Results of a 1.5 year academic publishing experiment

February 8, 2012, [MD]

I just wrote about two articles published based on my MA thesis about Chinese Open Courses, and this inspired me to look at some of the download statistics from my website. Back in 2008, I wrote about the idea of a "Fair Trade" symbol for research, and the idea the research ethics shouldn't stop with the actual research, but should include requirements to make your research Open Access, and make it available in appropriate formats for the researched audience (language, etc). I began this process by having my undergraduate thesis translated into Indonesian, but with my MA thesis, I wanted to go further.

Publishing formats

My thesis is licensed under the Creative Commons BY license, which allows others to modify and build upon your work. However, it is very difficult to modify a work that is in a non-modifiable file format. Therefore, I wanted to release my thesis in a format that was modifiable - in this case, I chose Word DOC, RTF and Open Document Format (ODT) to cover all cases (it's trivial to generate several formats from the same program).

Some people like to print out long documents for ease of reading. The standard way of formatting an MA thesis, with double line space and generous margins, is great for editing and annotation, but not ideal for general reading. So I created another version, with two columns, wider margins, and single line spacing (this was also available in all the formats listed above).

E-book readers are also becoming more and more popular, and are especially well-suited to long form reading like theses. It is usually possible to shoe-horn a PDF into one of these, however it doesn't look pretty, and you loose certain features, such as table of contents.

I generated epub and mobi versions of the thesis, suitable for Kindle, iBooks and most other devices. I also tried to make the book available on Kindle as a self-published book, but Amazon will not allow free self-published books, and I didn't want to charge for one version, while others were free. (I did publish to SmashWords, but they messed up the Chinese characters).

Once I had the Chinese translation ready in July, 2011, I also posted several versions of this, including PDF, Word, RTF and ODT

Other dissemination methods

In addition to posting the files, I decided to experiment with syndicating the thesis on my blog. This had two purposes. First, I personally often end up downloading a lot of long documents, without ever getting around to reading them. However, if you "drip feed" me information over many days, I am much more likely to absorb the information.

The other point was to give each individual "piece" of the thesis an individual URL, so that people could link to it. In addition to making a main point, every thesis probably consists of a number of logical "pieces", which have some value in themselves. There is the overview of Chinese higher education history in the lit review, there is the section on a commercial ecosystem around open courses in China, etc. Now, other blogs or websites which want to refer to these pieces can link directly to them rather than saying "look up page 50 in this PDF". (Having individual URLs also makes it much easier to tweet and retweet links).

So I posted the thesis on my blog progressively over a period of months, always tweeting out links as well. Some of the blog posts got a number of retweets and were also mentioned in other blogs on OER.

I also uploaded my thesis to T-Space, the University of Toronto repository, as we are obliged to do according to the policy of the university, and also uploaded it to Google Books.


So after almost 1.5 years, what do the numbers look like? I use both AWStats and Google Analytics to analyze my traffic - neither is perfect. AWStats often overreport hits, because of all the referral spam, however Google Analytics does not capture PDF downloads at all. I also think the download numbers are far less exaggerated than the page hits. So I looked up the download statistics for the last 1.5 years to see which files were most downloaded.

In total, my thesis has been downloaded 2.600 times.

Language Downloads
English 2132
Chinese 458
Format Downloads
PDF 2132
DOC 458
RTF 398
ODT 121
ebook 158

In addition, the thesis got downloaded 29 times from T-Space. This seems incredibly little, but in this particular case, it is not very surprising. First, it was only published several months later on T-Space, because the university waits until convocation before releasing the documents. At this point, many of the downloads from my website had already happened. Also, because I released so much information from my own website, anyone searching for my thesis would find links to my website, instead of T-Space. I think T-Space is a good option for students who do not have an active web presence, but its clear from these statistics that T-Space does not promote browsing and exploration (not strange, given its quite convoluted design).

I also got very low numbers at Google Books, again probably because my other files came up much higher in searches. (In contrast, I got quite high reading numbers for my undergraduate honors thesis on Google Books, particularly the Indonesian version).

Non-numeric outcomes and the future

These numbers by themselves don't necessarily mean all that much, they don't tell me how many people have read the thesis, or how many people found it useful. But it's quite interesting to see, for example the distribution of file formats (despite the fact that it's so easy to generate multiple formats that even if few people download them, a case could still be made for making them available). In addition to pure numbers, I have connected with many interesting people, and met people at conferences that I didn't even know who told me "I followed your thesis with interest". I even had an e-mail from a journal editor inviting me to turn my thesis into a paper for his journal.

I hope this post has inspired you to think about how you publish your own research, whether it's your MA or PhD thesis, or you are further in your academic career. I certainly don't think what I did is the definitive answer, and I would love to see what others can come up with. For my PhD thesis, I am not waiting until my thesis is released, I built a system to enable me to take all my working notes in the public and hopefully, when my thesis is released, every single citation will link back to the notes I took when I first read that paper.

Stian Håklev February 8, 2012 Toronto, Canada
comments powered by Disqus