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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: February 2015

20 - Resolving Ethical Lapses in the Non-Publication of Dissertations


If a doctoral dissertation is an original scholarly contribution to knowledge, then it seems important that the information gained be disseminated through means of publication, where its contribution can benefit society. In our view, for a dissertation to have an impact, submitting to ProQuest UMI, for example, does not suffice as publication, even though called “publishing” by the company. Even though this is the primary archive for dissertations and theses including an estimated “95% to 98% of all U.S. doctoral dissertations” (Proquest, 2013), limited access to these archives and their lack of use by many professionals may limit the visibility and ultimate utility of those projects only published in this forum.

Unfortunately, we have observed a number of students who have “walked away” from their dissertations (or masters’ theses) after being awarded their degrees (and not just in our own graduate program). These students, for a variety of reasons, do not pursue publication of these projects. These decisions not to seek publication are rarely due to poorly conceived or inadequately conducted research. In fact, some dissertation research may be of higher quality than published research is (McLeod & Weisz, 2004). Nor have these projects resulted in uninterpretable, nonsignificant, or unoriginal findings, which therefore might not constitute uniquely valuable contributions to the scholarly literature. Indeed, in many cases, the “quality assurance” mechanisms of mentorship, committee review, and oral and written defenses are often sufficient to obviate such undesirable outcomes (McLeod & Weisz, 2004). Non-publication apparently results from a lack of further interest or incentive to publish and a desire to move on to other career activities.

Dowd, M. D. (2004). Breaching the contract: The ethics of nonpublication of research studies. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 158, 1014–1015.
Lehman, R., & Loder, E. (2012). Editorial: Missing clinical trial data. British Medical Journal, 344, d8158. doi:
McLeod, B. D., & Weisz, J. R. (2004). Using dissertations to examine potential bias in child and adolescent clinical trials. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72(2), 235–251.
Pautasso, M. (2010). Worsening file-drawer problem in the abstracts of natural, medical and social science databases. Scientometrics, 85, 193–202.
Portalupi, S., von Elm, E., Schmucker, C., Lang, B., Motschall, E., Schwarzer, G. et al. (2013). Protocol for a systematic review on the extent of non-publication of research studies and associated study characteristics. BioMed Central, 2, 2. doi:10.1186/2046–4053–2–2
ProQuest. (2013). Dissertation Abstracts International. Retrieved from
Yamey, G. (1999). Scientists who do not publish trial results are “unethical.” British Medical Journal, 319, 939.