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.

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

11 thoughts on “Free Culture Clash”

  1. At my institution we are just embarking on a project with our Office of Graduate Studies to begin an e-dissertation and e-thesis process for our graduate students. Since we would want to create a publicly accessible repository of the documents we have revised the language of the dissertation requirements (the student’s agreement or contract with the institution that indicates what they are required to do and what we will do when they complete those requirements). According to the dean of the grad school, who supported our idea, there would be no problem in adding new language that would basically require the student to allow us to make their content publicly accessible. I did have some concerns about this, so I’m glad to read Suber’s discussion. In the long run I think this will benefit our graduate students because their research will be far easier to discover in our respository (it can be harvested by search engines) than if it was only in the ProQuest database (and it will still be there as well). All indicators suggest that students earn little in the way of royalties from dissertations – we get many ILL requests for our print copies. In that respect, creating a public digital copy should have little impact. But I can see the point and concerns of the Iowa students, and this is something we need to think about. We likely don’t have as many creative works, but I will be curious to see if we get many requests for exceptions or embargoes.

  2. I think (as at Harvard) there has to be some level of opt-out choice, even if the default position is set at open access. For those who haven’t heard much about the issues, it’s a startling idea, and it can be (obviously) misinterpreted. A case needs to be made that it’s beneficial – you can’t assume buy-in without justification.

    It’s not the royalties at stake here, it’s the potential to use the research for your first book. And whenever the word “rights” is used, a certain amount of passion comes with it.

  3. Thanks for this post Barbara..
    It’s something we’ve been discussing as PhD candidates – and what the implications are!
    You may find this document – produced by the Faculty of Law, Queensland University of Technology of value:
    Copyright Guide for Research Students: What you need to know about copyright before depositing your electronic thesis in an online repository.
    It’s part of the Open Access to Knowledge (OAK) Law Project
    The report is a free download from their site!
    Cheers – Anne

  4. Well, duh!! Give content producers a choice.

    It’s always about choice. Everything in our lives is about choice. Universities are like those pathetic businesses attempting to suck in and leverage their users’ content–If you’re a student, then you agree to our publishing requirements…

    I’m all for open, but it should be a personal choice, not a requirement. I’m embarrassed for my alma mater for looking so far ahead without really understanding what this movement is about.


  5. Dan, to be fair to Iowa, it sounds as if simple miscommunication really gummed up the works. From what I can tell the library’s intentions may have been misunderstood by the graduate school officials, who added the language to the form without negotiating exactly what it meant – given the form has to be signed. Though some of the arguments being made against it – like, “I haven’t fact-checked it thoroughly; it may piss off the people I wrote about” seem very odd indeed, given theses and dissertations have always been part of the scholarly record, available in libraries and through UMI/Proquest – and why would you get a degree for work that wasn’t ready for the public? The (perhaps unintended) consequence for future publication is a very real issue that deserves careful thought, because neither the university nor the public owns the rights to the work simply because it was written for a degree.

    Ann – thanks for the great resource! The document on copyright guidelines for students depositing their work looks extremely good, and addresses such things as rights for works included in the students’ work, which hasn’t come up in any of the U of Iowa discussions. Though every country has different laws, this is nevertheless a useful model for developing thoughtful guidelines.

  6. Wow, this is really interesting. I did my MFA at Iowa and went through the labyrinthine, punishing formatting and submission process for my thesis (a short story collection) in 1999. Since then, my “book” has gathered dust on that library shelf. If it had been made freely accessible online, would I consider that a problem? Hm.

    Well, some of the stories in the collection were published elsewhere in print, so there could be a copyright problem from that angle. For MFA theses in particular, a lot of the work in the thesis is probably already under some kind of copyright agreement because students have been submitting their stories for publication for at least two years before printing it out and submitting it to the Graduate Division for the degree.

    And for the few hot-shot folks who are launching right out of their MFA and into a published novel or short story collection, I can see the conflict. In my case, I consider most of what’s in that thesis to be student work, and my main concern with having it made more widely available would be embarrassment. Some things you don’t really want to open up to the world, even if you love the principles of the creative commons.

    Although there’s something to be said for having your work exposed to the world–damaging to the ego, maybe, but probably ultimately improving for the work itself…

  7. The whole thing may seem like a misunderstanding, but it may have been yet another attempt by the abolish copyright crowd to push their agenda of making everything available regardless of the potential harm to creators’ interests. Copyright occurs at the moment of creation, but is no protection against widespread electronic distribution, authorized or not. One of the elements of copyright is the Droit Morale, or moral right to determine where, when and how a work will be presented. No one should be allowed to force publication upon an author. Only an author can determine when the work is ready to be presented to the general public. Student work is usually raw and unformed. The commercial aspects aside, the proposed requirement is one that could kill graduate writing programs because the dirty little secret is that no one actually needs a MFA degree to be a writer and very few go for the degree itself. They go to study with and be mentored by writers more skilled than themselves. The Graduate College requirement to publish electronically in in a class of bad management practices usually described as “pissing in the soup”.

  8. But, but … the author submits the written work for a degree. It is a sign that your work is finished, polished, You Are There. It is published in that it’s made public as a bound object placed in a library for anyone to view. The whole point of the thesis is to prove you’re competent. If they’re that bad, the degree shouldn’t be conferred.

    Listen, I’ve heard bestselling authors say they’re embarrassed by their first published book. They survive.

    Libraries have the agenda of making things available. This does not harm creators’ interests. The misunderstanding I referred to is that two parts of the university failed to communicate adequately and it turned into an unpleasant controversy that was just stupid. I don’t think making scholarship freely available is an evil plot to abolish copyright. Academic authors by and large are not paid by sales, but by dissemination of their work, and the current paradigm has been hindering that. I do think in the case of MFA programs mandatory deposit has unintended consequences that, once recognized, are obvious and nobody in their right minds would insist on it.

    And by the way, I do publish commercially and get the odd royalty check. I don’t think the open access movement is an attempt to abolish copyright. It’s an attempt to restore some of the original intent of a balance between incentives for creators and the public interest as spelled out in the Constitution.

  9. The problem is that electronic distribution is just too easy. I have sued people for putting my work online and won, but most authors don’t have the resources to follow that path. The Copyright Act in this country is very slanted against the individual creator and the US Attorney and the FBI are openly selective about enforcement of the criminal provisions. There is NO PLACE except a Federal District Court where an injured creator can bring a lawsuit, and without the ability to meet that standard, you are defenseless. By putting out text electronically you run the risk that someone can download it in another country, print up a cheap edition of your novel, and not pay you for the rights. Science fiction authors have been fighting unauthoised anthologies of their works for years, and those get imported and sold by the tens of thousands in warehouse stores.
    A physical library copy can be loaned out only to one person at a time and is hard to duplicate; an electronic one can be distributed to a million people at the same cost as one. You see the problem here? Putting original creative work 0nline carries the risk of tremendous economic damage to the author. It is an unfair misappropriation of the work for the commercial as well as the academic interest of the library and the university. See “American Geophysical Union V. Texaco”.

  10. I don’t quite understand why the entire thesis or dissertation has to be digitally accessible if the goal, as the libraries claim, is to simply make the work itself “discoverable”. Thorough keyword metadata, an abstract, and at most a digital excerpt could serve that purpose.
    I’m also skeptical of the libraries’ interpretation of why thesis sit on shelves in the first place; as a graduate student, I can not recall a single research project in which citation of a thesis or dissertation was held in the same regard as an academic journal article.
    If the material is unused simply because its usefulness is limited, digitizing won’t change that.

  11. Because it’s a lot easier to read when it’s all there?

    One of the reasons dissertations are not cited is that they’re so hard to get – unless you’re willing to pay for a copy. Few libraries have them. I’m always telling students to avoid them, even when they’re obviously the only book-length study of an issue, simply because they’re so hard to get. I have at times resorted to contacting the author, who sometimes is kind enough to send a .pdf.

    Harvard students feel differently – they want to make full text available as an option and I think that’s great. (Via the Chron)

    I admit – maybe I’m just an optimist, but I’m dismayed by the idea that people shouldn’t have their theses and dissertations publicly available because they’re ashamed of them. The big issues seem to be a) they’re not really ready for prime time and b) public access will prevent them being commercially exploitable. Both seem inconsistent to me with the fact that they are work created to prove the degree holder is worthy. (Though I totally agree with making such public deposit optional, particularly for MFA projects).

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