Many universities across the United States have rethought their handling of graduate theses and dissertations. Literature once considered hard to find and a hassle to access has been thrust into the limelight by the Open Access (OA) movement. At Boston College, students who are about to submit their electronic thesis/dissertation (ETD) to ProQuest are given the opportunity to make their scholarly work available online to anyone with internet access. The student does not pay for this service, and their work is available at no charge --- usually as a PDF file. As of October 2011, about 90% of BC’s graduate students participate in Open Access (or “delayed Open Access”, if an embargo is requested).
Open access has multiple benefits. The scholarship of ETD authors is more visible sooner and to a wider community. Once an ETD has been deposited into BC’s digital repository, a permanent link is assigned which the ETD author can then share with colleagues or potential employers. And, thereafter, digital preservation is employed to ensure access in perpetuity. Importantly, authors who agree to Open Access retain their copyrights. Also, if they need a few years to apply for a patent or to publish articles or a book based on their ETD, an embargo is easily arranged whereby the full text of their ETD is not made public until the embargo expires. In keeping with BC’s commitment to social justice, “Open Access” means that anyone regardless of their wealth or their privileged status has access.
Some authors feel a legitimate concern about making their ETDs available too quickly, before they have had a chance to publish their work as an article in a journal or as a book by a University Press. An embargo can ensure an author has enough time to pursue these career-critical opportunities. Although the choices for embargo duration listed by ProQuest appear to be limited to a maximum of two years, an author can insert a “note to the administrator” to request an extended embargo of any duration. However, we urge authors not to ask for a “permanent” embargo; otherwise no one might ever have access to the full text of their ETD. A much better strategy would be to ask for the shortest embargo needed to safeguard publishing or patent opportunities. And, to ensure that other scholars will be able to find your ETD via an online search, we have two recommendations. First, provide carefully chosen key words/phrases and subject categories that really capture the essence of your work. Second, allow search engines to find your ETD; whatever you may think of Google and other search engines, for better or worse many people will employ them as part (or all) of their search strategy.
Finally, looking ahead, please ask yourself a question: who should be in charge of scholarship in the future—publishers or those creating publishable works? In the past, the cost of publications (especially journals) has skyrocketed and authors have often had to sign away their copyrights as part of “the deal” when getting published. Nowadays, the Open Access movement is creating other options, including peer-reviewed Open Access journals. Many authors are beginning to add Creative Commons licenses to their works so that other scholars can make use of their work with whatever stipulations the author deems appropriate (attribution, no commercial use, no derivative works, as a few examples). In short, we appear to be entering a new realm of opportunity whereby fewer barriers will exist to the free flow of information and our collective intellectual progress.
For more details about submitting a thesis or dissertation, go to the eTD@BC website or attend an eTD@BC workshop—they are announced each semester by the Deans’ offices.