November 1997

Root Page of Article: Problems and Possibilities of Electronic Theses and Dissertations, by Christian Weisser, John Baker, and Janice R. Walker

Problems and Opportunities

Part of the move to put theses and dissertations online is fueled by the general move to put information online. Libraries and librarians, of course, are intimately involved in this process, but, as Ilene Frank at the University of South Florida points out, there are problems as well as opportunities:

One problem is what . . . do you do if someone wants to borrow it? Print out a copy? Copy the disk? What if they don't have the same programs at the other end? What if they don't have a computer? What about formats and programs that go out of style? Does that mean the ILL [Interlibrary Loan] departments have to drop what they are doing and run off dissertations for users on demand? Do we supply equipment so people can read them here? What about storing oddball things like architecture and art pieces? Insist that students get everything reproduced digitally? Is that easier or harder? Cheaper or more expensive? [Will committees] want to review theses on the screen? [Will students] need to make a hard copy anyway? It's pretty easy to eyeball hardcopy. And is it really chaper to store 'em on a webserver? (23 Jan. 1997).

Obviously, many of these questions still need to be addressed. Virginia Tech, under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Secondary Education (FIPSE), is attempting to address these issues, as are other institutions around the world. But, as one professor noted, many students are already producing theses and dissertations digitally, while most universities still insist on a paper copy:

Almost every dissertation now, in the U.S., is done in some type of digital format. These disks are erased and recycled, or sit in the hands of the new Ph.D. This is a waste of a resource that future generations may well take us to task for. But of course it costs money to store them. (Eisenberg, 23 Jan. 1997).


Currently, PDF files can only be created and read using Adobe Acrobat. The reader is currently available for free, but, if it becomes the standard for publication of electronic theses and dissertations, will it continue to be available at no charge? Further, just how "platform independent" is Adobe? A DOS version of the Acrobat Reader is available, but how does it handle graphics files, audio and video files (which require multimedia equipment and software), and embedded (windows-based) applications? PDF is print-based, even though it can include graphic images, hypertextual linking, and "pop-up's" (embedded applications). But how do we handle virtual reality applications, native hypertext, and multimedia applications?

UMI is basically a print-based repository, although it does allow for published mediums such as CD-ROM and floppy diskette formats. But, like PDF files, UMI is limited. One graduate student's dissertation includes an online Writing Lab, for example (Puffer, 14 Jan. 1997). As we move beyond thinking of "scholarship" as print-based, we need to reconsider how we make our works of scholarship, including theses and dissertations, available.

Probably the biggest problem with SGML currently is its complexity. How difficult is it to translate word-processed documents into SGML? How do we add graphics, audio, and video files since SGML does not embed these in documents as does PDF. Do we have to add them as separate files and add the URLs (Uniform Resource Locators) as in HTML documents? Do we allow external links (hypertextual links to files that reside outside the students' document), and, if so, how do we ensure that the linked files will be accessible (or do we)?

Copyrights and Publishing

Copyrights of electronic theses and dissertations remain with the author; however, students assign rights to publish the electronic version online.
Correction December 1997
This statement from the November 1997 version of this article is incorrect:

But, currently, the U.S. Patents and Trademarks Office requires a hard copy of a work in order to secure copyright; they do not accept disks or other digital forms for registration

See the MBOX section of the December 1997 issue of CMC Magazine for more information.
Copyright registration is through the U.S. Copyright office, not through the USPTO.

(Frank, 24 Jan. 1997). While copyright legislation is still being reconsidered in the light of electronic publication, this could pose problems for students economic rights to their work.

Further, how will electronic publication of theses and dissertations affect students' ability to procure traditional publication? Often, dissertations are students' first major book-length venture, and many of these are submitted for publication as scholarly monographs. But how (and why) would a publisher consider this if the dissertation is already widely available--for free--online?

Universities in other countries are looking at issues of copyright and publication also, as they move to put theses and dissertations in electronic formats and publish them online. Kerstin Olofsson, the Head of Teacher Education Library at UMU in Sweden, writes,

[T]he copyright issues are the most complicated part of the project. I guess you have the same problem in the States, that the author of the thesis or dissertation also sells the rights to it to a commercial publisher as well. So you would have to negotiate with every publisher for each commercially published thesis. Then you have the problem with the other type of dissertations, mostly in science and medicine, which usually are made up of articles already given to scholarly journals. Articles in journals that the university libraries BUY back! (Olofsson, 24 Jan. 1997).

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