The Evolving Landscape of Graduate Theses and Dissertations

At Boston College, our graduate students create about 180 theses and dissertations per year. Less than a decade ago, these would all have been submitted as paper copies. One copy would have been preserved in the University Archives along with a committee signature page, together comprising a document of record in case one ever had to prove that a BC alumnus had earned an advanced degree here at BC. This stewardship function fulfills an explicit University mandate.

The other paper copy would have been sent to ProQuest (PQ) where it would have been microfilmed and digitized (starting in the 1990s) and eventually made available as a PDF for a fee from the PQDT (ProQuest Dissertations & Theses) database. If your institution had a subscription to PQDT then you could download a PDF for free. Otherwise, you would have to pay (about $38) to download the PDF for your own personal use.

About seven years ago we investigated the possibility of transitioning to a virtually paperless system for BC grad students to submit their theses and dissertations. Other major universities were already blazing this trail and an ETD (Electronic Thesis & Dissertation) community was taking shape whereby we could learn from each other and develop standards and best practices. Of course, transitioning to a paperless system is not something that happens overnight. There are many stakeholders who need to be apprised and given the chance to express their concerns and ask important questions. So, it took about a year to obtain buy-in from these stakeholders and to create the infrastructure that we now refer to as eTD@BC.

From the student's point of view, the eTD@BC experience consists of attending a workshop during their final or penultimate semester where they hear about Open Access, embargoes, copyright, as well as the ETD submission process itself. If they are unable to attend the workshop in-person, they can access the same information from our website, www.bc.edu/etd. From here, if they are ready to submit their ETD, they can proceed to the PQ website to do so. If well-prepared, they can finish their submission in about 20 minutes.

PQ has designed a full-featured interface that enables students to submit not only the ETD itself but also all of the ancillary information that is essential for subsequent discovery of their work by other scholars. There they also make some critical decisions that will affect access to the full text of their ETD. For example, they can postpone access to the full text by asking for an embargo. During an embargo, a scholar could ascertain that a dissertation by the author exists, and read its title and abstract, but could not read the full text. The author can also opt in (or not) to Open Access whereby the full text of their work will eventually (after an embargo, if any, expires) be available for free to anyone; the author retains all of their copyrights. The Open Access option applies only to BC, not to PQ. Finally, they can (optionally) choose to license their work with a Creative Commons license whereby they permit anyone to make certain uses of their work but only if they adhere to one or more stipulations, the most common one being attribution of the work to its author. They can also proscribe commercial usages or the making of derivative works (translations, performances, etc.). The Creative Commons licensing option applies only to the copy accessed from BC, not from PQDT.

Screencap of eScholarship platform

While PQDT is a pay-per-view system of accessing full text, any students who opt into BC's Open Access will have the full text of their work made freely available in BC's institutional repository eScholarship@BC. They can also ask for an embargo if they need one. Four of our six schools do have embargo policies that they should consult. The work is assigned a handle (aka link) that can be put on the author's curriculum vitae or otherwise shared. Here is a sample handle: http://hdl.handle.net/2345/31

One of the questions I've recently been asked is: Do we need PQ as a partner in the stewardship of our theses and dissertations? The short-term answer is "Yes", for these reasons: first, their ETD submission interface would require a huge amount of effort on our part to replace and resources that we currently do not have; second, there is the need to fulfill the mandate of having a document of record in the BC University Archives and the bound-printed copy that we purchase from PQ enables us to do so; third, PQDT is a widely used portal for finding theses and dissertations. Once found, a savvy researcher might then be able to access full text for free from the institution where the ETD was written --- if they have an Open Access repository. But PQDT would have been instrumental in their knowing about the thesis or dissertation to begin with.

The long-term answer to the above question could be quite different. Other universities are developing their own interfaces for ETD submission; with the proper resources and time, we could do likewise. Also, the concept of document of record might need some rethinking. Dissertations and theses are "born digital", i.e. are created with bits and bytes not paper. And, they often contain links and maybe some multimedia neither of which are retained in a paper version. So, arguably, the one complete document of record is the PDF that the author submits in which case the paper copy might be considered superfluous. If so, we don't need PQ to supply us with a paper copy. Finally, in addition to commercial search engines such as Google Scholar, there are also non-profit websites that specifically enable researchers to discover theses and dissertations. Two examples are www.oatd.org  and www.ndltd.org. These websites allow a scholar to search across many universities all over the world for dissertations and theses that they can then access from the repository of the related institution. These search portals, created collaboratively by members of academia, are intended to make ETD discovery and access less dependent on for-profit vendors. Eventually, PQDT may be redundant.

Our current workflow has been designed to help our graduate scholars make informed decisions about their dissertations and theses and to facilitate the submission process itself. For the eTD@BC system to function smoothly requires well-coordinated teamwork. For example, when a student has completed her submission to PQ, PQ immediately sends an email to notify all of the ETD co-administrators at BC. This would include at least one "partner" in each of the schools (GSAS, LSOE, CSON, GSSW, CSOM, and STM). When the student has fulfilled all other requirements for her degree, the school-specific partner then notifies the primary ETD administrator (presently Bill Donovan) that the student is "cleared for publication" and subsequently sends Donovan an original and signed committee signature page (noting that the committee has approved the final version of the thesis/dissertation). In addition, twice a year the school-specific partner passes on an email announcement of the biannual eTD@BC workshop to all graduate students who are about to finish up. These two contributions by our school partners are absolutely critical for the eTD@BC system to run successfully.

Looking ahead one might wonder how, faced with technological changes, will today's ETDs still be usable by scholars in the decades and even centuries to come? Unlike paper copies whose preservation depends mainly on proper storage (controlled temperature and humidity), ETDs will require a proactive and sustainable system for digital preservation. Great strides have been made in defining and creating "trusted digital repositories" and the MetaArchive Cooperative of which we are a member is a TDR. Our ETD collection is being actively preserved (not just back-ups) by this consortium of experts. It would be no exaggeration to state that they wrote the book. Working collaboratively to meet the same challenges, these experts and their institutions have made a long-term commitment to the stewardship of their graduate scholarship.

Bill Donovan
Digital Imaging & Curation Manager
O'Neill Library