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section heading icon     dissertations

This page provides an introduction to print and digital theses.

Historian Charles Kindleberger in The Life of an Economist: An Autobiography (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell 1991) notes that

Before the Second World War Columbia University continued the European practice of requiring a candidate for the doctorate to turn in seventy-five printed copies of the dissertation, which it would exchange for similar works from European universities that belonged to the cartel. There were two ways this could be done. The dissertation could be bound together with four or five other theses in social science, in which case it would never come to light again, or the candidate could arrange for a separate publication, in almost all cases heavily subsidized by him or herself. Luckily, my new wife brought a dowry of about $6,000 to our union, and I took half of it to give to Columbia University Press. A Mr Wiggins, my editor, urged strongly that I print no more than 400 copies (at our expense). I begged for more, and he grudgingly agreed on 600. Seventy-five went to Columbia, as noted, a few to professors and friends. The rest were sold under an arrangement whereby I got half the gross price, and Columbia University Press the rest for its marketing effort. The Press insisted that it be sold for $3 a copy. Three dollars times, say, 500 copies is $1,500, half of which is $750. Three thousand dollars less $750 is a net cost to Mrs K. Of $2,250.

Initial enthusiasm for web publishing of academic dissertations - under the auspices of institutions or by individual authors - appears to have waned since the mid-1990s, when it was promoted as a fundamental "step towards breaking the stranglehold of the publishers on scholarly publishing".

Most activity has involved the physical sciences rather than humanities or social sciences. It has transferred some publishing from university presses to university libraries. Overall it does not appear to have replaced the UMI 'print-on-demand (POD) service from ProQuest.

The major US initiative is the Network Digital Library of Theses & Dissertations (NDLTD), based at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute (VT). It involves several hundred US universities - with a handful of overseas institutions - and covers around 3,000 theses.

In essence most publication involves a PDF copy (on disk or on the web) of the paper original submitted by the student to the particular institution: few institutions permit wholly electronic submission. The NDLTD uses protocols developed by the VT during the 1980s. By the end of last decade the aim was to publish every new PhD and research masters thesis on the web, with selective capture of past dissertations.

Europe has proceeded more cautiously. The most interesting work has been done by the Universities of Linkoping and Graz.

The Australian Digital Thesis (ADT) program brings together the Council of Australian University Librarians (CAUL) and the following universities: ANU, Adelaide, Curtin, Griffith, Melbourne, NSW, QLD, Sydney, Wollongong and QUT. It covers around 300 doctoral and masters theses, which are available in PDF. Most are from the physical sciences and engineering.

Individual theses are mounted on the particular institution's server. The ADT software automatically generates Dublin Core (DC) metadata in a central metadata repository searchable using the HotMeta proprietary search engine. It is claimed to help avoid plagiarism and encourage more efficient research:

You're much more at risk of being plagiarised if it sits in a library archive. When you put the work on the web it is effectively a date stamp.

ADT is offered through the university libraries but has not been widely advertised or accepted within the region.

The UNESCO Guide for Electronic Theses & Dissertations (ETD) strongly reflects the US Networked Digital Library of Theses & Dissertations.

The number of theses that are independently published online, often in HTML rather than PDF, is unclear but appears to be growing. The US ("Turning Di$$ertations into Dollars") and German Diplomica are two of a shrinking number of commercial electronic thesis publication services. ProQuest, the current incarnation of University Microfilms (UMI) and Bell & Howell, appears to have been more effective in leveraging its very large holdings (1.6 million items) of microfilmed theses.

There have been surprisingly few academic studies about reception of e-theses. The very brief 1998 ETDs & Publishers report from Canada's Joint Electronic Thesis & Dissertation Project asserted that publishers didn't NDLTD-style publication as precluding commercial publication in hardcopy; our sense is that attitude reflects the difference between the thesis and a more marketable book.

Recent writing is also thin, after a burst of enthusiasm 1995-98. Examples from that period are Electronic Theses and Dissertations: Problems and Possibilities, a 1997 report by Christian Weisser, John Baker & Janice Walker of the University of South Florida (reflected in a 1998 JEP paper on Electronic Theses and Dissertations: Digitizing Scholarship for its Own Sake and 1997 CMC paper on Problems and Possibilities of Electronic Theses and Dissertations. The 1999 NDLTL report (PDF) on Improving Graduate Education Through the National Digital Library of Theses & Dissertations is more substantial.

Matthew Kirschenbaum's 1996 paper on Electronic Publishing and Doctoral Dissertations in the Humanities deals with EDT other than the sciences. Matt Stoeffler's paper on Publishing Dissertations at the University of Michigan in XML: A Report of a Study and Janet Erikson's 1997 paper on An SGML/HTML Electronic Thesis & Dissertation Library consider the use of XML rather than PDF.

Among conference proceedings we recommend those of the Third International Symposium on Electronic Theses & Dissertations in 2000 (here), the Fourth Symposium in 2001 (here) and the 1999 UNESCO Workshop on An International Project of Electronic Dissemination of Theses & Dissertations (here).

The Virginia Tech Electronic Dissertations & Thesis project offers a detailed page on access statistics.

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version of July 2005
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