Daily Archives: March 13, 2008

Free Culture Clash

Libraries think it makes sense to digitize theses and dissertations and have them web-searchable rather than have to rely on UMI publishing them. Having a few print copies on the shelf means hardly anyone will find that scholarship, and why would anyone go to the trouble to write all that if they don’t want it read?

Well, to get a credential, for one, and for another, to prepare for a life that involves publishing books – books that are a marketable commodity, not given away for free.

Several universities have fallen afoul of graduate students who fear their first book – the one that gets them tenure – will be unpublishable if the dissertation its based on is open access. The University of Iowa is now finding itself in the middle of an unanticipated firestorm when they decided deposited electronic theses would be open access and, eventually, print theses would be, too. According to the Chron:

At the center of the conflict is a routine form that students and their faculty advisers sign for depositing students’ theses with the Graduate College. Language added to the form this semester says that the University of Iowa Library will scan hard-copy theses and “make them open-access documents,” which it defines as freely available over the Internet and retrievable “via search engines such as Google.” It is not clear who authorized that clause.

Students can request to have Internet publishing delayed for two years, the form states, but it adds that the default assumption is that students want their theses disseminated online. All graduate students must sign the form, due in early April, in order to graduate.

To some this is a Trojan horse – a university taking control of students’ intellectual property without discussion; for others it’s outright theft. For many students in the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop it’s an inexplicable lapse of common sense. After all, these are students who are in school to learn how to write publishable work. They see this action as a high-handed move to take away their creative work and make it unpublishable.

The language in the “first deposit checklist” states the library plans to make electronic deposits open access and to digitize print ones, rather than have them published via UMI. The library has tried to clarify its role in this issue, as reported in EarthGoat.

But clearly, there are some very sticky issues here that open access supporters (including many critics of this new policy) need to untangle.

Addendum: Peter Suber has, as usual, words of wisdom. The only disagreement I would have with him is that two years’ embargo is okay for literary works. It takes a year, at a minimum, to publish a book the traditional way, and trade publishers would not be happy with any open access that wasn’t under their control, ever. Backlist is gold to them, and a lot of books retain their market value even when they’re years old. (I do find myself wondering whether UMI publication has ever interfered with signing a contract for an MFA-originated project – but that’s a rabbit hole we don’t need to go down.)

UPDATE: The university (not surprisingly) said whoops and the language on the policy was changed (and that link will no longer work). Chances are, this could have been resolved in-house without any friction, but because there was a deadline involved, the issue didn’t seem resolvable quickly, and word spread across the internet much faster, it became a bit of a public relations disaster. If nothing else, it suggest rolling out any new open access initiative needs to be an opportunity to discuss what open access is all about.