Things get complicated rapidly. This morning, we had a discussion with people responsible for graduate studies across the University about making PhD theses available on the web. The idea was that the University would make a section on the library website where final versions of students PhD theses were deposited, with the permission of the students (this would be part of the final submission process; as part of the forms that they would fill in, they would tick a yes/no box to give/deny approval).
My initial thought was that this was fairly unproblematic. With the exception of a few specific examples (e.g. theses that contain commercially, politically or legally confidential information), PhD theses are readily available, at least to academics if not to the general public. It has been common practice for many decades for university libraries to contain a copy of all theses that have been passed by that university. As such, web access seems to be merely a change in degree, not a change in kind; rather than having to trog half way across the country/world, or put in an inter-library loan, the person wanting to access the thesis can just access the thesis online. Big win, yes? The student gets a little more exposure for their thesis, they can point immediately to a copy of their thesis on the web that has the imprimatur of the University as an “official copy”, and the University benefits from greater exposure for the work of the students.
Surprisingly to me, the mood was generally negative towards this move. It is interesting to unpack the reasons that were given; a mixture of the sensible and, at least from my disciplinary perspective, incoherent.
A number of concerns were with the research being made available prior to peer-reviewed publication. One problem was identified that is particularly of relevance to what Tony Becher (in the book Academic Tribes and Territories: Intellectual Enquiry and the Cultures of Discipline) identified as urban research areas—that is, areas where a large number of researchers are working on a small number of key problems. In this area, advances can be very quick; someone had the fear that if the thesis were “too readily available”, then results/ideas from the thesis could be taken up by other groups and built on very quickly, meaning that the work in the original thesis would be unpublishable in journal articles.
Underpinning this was the idea that publishing is something that happens post-thesis. I can understand this in monograph-based disciplines, but in disciplines that are based more on journal/conference publication, I was really surprised how little encouragement academics from other disciplines were giving to students to publish papers during the thesis process. Certainly I try to encourage my students to do this, and I feel that my students have benefited from the sense that their work has already been looked at and approved by some peer-review process as they go into their vivas.
A couple of people had a more extreme view of this; that student’s ideas were so valuable that “a professor elsewhere will grab your ideas and put a team of 20 people onto it”. Really? I’m reminded of a comment, I think by Cory Doctorow, along the line what writers want is readers, not endless complicated ways to prevent access to their writings. A similar argument applies here: if you are so revolutionary that Prof. Nobelprizewinner is putting a team onto it, then access to your PhD is the least of your concerns. But then, I’ve always thought that ideas are cheap, and it is execution that is the hard bit. Perhaps this isn’t so in other areas of study. Other people expressed fears about plagiarism, either word-for-word or “plagiarism of ideas”.
Perhaps the most surprising comment was that keeping theses of the web helped protect “vulnerable” students (I think “vulnerable” is another topic for by series of rants on “verbs that need an object”; but, that’s for another day). Vulnerable to what? To having their ideas out there? To having their work questioned? Or to the issues discussed above like plagiarism?
Something that surprised me was that a lot of people from the monograph-based disciplines were concerned that this would marginalise the interest of publishers in publishing monograph versions of the theses. This seems odd to me; people haven’t hidden from their publishers that books are based on PhD theses, many monographs begin with a clear statement that “this book began as a PhD thesis…”. Again, this is perhaps a situation where what seems as a matter of degree to me seems to others to be a matter of kind to others; I have a good understanding of what is an “archival” publication and what is the “gray literature”; perhaps publishers don’t. But, there was little interest in trying to educate publishers about this; indeed, the whole discussion seemed very grounded in the existence of an unchanging publishing system (it always surprises me when people don’t turn their methods in on their own practices; there were people in the room who have written about political change and power relationships, but accept without question the existing power relationships in the academic/publishing system without question).
Generally a lot of this has the air of “security through obscurity” about it: in theory, it has been possible for people in the past to find PhD theses, but it hasn’t really happened, and now it does matter. One place where this came to a head was in discussion of theses that contained substantial copyright material, for example illustrations taken (with reference) from other books/articles. My understanding is that in theory, students have always had to get permission from the copyright holder before including them in their thesis, but that a vanishingly small number have done so. The wider availability of theses online makes these issues more salient (a similar issue arises with online lectures).
On the whole, a fascinating look into the world-view of different subjects, even if it left me sitting in my seat wanting to shout “but, don’t you want your students to get their ideas out there!” most of the time.
(A couple of links of relevance that I didn’t manage to tie into the main text: the paper Confidentiality of PhD Theses in the UK, and an identically-titled blog post: Confidentiality of PhD Theses in the UK)