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.
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.