Citational Politics: Citing Dissertations

One of the aspects of revising my book manuscript that I’m currently negotiating is knowing whether and when to cite a dissertation. At some point in my career, someone told me it was generally bad form to criticize a dissertation (or a dissertation’s arguments) in a published work. It was regarded as a kind of punching down, and I feel like I’ve generally followed this rule.

I suppose that understanding this rule also put me off citing recent dissertations in general, beyond acknowledging their existence. As someone who started his academic career fairly early in the internet age, I worried about issues of access. I worried that citing scholarship that was not accessible to readers or reviewers was not a particularly useful gesture and something to be avoided unless absolutely necessary (such as in the case of referencing an idea from a dissertation or if a dissertation was the only existing reference for certain information). That said, with greater access to dissertations especially in digital forms, I have started to cite dissertations more frequently in my work, and this got my thinking about when it is appropriate to cite a dissertation and when it might be a good idea to avoid it (unless it is absolutely necessary for reasons of scholarly transparency or integrity!). 

On a short and painful run, I identified five types of dissertations each with their own challenges.

1. Classics. These dissertations are those golden theses that have enduring value and have never been replaced by a published book. For my work, John Leonard’s 2005 dissertation, “Roman Cyprus : harbors, hinterlands, and “hidden powers”,” which is a synthetic gazetteer of maritime sites on the island remains a useful (if slightly dated) reference for coastal Cyprus. I can add to this to Richard Maguire’s “Late Antique Basilicas on Cyprus,” a 2012 dissertation from the University of East Anglia, Jody Michael Gordon’s dissertation, “Between Alexandria and Rome: a postcolonial archaeology of cultural identity in Hellenistic and Roman Cyprus,” and Yannis Varalis’s 2001 dissertation on Early Christian basilicas from Illyricum Orientale at the University of Thessaloniki. There are, of course, many others.  

These are absolutely citable because they’re useful, insightful, and at 10 or more years after their appearance, it seems unlikely that a published version will appear that supersedes the unpublished dissertation.

2. Place Holder Dissertations. These are dissertations that are incredibly useful, but seem likely to be superseded by a published work. In most cases, the utility of these dissertations, at least in my field, has less to do with particular arguments that they make and more to do with the material that they synthesize or organize. A good example from my own research was William Bowden’s 2000 dissertation at East Anglia which included a fantastic gazetteer of sites in Epirus Vetus which included work published in Albanian. This dissertation was replaced by his 2003 book, Epirus Vetus: The Archaeology of a Late Antique Province, but while I was working on my dissertation, for example, his dissertation was too valuable to ignore and while the book is now the proper reference, from 2000-2003, the dissertation was a more than satisfactory place holder. Erkki Sironen’s dissertation at Helsinki, “The Late Roman and Early Byzantine Inscriptions of Athens and Attica” which ultimately appeared as IG volume (IG 14?) many years later. 

It seems reasonable to cite these dissertations especially in their capacity as synthetic works and catalogues where even if they are superseded by a published book, the basic utility remains intact.

3. Buddy Dissertations. There are some dissertations that develop in professional and person contexts that make it necessary to cite them, despite what might be their provisional status. These I am calling, colloquially, buddy dissertations. For example, David Pettegrew and I wrote our dissertations together and I was deeply influenced by his work. In this case, it only made sense to cite his, “Corinth on the Isthmus: Studies of the End of an Ancient Landscape” even though I knew that it would be superseded by a book. Similarly, Mike Dixon’s 2000 dissertation, especially on areas of the southeastern Corinthia was so well-known to me as an archaeologist and a fellow graduate student that it made sense to cite this as an influential work well before his book was published. In other cases, these dissertations are not literally by “buddies” or classmates, but by people whose paths or interests intersected during graduate school at conference, research centers like Dumbarton Oaks or the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and whose influences deserve formal acknowledgement.  

Citing these dissertations tends to reflect the existence of certain emerging knowledge networks that might not be entirely visible to people not familiar with the social life of the field.

4. Fresh Cuts. Today it is easier than ever to get a copy of a recent dissertation. Not only do many schools host digital repositories that make dissertations available soon after their acceptance, but ProQuest distributes dissertations in both digital and print form with most available for <$50 and almost instantly. These are dissertations that exist outside of one’s formal knowledge network which makes the status and content of these works harder to discern. More specifically, it makes it hard to know whether these works are finished products or place holders awaiting a more refined and developed revision published as a book manuscript. Because dissertation committees can exert considerable pressures on a student and because dissertations are often written under immense funding pressure and other academic deadlines, they often represent highly compromised documents that may or may not reflect the final stage of a scholar’s thinking. 

At the same time, with the vagaries of the academic job market and the ongoing contraction of certain fields, dissertations may be the only expression of a scholars contribution to the field. In other words, if we want to include new voices to ongoing discussions, we have to consider engaging with dissertations because the changing employment landscape of our discipline has eroded expectations that there will be support for revision and refinement in the future.

In these situations, it is hard to know whether we should cite dissertations and how we should engage their ideas. I still find the idea of criticizing an argument in a recent dissertation a form of “punching down” and unnecessary, but I do worry that a failure to critique substantively a dissertation as one would a published book or article is a form intellectual neglect that not only creates an uneven playing field but also may serve to marginalize voices already marginalized by the current academic economy.    

5. Embargoed Dissertations. I really wanted to call this “Embargo Queens” as a pun on “garage queens” or cars that are too beautiful to drive, but this would be unfair. What I’m referring to in this case are dissertations that are formally embargoed by their authors usually for 5 years. This usually means that the dissertation is not available as a digital copy or via ProQuest and the goal is to give the authors a chance to revise their dissertations and find a publisher. After all, the changing landscape of academia extends to publishing as well and I’ve heard more than one academic publishers say that they’re reluctant to even consider a publishing a book too closely based on a dissertation. 

The challenge with citing an embargoed dissertation is that access to these works is circumscribed and in many (if not most) cases the dissertation is undergoing revision. It’s like citing a work in progress without knowing what it is progressing toward and, to me at least, it feels only a little better than the dreaded “pers. com.” citation that makes a claim impossible to verify (the worst pers. com. are when the pers. with whom the author com.ed is no longer among the living).

Of course, it is always possible to reach out to the scholar and ask their permission or even request a copy of a dissertation. These personal networks, whether formed through buddy dissertations or just typical academic correspondence, remain a key cog in the professional machine, but they also represent privilege of access and whether we like it or not, power dynamics within our field. I do wonder whether a new PhD would feel comfortable denying access or permission to cite to a senior scholar in their field. 

Here, then, we have reached the end of my speculations on citational politics and dissertations. I’m not sure I’ve resolved my conundrum as to whether and how to cite, engage, and critique the range of dissertations available for scholarly consumption, and I would love to hear what other people thing about these issues!

One Comment

  1. There’s also publication politics: where references to dissertations get scrapped in editing by academic publishers, as unconventional citations. Not to mention plagiarism: citing without acknowledging. What I’m saying: consider the whole context of citing dissertations (including unethical instances of not citing).


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