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Some graduates question thesis publication requirement

Creative writing students at UBC strike compromise with the university to protect their future works

By NICK TAYLOR-VAISEY | OCT 24 2008
Some graduate students question thesis publication requirement
Some students in creative fields worry that their thesis may be hard to publish as a novel or screenplay if it’s made available first in an online thesis repository. Photo: Martin Dee

Graduate students at many Canadian universities are required to submit their theses to an online repository through programs operated by their universities, and, often, to another program run by the National Library and Archives Canada. The purpose of the programs is to make their research available to a wider audience.

Kathleen Shearer, a researcher at the Canadian Association of Research Libraries, said institutional repositories were created to fulfil the mandate of universities to make research accessible to the wider public. By requiring online deposit, she added, the programs are simply responding to the digital age. CARL’s website lists 26 repositories at Canadian universities, and a further five under development.

“Institutional repositories sort of evolved with the open-access movement, which says published content – content that is already published in journals – should be more freely available to researchers and to the public,” said Ms. Shearer.

Library and Archives Canada’s Theses Canada service catalogues graduate theses from 67 member universities and puts them online for public consumption. That program, created as the Canadian Theses on Microfiche Service in 1965 and renamed in 2003, started to “digitize” the works it already held in 1997 and began collecting theses in electronic form in 2002.

While institutional participation in Theses Canada is voluntary, universities have different rules on whether their graduating students are obliged to submit their work electronically.

For most graduate students, this publication requirement isn’t at the top of their minds as they struggle to perfect their work for their thesis advisory committee.

But some students, particularly those in creative writing, have raised concerns that if they post their work with an online repository, it could become more difficult for them to get it published. For creative writing students, their dissertation could be a novel, a play, or a collection of poetry or short stories that they hope to publish and sell to a wider audience.

Border spill over

When a group of creative writing students in the United States expressed reservations last spring about submitting their graduate theses to online repositories, it sparked a national debate that eventually spilled north to the University of British Columbia, a university with a renowned creative writing program.

Andrew Gray, coordinator of the Optional Residency master’s of fine arts program at UBC, said the concerned creative writing students worked with faculty and administrators to find a temporary solution.

“The compromise we came up with was that the front matter would all be available online immediately,” he said, referring to an abstract and a table of contents. The rest of the material would be stored on CD or DVD, thereby shielding the students’ work from the public at large but still making it available to researchers. A final solution hasn’t been reached yet, he said.

Whether or not online repositories affect the decisions of most publishers is unclear. Lynn Fisher, the vice-president, scholarly publishing, at the University of Toronto Press, said open access “is a big unknown,” although it’s not an issue in most cases. The dissertation turns out to be quite different in book form “because of all the work that has been done to it” throughout the editing process, she added.

West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia, with a strong creative writing program, was involved in the U.S. debate about posting theses online. John Hagen, the university’s electronic thesis and dissertation coordinator, said that while some students might believe their work is less likely to be published, the opposite is likely true, based on some formal studies in different disciplines.

“About 70 percent of students who gave open access to their creative writing theses had much more success in their publishing endeavours,” he said. “The folks who restricted access – there was really no evidence of them publishing anywhere, and they were just holding tight.”

He cited one history student at West Virginia, Shirley Stewart Burns, who published her doctoral dissertation after it had been viewed more than 30,000 times online.

Scientific patents

McGill University is one institution that mandates its graduate students submit theses to the Library and Archives Theses Canada service. Most commonly, those seeking exemptions are science or engineering students, said Martin Kreiswirth, McGill’s associate provost of graduate education.

“Let’s say they have patentable material in their thesis, and they are concerned somebody is going to scoop their patent – we would want that justified,” he said. “Frequently, that arises if there is some kind of industrial partner or some other agency outside.”

Such exemptions exist at many universities, ranging from one year to as long as five years off the shelves. Dr. Kreiswirth said a one-year exemption exists at McGill. At the University of Manitoba, said dean of graduate studies Jay Doering, students can hold their work off the shelves for two years, while West Virginia’s Dr. Hagen said that one option at his school allows for five years of restricted access.

According to a letter sent to a wide range of university administrators, the Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations, an international group that counts Library and Archives Canada and several Canadian universities as members, is currently surveying publishers to determine which, if any, are reluctant to publish works already available in institutional repositories.

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  1. Travis Huckell / October 27, 2008 at 17:36

    The article raises important issues of control and ownership by the student of the fruits of the student’s labour in the form of the thesis paper.

    Students should therefore consider their institutions’ Intellectual Property ownership Policies and Policies relating to Academic Freedom.

    Many institutions specify rules for student ownership of works, including theses, arising out of a program of study.

    A related issue is Academic Freedom. The Academic community, including students, ought to be free in curiosity driven research, to choose what topics to research and, more importantly, how to express the ideas, concepts and discoveries found. The institution does well not to claim ownership interests lest it be thought that the institution controls the goals and forms of that research. Clearly, a thesis supervisor guides the student in this regard, but that hardly means that the institution claims an ownership interest that therefore may, in the context of thesis publication, require deposit of the thesis in a publicly accessible archive.

    It should be noted that the rules may differ somewhat between copyrightable expressions and industrial intellectual property such as inventions that may lead to a patent. Many institutions seek ownership interests of inventions where substantial institutional resources (such as labs, technology transfer office assistance in seeking a patent, to name only two) are devoted to aiding in the research and commercial exploitation of an invention.

    There are also various written and unwritten conventions in some disciplines, particularly in Faculties of Science, regarding attribution and control of publication of results of research that may be seen to have an effect on this issue.

    Presumably, those conventions have been met before the thesis is published but it is important not to conflate those conventions for attribution of research and timing of release of results with the issue presented in this article; namely, ownership control by the student of the thesis and whether the student can be compelled to submit to an archive.

    Library and Archives Canada’s Theses Canada service has a form for the student to sign when submitting theses. My reading of that form is that the student grants a non-exclusive license to Library and Archives Canada. This does not prevent publication of the thesis by others, such as commercial publishers of the creative writing students’ theses that take the form of a novel or play, as discussed in your article.

    All the same, co-publication on the Library and Archives Theses service may compromise the commercial viability of students’ creative works.

    Hence my suggestion that students compare their institutions’ thesis publication Policy requirements to the institution’s Intellectual Property Policy.

    If the two are in conflict, one or both policies should be revisited by the institution’s Academic Senate.

    These issues raise important questions about the role of higher education. Is the University the principal guardian of the public domain? That is to say, that all of its activities including graduates’ theses should be made available to the public without charge. Or, given the present climate that the University must make itself useful and marketable to the public and commercial interests, should its members, particularly its most vulnerable members such as students, seek to guard their intellectual property to advance their carers?

    Travis Huckell B.A. LL.B.

    School of Business, MacEwan College

    Edmonton

  2. Geoffrey Rockwell / November 19, 2008 at 14:42

    What this article does not mention is the language of the license students have to sign to deposit with Theses Canada. If they are required to deposit are they required to sign on to the following:

    “[I] hereby grant a non-exclusive, for the full term of copyright protection, royalty free license to Library and Archives Canada:

    (a) to reproduce, publish, archive, preserve, conserve, communicate to the public by telecommunication or on the Internet, loan, distribute and sell my thesis (the title of which is set forth above) worldwide, for commercial or non-commercial purposes, in microform, paper, electronic and/or any other formats;

    (b) to authorize, sub-license, sub-contract or procure any of the acts mentioned in paragraph (a).”

    How many faculty would sign something like this?

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