As the manager of an Institutional Repository, one of my regular tasks is to tell enquirers why they can’t download a PDF that they have found with Google from our collection. The work is there, but we have had to embargo it.

It’s becoming more common for us to embargo work. There are a multitude of reasons why we do so that, when put together, give a view into the process of scholarly publishing from economic, personal and professional perspectives. But are academic publishing embargoes just delaying the inevitable?

We hold two main types of work. The first type is theses, dissertations and research reports: things that have been created for a qualification. I’m dead impressed with anyone who has finished a thesis — it’s a masterpiece in the old sense — the work you need to have done to call yourself a master in your trade, signalling the end of your apprenticeship. Even the 4th-year student work that departments submit is good stuff, on a huge range of topics from fire engineering (this guy got a degree by burning couches) to history. The other sort of work we collect is research outputs by staff and students: mostly manuscript, final versions of journal articles.

Why would anyone want to delay public access to this work? With anything as complex as research there are always going to be a few individual circumstances that are not easily put into categories, but the main ones are:


A thesis can be the first time someone writes for a public audience. All through an academic career you write, it gets read by one or two people, and that’s it. Filed, or thrown away. For some great work, this is a terrible shame, which is why we accept all sorts of student work, as long as the quality is assured. Nonetheless, people are nervous about their work, and simple self-effacement can lead students to embargo their work for as long as possible. Our response is that if your work passed, and you were credited with the qualification, then you should be proud of your work, not embarrassed.

Concerns about plagiarism

Theses are great resources for researchers — I’ve written about this before — just the literature review or the bibliography is a great primer in a field. The ideas in the thesis can’t be protected though, and authors are worried that they might get stolen. The answer to this is simple: if you don’t put up a version of record, you can’t establish your primacy in the first place.

Publishers won’t publish me if the same data is in my thesis

This is by far the most common reason for embargoes on theses. I wish I had some more-than-anecdotal evidence that this was true. Some research has been done in the social sciences, and has shown that a publishable book is a very different thing to a thesis (Ramirez et al, 2012). Even then, having an Open Access electronic version of a scholarly monograph has also been shown to increase the sales of print copies of exactly the same thing! I’m not aware of similar research done in STEM, but the speed of scientific publishing is such that papers are now normally lined up before the thesis has even been submitted for marking. If readers have evidence of this, I’d really like to hear about it.

I have a contractual obligation to embargo this work

For journal articles, having an embargo on the version in the repository is often demanded by publishers. Repositories form a very potent threat to the traditional toll-based publishers — why would you pay millions of dollars in subscriptions to journals if the same work was available for free? Embargoes are one of the contractual tools publishers use to fight the creeping advance of Open Access, along with many other stipulations designed to make an repository version of an article as unappealing as possible. When the US government demanded that publicly funded federal research be openly accessible, the stoush about embargo lengths (publishers demanded 2 years, and were fought down to 12 months) was protracted and bitter.

What authors don’t realise is that they have all the power. Once the paper has been accepted, all contractual agreements are up for grabs — obviously the journal wants the paper, it will sell more subscriptions. So why would an author want to make a fuss and reduce the embargo? Because they will get more citations for their work, which is how you win at the current academic game. A lot of recent work now confirms a considerable advantage for papers that are published Open Access, and early. I won’t cite specific papers, but point you to a website dedicated to this, as new work is occurring constantly.

In short, there are few good reasons to embargo your research (though there will always be exceptions). Publishing early, and with a license that allows your work to find its fullest audience, is the best use of the resource that has gone into your research, and will pay you the best reward.

Anton Angelo is the Repository Manager at the University of Canterbury Library, and a member of the NZCommons editorial board.

Ramirez, M. L., Dalton, J. T., McMillan, G., Read, M., & Seamans, N. H. (2012). Do open access electronic theses and dissertations diminish publishing opportunities in the social sciences and humanities? College & Research Libraries. Retrieved from

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