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UBC Reports | Vol. 54 | No. 6 | Jun. 5, 2008

Bringing Theses to the Web

By Meg Walker

The internet has been a blessing for researchers in many ways, providing access to electronic journals, papers from international symposia and more. And now the list includes UBC PhD and Masters theses.

In early summer the 500th title will be added to the UBC Electronic Theses and Dissertations (ETD) initiative, a program co-created by the Faculty of Graduate Studies (FoGS) and the Library.

University Archivist Chris Hives is excited about the dramatic increase in audience that the ETDs will allow. The electronic theses are fully text-searchable and will show up on internet engine searches for anyone to stumble across.

Hives expects digitization will promote interdisciplinarity. Researchers are well aware of what is happening in their particular field. Putting theses on the Internet and making them searchable “will allow researchers to access material easily in allied fields,” Hives says.

UBC theses typically were submitted in paper form and then sent periodically for microfilming and, more recently, digitization. It could easily take up to a year before a graduate student’s work would be accessible.

“Because of the time lag, PhD students used to have quite a hard time finding topics,” says Max Read, Communications and Thesis Coordinator at FoGS. But if theses are Google-searchable on the internet within weeks, “it gives students a chance to track what’s absolutely current in their field.”

Practicality also played a role in the decision. In 2005, Hives, Read and Digital Initiatives Librarian Bronwen Sprout began to ask: why move all that paper around -- especially if no paper was involved in the first place, since students are writing theses on computers? Sustainability issues like saving paper -- and reducing storage space -- are side benefits that the Library and FoGS are happy to embrace.

John Willinsky, a leading advocate for open access dissemination of publicly funded research, agrees that it is time for theses to be circulated as widely as possible.

“UBC’s initiative in making its students’ theses and dissertations publicly available represents a tremendous contribution to the growing world of learning to be found online,” says the Stanford professor, who has a continuing appointment at UBC.

“It puts to bed the tired cliché of the thesis collecting dust on a shelf, which has been the bane of many a graduate student determined to otherwise discover something that will make a difference,” he says.

Work by Master’s students will undergo the largest change. Until now, their theses have simply been microfiched and archived. PhD theses, on the other hand, have been both microfilmed and digitized -- and users have generally had to pay to access the information.

Read points to studies that show how scholarly articles and theses distributed online are cited much more frequently than those that aren’t. If the thesis is a graduate student’s calling card, online dissemination will make a positive difference.

But for some disciplines, such as the creative arts of film, creative writing and music, there are concerns that dissemination will have a negative effect. If a student’s thesis is a novel, for example, what rights can a publisher buy if it can already be read online?

“We are a university and the thesis is part of the education process,” says Bryan Wade, acting Chair of the Creative Writing Program. “All knowledge should be available -- I agree with that philosophically. But if artists are going to make a living out of their work, where do you draw the line?”

Wade, who teaches writing for stage play and radio drama, says the dilemma came to a head with the thesis deadline for Spring graduation.

Students were not happy to learn their work would be available online before publishers had a chance to see it. Through discussions with FoGS, a solution has been found for now. The title and abstract of creative writing theses will be cited online, but the work itself will remain exclusively available on microfiche at the Library.

“When I first started teaching, who had heard of the World Wide Web?” Wade asks. “Things may change over the years; but for now we have to be really conservative.”

To provide access to research in older UBC theses created prior to the ETD project, the Library is currently undertaking a pilot project to assess the feasibility of digitizing more than 33,000 theses submitted between 1919 and 2007.

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Last reviewed 04-Jun-2008

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