ as the eRepository styles it), average 120 a month. Who is reading it, if anyone? Certainly no reader has contacted me, and I have had a website since 1994.

    • You’re right. It is impossible to account for everything. Anti-plagiarism crawling must account for some of the downloads, though presumably the effect would be roughly proportionate, so at least the ranks would remain representative. And presumably they would contribute to the early spike, rather than a continual trend, so long-term readership would remain representative. Could the opening of new institutions or inefficiently repetitive crawling account for your continued popularity over so many years?

      At least via my university repository, my readership has reduced somewhat – 270 in the first year, settling into an average of about 242 each year over the last four (though my rank has plummeted to 123rd).

      My thesis has been downloaded by people with whom I’ve never had any contact, even though they’ve cited it in publications, so I’m not sure “silent use” is abnormal – although I’ve downloaded stuff and not read it yet, so I’m sure that’s another factor.

      • The steady number of downloads makes me wonder whether I’m quite right about my ‘plagiarism machine’ hypothesis… in that case, surely each institution need only download it once and for all? They may even subscribe to a centralised service, which implies even fewer downloads. Another thought: piracy, in those wild and raffish realms where copyright matters not one whit? But that still doesn’t account for the numbers of downloads. One download would be enough. Perhaps theses pop up in a keyword search, are downloaded, then discarded when they prove to be off-topic?

        I remain (agreeably) mystified, and I’d like to think that download numbers = reader numbers.


      • The total number of downloads of my thesis (from my uni, my blog, etc.) is far greater than the number of local and foreign archaeologists of Cyprus (and, at least among professionals, copies of it have circulated by e-mail too). I suspect that a lot of downloads are by students (which would explain the steadiness of the rate, if it’s significantly determined by presence in course readings).


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