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E-theses: Will online change the thesis tradition?

Roger Atkinson

There are a number of somewhat diverse reasons for revisiting this particular e-topic, so soon after writing my last column, titled E-books, eBooks, freebooks: Will online replace traditional books? [1] The question is slightly different because the key feature in relation to theses (according to the particular technological "warp" in my vision) is not "replace" but "change". This takes me to the first reason for this particular e-topic. In a weak moment (it may have been at the ascilite Melbourne 2008 Conference [2] welcome reception, facilitated by the generous supply of fine wines) I agreed to be a thesis examiner. And not long ago, the thesis arrived, by courier, very neatly presented in its temporary binding, though quite bulky with its 1.5 line spacing, single sided A4 format. As I sharpened a few pencils left over from my retirement eight years ago, I thought some more about my very strong preference for reviewing research documents on screen, in word processor format. Very definitely we need to update the traditional approach to thesis examinations! Now, let's get onto the bigger question that this opinion engenders: what influences are the new technologies for publishing exerting upon theses and higher degrees by research?

I'll return to that theme, but first some digressions, hopefully illustrative, into the diversity of other reasons for e-theses rising to the top of the "ideas in tray". During my routine review checking upon a recent submission to AJET [3] from a Pakistani author, I had occasion to browse in the Pakistan Research Repository [4], hosted by the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan, using EPrints repository software [5]. This repository contains about 2122 PhD theses awarded by the universities of Pakistan, most are post-1990 but are few are much earlier, including some from the 1930s and 1940s. One example dated 1942 was especially interesting, as the Introduction indicated that the thesis Studies in Indian Diptera by Dr Bhatia, accepted by the University of the Punjab, Lahore [6]:

... comprises the main conclusions of [the] author's published and yet unpublished papers ... It indicates the extent to which the author has contributed to the advance of knowledge about Diptera of the Indian Empire ... Most of the species dealt with are either pests of considerable economic importance or are efficient predators of insects of economic importance ... A major portion of the work has been done in the laboratory of the Imperial Entomologist [6, Introduction, p.2]
To me this example is interesting from at least six perspectives. It represents a progressive model, based upon published papers (doctorate by publication), not constrained by the usual PhD requirement of "supervised research" within a university context. It is quaintly old fashioned, the Indian Empire and the Imperial Entomologist belong to a long time ago, but the topic has high regional and international scientific and medical significance (the order Diptera includes flies and mosquitos). The repository copy comprises page images in PDF file format, taken from an original which looks like the fourth carbon copy done on a worn out old typewriter. A Google Author [7] search finds Dr Bhatia's thesis, but shows no citations recorded. Finally, in recent times international media attention to Pakistan has focused on terrorism, so observing a high standard national repository for PhD theses makes a refreshing difference.

My comment about a "high standard national repository for PhD theses" is based on only a small number of comparisons, so I needed to refresh my memory by checking with sites that I visit more frequently, usually in connection with copy editing of reference lists for AJET and other publications. These are the Australasian Digital Theses Program (ADT) [8] and the Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations (NDLTD) [9]. The case for e-theses is put succinctly by the ADT:

The experience in all academic libraries is that very few hard copy theses are ever consulted and fewer still consulted frequently. The ADT experience on the other hand is that digital theses are consulted frequently and from over 100 countries - some have led to jobs or research projects. [10]
The NDLTD made a similar point about limited use of traditional hard copy versions in 1997:
Circulation data from the Virginia Tech library indicates that the average number of times a thesis or dissertation is checked out per year is small (2 or 3, respectively, during the first 6 years after completion). [11]
Browsing further, you will encounter recently invented phrases such as retrodigitisation of theses [DART-Europe, 12] and jargonised action items such as Born-digital theses harvested from institutional repositories [EThOS, 13]. DART-Europe provides succinct, technology oriented definitions of the variety of forms an e-thesis can take [14]:
However, definitions are not standardised. For example, compared with "publication based thesis", the terms "doctorate by publication" and "PhD by publication" appear to be used more frequently in the literature. The terms "e-thesis" and "digital thesis" are both used widely. The acronym ETD, electronic theses and dissertations, is often used, for example in the following announcement (powered by big sponsors!) [15]:
Amsterdam, 2 June 2008 - Elsevier, world-leading publisher of scientific, technical and medical information products and services, is proud to announce the winners of the first awards for Electronic Theses and Dissertations (ETD) with the NDLTD-ETD Awards Powered by Scirus. Elsevier Journals Publishing and Scirus, the most comprehensive science-specific search engine, conducted the awards competition in partnership with the NDLTD (Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations), the international organization dedicated to promoting the dissemination and preservation of electronic theses and dissertations, to sponsor this year's first-ever NDLTD-ETD Awards, which seek to recognize outstanding contributions to the body of electronically available ETD research. [15]
The awards "... recognize excellence in grey literature and highlight Elsevier's dedication to the future scientific leaders" [15]. Whilst the term "grey literature" has a more or less agreed technical definition (see, for example, the NLA's definition [16]), one interesting point is that 10-12 years ago the embryonic e-thesis movement had concerns about whether publishers such as Elsevier would perceive its open access character as a threat. Take this somewhat defensive example from NDLTD in 1997 [11]:
Theses and dissertations are very different from other forms of publication. They are much larger and more detailed, and as electronic works can easily include multimedia files, databases, simulations, and other components that may consume large amounts of space. While reviewed by a group of local advisers, they are not refined and certified though a peer review process. These characteristics, especially their very size, makes it unlikely that free access to ETDs would hurt publishers of other types of documents. Even when part of an ETD is similar to a conference paper or journal article, it seems unlikely that readers would prefer digging through large ETDs to find information when they can read a more carefully and tersely framed journal description. Accordingly, we believe that the NDLTD should be allowed to provide free access to ETDs. We request that publishers reflect carefully on this situation, and assist universities to carry out their educational missions by supporting this policy. [11]
A later view from the ADT Program in 2004 was more upbeat, even suggesting in the last two sentences a counter attack [10]:
Provision of access to theses via the ADT or similar systems does not constitute prior publication in a scholarly sense but could have a priority in relation to patents. However, there may be specific findings that would be better reported first in journal articles. A temporary restriction would enable such publication while preserving the principle of scholarly access.
There is some evidence, e.g. surveys by Association of Learned and professional Society Publisher (UK) [17] and Project ROMEO [18], that more and more publishers have accepted self-archiving. ALPSP found that just under half permitted self-archiving of preprints (more common with large publishers), more than half (55%) permitted self-archiving of the published version. [10]
The task of retrodigitisation of theses is interesting (in part because my own 1969 PhD thesis, a "fourth carbon" copy, archived in my garage, needs retrodigitisation before it succumbs to the environment!). Here is how the British Library, a partner in EThOS, explains the project's approach [19]:
Why am I sometimes asked to pay for digitisation of a thesis?
Digitisation of a thesis is a costly process involving significant manual effort. The majority of institutions participating in EThOS have agreed to pay for digitisation of their theses in support of the Open Access initiative i.e. information should be free at the point of use. However, some institutions may not have the budget to fund the digitisation. You will be asked to fund digitisation of theses from these institutions. Once a thesis is digitised it is available for free download thereafter. [19]
After this long digression, let's return to the original question, "Will online change the thesis tradition?" The digression was long because the "online influence" seems to be very largely confined to the advantages of supplementing print with electronic access and dissemination (i.e. nothing radically new). Sure, these are very major benefits, and 10-15 years of e-thesis promotion has served the thesis tradition very well, but it has not changed it in any major way. Even in the two likeliest areas of influence, theses which "may not have a paper equivalent" [14] and the "publication-based thesis", I discern little influence of the technologies upon the dominant paradigm of supervised research within a university context. For example, the technologies rate little attention in HERD's 2005 Special Issue on doctoral education research [20]. In relation to "innovative e-theses", DART-Europe [14] complained that:
To date there has been a dearth of nominations for the NDLTD Innovative ETD award from European Higher Education Institutions. ... High quality multimedia e-theses can be showcased in advocacy events to demonstrate the benefits of allowing the submission of theses in electronic format. [14]
However, "doctorate by publication" or "PhD by publication" are gaining some representation in the open access literature, as illustrated by these fine examples, firstly from Lisa Robins [21] and secondly from Bruno Starrs [22]:
This article reflects upon the first author's experiences of undertaking a PhD by publication, as a series of nine journal articles and one peer-reviewed book chapter. Its purposes are to inform and, hopefully, inspire other doctoral scholars and their supervisors, and to contribute to contemporary discussions of doctoral publication practices... [21]

There is, however, a slightly more palatable alternative to this nail-biting process of the traditional PhD, and that is the PhD by Published Papers (also known as PhD by Publications or PhD by Published Works). The form of my own soon-to-be-submitted thesis, it permits the submission for examination of a collection of papers that have been refereed and accepted (or are in the process of being refereed) for publication in academic journals or books. Apart from the obvious benefits in getting published early in one's (hopefully) burgeoning academic career, it also takes away a lot of the stress come final submission time. After all, I try to assure myself, the thesis examiners can't really discredit the process of double-blind, peer-review the bulk of the thesis has already undergone: their job is to examine how well I've unified the papers into a cohesive thesis ... right? [22]

So, having accorded two Australian postgrads the concluding words, I will re-sharpen my pencils and get back to work, that thesis examination deadline is nigh!


  1. Atkinson, R. (2008). E-books, eBooks, freebooks: Will online replace traditional books? HERDSA News, 30(3). http://www.roger-atkinson.id.au/pubs/herdsa-news/30-3.html
  2. ascilite Melbourne 2008. http://www.ascilite.org.au/conferences/melbourne08/
  3. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/
  4. Pakistan Research Repository. http://eprints.hec.gov.pk/ (viewed 25 Mar 2009; for education, see http://eprints.hec.gov.pk/view/subjects/g6.html)
  5. EPrints - Digital Repository Software. http://www.eprints.org/software/
  6. Bhatia, H. L. (1942). Studies in Indian Diptera. PhD thesis, University of the Punjab, Lahore. http://eprints.hec.gov.pk/1968/1/1895.htm
  7. Google Author. http://scholar.google.com/
  8. Australasian Digital Theses Program. http://adt.caul.edu.au/
  9. Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations (NDLTD). http://docs.ndltd.org/
  10. Australasian Digital Theses Program. http://adt.caul.edu.au/standards/copyright/
  11. Fox, E. A. & Gail McMillan, G. (1997). Request for widespread access to electronic theses and dissertations. http://www.ndltd.org/about/info/request-for-widespread-access-to-electronic-theses-and-dissertations
  12. DART-Europe. http://www.dart-europe.eu/About. See also Moyle, M. (2008). Improving access to European e-theses: the DART-Europe Programme. LIBER Quarterly, 18 (3/4), 413-423. http://eprints.ucl.ac.uk/14006/1/14006.pdf
  13. Electronic Theses Online Service (EThOSnet). http://www.ethos.ac.uk/
  14. DART-Europe. Guiding universities in doctoral e-theses (GUIDE). http://www.dart-europe.eu/guide/etheses/
  15. NDLTD. http://www.ndltd.org/community/awards/ndltd-etd-awards-powered-by-scirus-2008-winners
  16. NLA (National Library of Australia). PADI - Grey literature. http://www.nla.gov.au/padi/topics/372.html
  17. Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP). http://www.alpsp.org/
  18. SHERPA/RoMEO - Publisher copyright policies & self-archiving. http://www.sherpa.ac.uk/romeo/
  19. British Library EThOS - FAQ on searching and ordering theses online. http://ethos.bl.uk/Faq.do
  20. Higher Education Research and Development (2005). Special issue 24(2): Doctoral education research. Table of contents at http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/title~content=g758479622~db=all
  21. Robins, L. M. & Kanowski, P. J. (2008). PhD by publication: A student's perspective. Journal of Research Practice, 4(2). http://www.jrp.icaap.org/index.php/jrp/article/view/136/154
  22. Starrs, B. (2009). Publish and graduate?: Earning a PhD by published papers in Australia. M/C Journal, 11(4). http://www.journal.media-culture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/article/view/37

Author: Roger Atkinson retired from Murdoch University's Teaching and Learning Centre in June 2001. His current activities include publishing AJET and honorary work on TL Forum, ascilite Auckland 2009 and other academic conference support and publishing activities.
Website (including this article in html format): http://www.roger-atkinson.id.au/
Contact: rjatkinson@bigpond.com

Please cite as: Atkinson, R. J. (2009). E-theses: Will online change the thesis tradition? HERDSA News, 31(1). http://www.roger-atkinson.id.au/pubs/herdsa-news/31-1.html

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