The last thing a graduating student wants to do before receiving his diploma is fight the system. After all, to paraphrase Mike Myers as Dr. Evil, “I didn’t spend six years in graduate school to be called ‘Mister,’ thank you very much.”
And yet the classes, teaching, research, writing, and exams were pretty tame compared to the last flaming hoops I was required to leap through in order to receive that piece of paper with my name followed by PhD.
These flaming hoops had to do with filing my dissertation — a document I’m convinced few will read with the exception of my advisory committee and perhaps my father as a cure for insomnia.
As I tried to explain to my father, who has requested several times for a document draft, dissertations are not meant to be read. They contain all of the data, in nauseating detail, a graduate student generates in pursuit of a research question, including failed experiments, supplementary analyses, data tables, and an exhaustive literature search that is designed to exhaust the reader, or at least provide some evidence that all relevant sources — however tangential — have been consulted.
In sum, dissertations are everything that a doctoral student’s professors want to see, although this does not translate into what a reader wants to read. The reader wants a couple of thousands of words, a table or two, a figure, and a nice short summary. In other words, readers want a journal article, which is exactly what I plan on spending my time writing as a postdoc. But before becoming a postdoc, I first need to become a “doc.”
And the last flaming hoop that I am required to jump through is . . . filing my dissertation.
This is where the story gets interesting. But please allow me one more short digression.
The dissertation (often called a thesis) is an old tradition that still persists in many academic fields, although many departments have replaced it with a papers option, something more contemporary with modern scientific publishing. Dissertations are public documents, and within a few weeks, two hardbound copies (printed on archival paper with gold print on their handsome black spines) will show up on our library shelves. You are welcome to read them, but you first need to get to Ithaca, NY. Alternatively, ProQuest-UMI will print and sell you a copy. But don’t bother, because a publicly-accessible file will show up in eCommons, our institutional repository, or at least this is what I’m trying to make happen. Yet, the system is working against me, providing all the wrong incentives that push me to embargo access to this file for a very long time.
On submitting my dissertation PDF, I have just two options: embargo access to the file for 5 years (the default), or make it available immediately.
The student daring enough to change the setting to “open circulation” is then presented with a warning page with an option to go back and return the settings to the default.
It shouldn’t be surprising that the vast majority of graduate students have chosen the default. Only 11% (16 of 133) dissertations filed this year made their document immediately available, and I’ll become the 17th. While theses and dissertations belong to the largest and fastest growing collections in our institutional repository, it shouldn’t surprise you that most of these files aren’t accessible at all.
Did I tell you that Ithaca is very beautiful at this time of the year?
The ProQuest-UMI submission was a more challenging hoop. If I wanted them to make my dissertation open access, it would cost me US $160 (students have to pay UMI to index their theses and dissertations). Our Thesis Advisor even scratched out the open access checkbox on my form with a red pen and only relented to accept my decision after I convinced her that I understood the consequences. Without looking up, she handed me a payment slip and sent me off to the Bursar’s Office to pay the fee.
On the way to the Bursar’s Office, I tried to contemplate how the framers of our access policy settled on five years and why students are required to opt-out rather than opt-in to the embargo.
In my search for the answers, I discovered that many of the people involved in making this policy have either left Cornell or died. Those who remain, like the Thesis Advisor, simply continue the tradition, citing a warning that public access will dash any hope of future publication. A graduate student with any hope — even remote — of publishing after publication of his or her thesis should agree to embargo.
And yet, I could not.
I concluded that after spending a year on writing a public document, only to make it as inaccessible as possible, was antithetical to the purpose it was intended to fulfill. Indeed, consigning to lock up a dissertation on open access seemed inconsistent, if not downright hypocritical. And lastly, I have yet to find a publisher who has a hard policy against accepting a manuscript that was derived from a graduate thesis. While most serious journals have statements about only accepting original material, filing a dissertation does not seem to constitute “prior publication,” or at least none are willing to state this.
Information policy is no different from the Strange Laws of Old England that persist even when technology and social mores have changed. If universities and libraries are serious about making research publicly available, they should consider revising old policies to actively promote this goal.
Because graduate students are willing to jump through any hoop.