I spoke at a panel last month at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association devoted to the question of electronic dissertations and intellectual property rights entitled “When Universities Put Dissertations on the Internet: New Practice; New Problem?” My co-panelists included Edward Fox, professor of computer science at Virginia Tech and director of the Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations and Susan Ferber, history editor at Oxford University Press, with moderation by Sarah Maza, professor of history at Northwestern University. I have to believe that this was the only AHA panel ever with two computer scientists on it.

The panel was precipitated by a particular complaint about online distribution by then PhD candidate Ulrich Groetsch against his alma mater, Rutgers. Dr. Groetsch was initially supposed to be on the panel as well, but unfortunately was not able to attend. Dr. Maza read a statement that he had prepared outlining his concerns.

By way of background, Dr. Groetsch was basically concerned that the online availability of his dissertation from Rutgers’ open-access repository RUcore would affect his later ability to publish a book based on the dissertation. The details of the case, when embargoes were granted or expired, whether proper notifications were sent or received, and so forth, are disputed, and in any case not particularly relevant, as the particular case is of interest because it raises more general issues of under what conditions and on what basis dissertation distribution should be controlled.

On the assumption that someone or other might be interested, I’ve paraphrased my comments on the issue here. Much of my thinking is based on nascent efforts I’ve been making at Harvard to provide for open online distribution of theses and dissertations at Harvard, which is an ongoing effort. Here’s what I said:

Dr. Groetsch believes that his case has to do with intellectual property rights, so I’ll start with that issue.

He says: “My main concern is the issue of whether authors retain proprietary rights over their own works, until and unless they assign them or can no longer exercise them”. First, a caveat: I am not a lawyer, and cannot provide a legal opinion on the matter, nor am I doing so here.

Nonetheless, here is my understanding regarding the question of whether an author retains rights for a PhD dissertation.

The answer is Yes, in the sense that the author retains the copyright in the work.

But the answer is No, in the sense that the author cannot restrict access to the work at his or her whim.

The reason is this: We grant the PhD degree for substantial and original contributions to human knowledge. Not for private increases to knowledge, but public ones.

This is the premise of the PhD degree following the lead of Humboldt University and the German universities of the mid-19th century and imported to the United States at the founding of Johns Hopkins University.

As a condition of being granted a PhD, the author must provide his increment of knowledge to the world, must publish it in the particular sense of making it public.

Each university decides what constitutes a sufficient dissemination process, and the method of providing the knowledge to the public has changed over time — from university library circulation of print originals, to microfilm distribution after the founding of University Microfilms in 1938, to online distribution through Proquest or university-based dissertation repositories.

It should be clear to PhD candidates that although they own the rights to their work, they must make their dissertations available to the world as a condition of their degree according to the policies and practices of the university. In effect, the policies implicitly require that the candidate provide the university a nonexclusive license to publicly disseminate the dissertation.

This is certainly consistent with the situation at Rutgers, where the dissertation repository clearly indicates that copyright in a dissertation is held by the author. Nonetheless, the university acquires a distribution right to make the dissertation available through the university’s RUcore repository.

Of course, it would help greatly if universities made these conditions explicit rather than leaving them implicit in their practices. (There may well have been a problem with Rutgers’ clarity with respect to the policy, though views differ. Certainly, Rutgers made available documents that advised students about the practice of online distribution.) At Harvard, for instance, we have a document that describes the situation as follows:

“The assumption that underlies the regulations concerning the deposit of PhD dissertations is that they must be ‘published’ in the old sense. That is, they must be made available as proof of the candidate’s achievement. This assumption echoes a traditional European idea that the candidate for a doctorate must make a contribution to knowledge and cannot have a degree for making a discovery that is kept secret. It is, therefore, only in very exceptional cases that access to dissertations is restricted.” [Harvard GSAS Form of the Dissertation, page 12]

Thus, even though we don’t, as of yet, have online distribution of dissertations at Harvard, we make clear the basis for public availability of dissertations. The document goes on to describe the rare situations in which embargo of access to a dissertation for a limited time may be appropriate.

In general, Harvard’s rules consistently represent the idea that the PhD degree is awarded for a public contribution to knowledge, and that exceptions to public distribution are to be limited only to rare cases. The process for obtaining an embargo is therefore made quite rigorous: “An author who wishes to restrict the use of copies of the dissertation in the University Archives must make a separate written request, outlining the reason for the request, to the University Archivist and the Chair of the department or committee under which the dissertation was written. The chair of the department or committee must support the request in a letter to the University Archivist. In general, restrictions last for no more than five years from the degree date.” [page 12]

What about the issue that public availability of the dissertation may affect the author’s ability to publish the dissertation later as a book? Even before the advent of the online dissertation repository, dissertations have been publicly available documents, obtainable from the university library and from UMI. This kind of public availability of the dissertation was understood as part of the point of the PhD degree.

There is first of all an empirical question as to whether online availability of the dissertation is an impediment to later publication. It turns out that the evidence points the other direction. Joan Dalton and Nancy Seamans have conducted multiple surveys of as many as 141 publishers. These surveys provide “concrete evidence to doctoral students and their advisors that the perception of rejection by the scholarly community of manuscripts derived from web-based dissertations is stronger than the reality.” In their most recent survey, for instance, only 2% of publishers stated that “Research made widely available via the WWW would be considered previously published.” This is about the same rate as publishers who state that “Manuscripts derived from dissertations would be considered previously published, regardless of format.”

But whether or not distribution of the dissertation according to university practice would impede later publication of the dissertation as a book, the knowledge for which the PhD was granted cannot be held hostage by the author; that’s not how the bargain works.

So what is the upshot? Dissertations are and should be public documents, disseminated as universities see fit to make good on the PhD degree’s promise of contributing to human knowledge. Increasingly, universities are viewing open online distribution as the best means to that end. University policies on the matter should be transparent and, in particular, transparently conveyed to prospective and current PhD candidates.

Our attitude as scholars should always start with making our research results as open as possible. We should make that clear to everyone entering the profession as well.

That concludes what I wanted to say about the online PhD dissertation issue, but while I’m on the topic of openness, let me mention another issue. We’ve been working at Harvard to promote the accessibility of scholarly writings in general. One of the initiatives we’ve taken is to establish an open-access repository for scholarly articles written by members of the Harvard community. This repository now freely distributes thousands of articles online to tens of thousands of people each month. Importantly, we’ve found that articles from the humanities and social sciences tend to have the highest download rate, and history has the highest download rate of any department at Harvard.

Clearly there is unmet demand for access to articles in the field of history, and this demand can be met by historians providing copies of their articles online. Your university may run an institutional repository or provide you with a personal web page where your articles can live. By providing your papers in this way, you will dramatically increase the ability of scholars to read your writings. If openness is good enough for our PhD students, it’s good enough for us as faculty as well. Our experience at Harvard shows that there is tremendous demand for this supplementary access.

Efforts such as this also may start to redress the real threat to young scholars publishing their dissertations, namely, the breakdown in the scholarly publishing system in general. Because of systemic problems in the scholarly journal publishing industry, there has been persistent hyperinflation in journal prices for decades now. This hyperinflation has led to scholarly monograph collecting being squeezed out, journals being cancelled, and access to journal articles being greatly degraded. The dramatic library budget cuts that have resulted from the economic downturn have greatly exacerbated the problem, but the underlying cause is systemic. Overall, scholars’ ability to reach their potential audience has deteriorated and is continuing to do so. Frankly, this is a much bigger problem than the issue of online dissertation access potentially affecting publishability. In fact, the much bigger threat to young scholars’ publishing of their dissertations is the collapsing of university presses that this economic meltdown has precipitated, rather than online access to the dissertation itself.

There is much more that can be done to promote a scholarly publishing system that provides the broadest access in an economically sustainable manner, but that is a much longer conversation, so I’ll stop here.

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