A couple of years ago, a brouhaha erupted in the wake of a public statement from the American Historical Association regarding the online dissemination of student dissertations in the field of history. Whereas student authors across disciplines are often allowed to embargo their dissertations for up to three years, the AHA proposed that history students be allowed to impose embargoes of up to six years on their work while they try to get it formally published — provided that they place printed copies of their dissertations in their granting institutions’ libraries and make those copies available to researchers immediately.
The firestorm of reaction to this proposal was truly remarkable: it included public name-calling, ridicule, and general vituperation of a kind that doesn’t often occur when the topic of discussion is graduate-school policies. The public criticism also prominently featured radical misrepresentations of the AHA statement, strongly suggesting that many of its critics had not bothered to read the statement before issuing their responses. I discussed some of these at the time in a posting here in the Kitchen and also in a lecture I gave at the Smithsonian Libraries.
Over and throughout this public conversation (or shouting match) lurked a larger issue, one that was never really addressed in a direct way: to what degree is it appropriate for graduate schools to require students to give up control over the dissemination of their theses and dissertations?
I would like to suggest that this is a difficult and complex question, and that the right answer to it is not obvious.
For most of the past 200 years or so, this hasn’t been a particularly fraught issue. Pretty much every graduate student understood that, upon completion and acceptance, her thesis or dissertation would be printed and bound in several copies, and that one of those copies would be made publicly available in the library stacks. Except in unusual circumstances regarding sensitive intellectual property (such as papers based on patentable products or processes), students generally didn’t have any desire to restrict access to the printed copies of their papers. Most students would likely have welcomed a broad readership, and in cases where the dissertation’s content might be sensitive in some way and wholesale dissemination or redistribution might be problematic, the organic unwieldiness of the print format was usually sufficient to prevent it. And, of course, until recently there was no expectation that students would abdicate the traditional copyright prerogatives in their theses or dissertations; they retained both their copyrights and the legal control over their work that copyright law provides.
In the current information environment, obviously, things are very different. Dissertations that would, in the past, have languished in obscurity on local library shelves (and, more recently, been available digitally only behind a Digital Dissertations paywall) are now routinely made publicly and freely available online, in institutional repositories.
I don’t know anyone who objects to this in principle. I think most of us agree that the practice of making theses and dissertations freely available online provides significant benefits to the student author, to the degree-granting institution, and to scholars generally. However, as we all know, making good policy decisions isn’t just about identifying benefits — life is more complicated than that, and even the best policies and most well-intentioned practices are likely to raise difficult questions, especially when those policies and practices involve the disposition of intellectual property within a system explicitly designed to provide unfettered worldwide access and unrestricted copying.
In the case of online theses and dissertations, difficult questions that arise include these three:
- To what degree should or shouldn’t the scholarly products of a graduate school education be treated like conventional intellectual property, with both copyright and control remaining in the hands of the author?
- In situations where the institution makes a claim of control on dissertations and theses (whether by claiming copyright or, more often, by requiring students to grant either the institution or the public a license of some kind) are matriculating students being clearly informed that such claims will be made on their subsequent work?
- Should graduate students be allowed to opt out of granting licenses to their institutions or to the public, or be able to set the terms of those licenses within fairly broad parameters? (And if not, why not?)
These are controversial questions, and when raised, they tend to arouse very passionate responses. (Again, consider the furious reaction to the AHA statement — and consider the fact that the only change in current practice called for by that the statement was to give students the option of extending online embargoes from three to six years if they so choose.)
Why all the passion and fury? I think it’s because these questions go to very fundamental issues about values. These aren’t questions about the most effective way to make dissertations available, or about which repository platforms work best. They are not, in other words, implementation or efficiency or effectiveness questions. They are not is questions, but should questions: moral and ethical questions that involve the balancing of individual rights and collective responsibility. Assuming we all agree that scholarly authors have both a set of individual rights and a set of collective responsibilities with regard to their work, and given the reality that there might sometimes be real tension between what an author would prefer and what would best serve the collective good, how should that tension be resolved when it comes to theses and dissertations?
One possible way to resolve the tension is by compromise, in this case between individual and group interests. In order to do so, we would first have to figure out what fundamental principles should guide such a compromise, and then what the compromise would look like.
There’s another way to respond to this situation, of course, and that is to deny that the rights and obligations in question are really in conflict or tension at all. From this perspective, the author’s interests and the institution’s interests are actually in perfect harmony, and if they appear not to be — if, for example, a student author believes she would benefit from embargoing her dissertation for five years and the institution wants her to limit the embargo to one year — the appearance of conflict is an illusion, one that can be dispelled by education.
One challenge with this approach is that education goes both ways. Authors don’t have a perfect understanding of all the downstream impacts that will result from decisions they make about the disposition of their work, and institutions have a similarly imperfect understanding of all the downstream impacts produced by requirements that they impose on theit authors.
Another challenge is the difficulty of finding “educators” who aren’t advocates for one side or the other of the question. There’s nothing wrong with advocacy, of course, but you can’t expect advocates to be impartial providers of education — that’s not their job. Their job is proselytizing, which is not the same thing.
Another problem is that education can only go so far when the problem is genuine disagreement rather than ignorance or illusion. An author may simply disagree that her rights as a content creator ought to take a back seat to the institution’s interest in disseminating her work under the institution’s preferred terms. Not all disagreements are a function of a lack of mutual understanding, or of one party’s misperception of reality; sometimes disagreements arise because the two parties genuinely want mutually exclusive things.
I think the time has come for a more open and candid conversation on our campuses about the questions listed above and about the underlying issues that inform them — conversations that include all stakeholders and explicitly recognize their legitimate interests, their rights, and their responsibilities. Achieving a consensus agreement as to what those rights and responsibilities are may not be easy, but it seems to me like an absolutely essential first step towards establishing answers to these questions and outlining a feasible and equitable way forward.