There was a time when one wouldn’t even think of keeping a graduate dissertation under lock and key…
July 26th, 2013

There was a time when one wouldn’t even think of keeping a graduate dissertation under lock and key, withheld from public view except in very rare circumstances, such as the potential harm that could befall an informant. But as with so much about graduate studies these days, things are changing. There are two main reasons why deans are currently receiving pressure from graduate students to embargo their theses for anywhere from a year to six and much longer.

The American Historical Association just published a new policy statement that, as the Chronicle of Higher Ed reports it, “’strongly encourages’ graduate programs and university libraries to allow new Ph.D.’s to extend embargoes on their dissertations in digital form for as many as six years.” The AHA insists that commitments to scholarly publishers now come with this sort of restriction, the publishers believing that exposing the thesis to the digital field jeopardizes the chance to publish the material as “original”. If it’s part of an open access regime then anyone can poach it long before the material is transformed into a book. There go the publishers’ hopes of making a profit.

The other source of pressure is industry, usually large corporate sponsors of research that claim the research results are theirs. This is part of a growing and troubling ownership issue, a battle between the creator and the sponsors /funders over who owns the findings and who has a right to disseminate them—and in what form.

I recently received a request for a fifteen-year embargo.

I don’t think so.

This is all starting to get out of hand. The consensus at the CGS meetings I attended last week in San Juan, Puerto Rico, was reasonable: publicly funded institutions need to be responsive and open. Keeping research findings from the very public that funds you is totally uncool.

You can understand why publishers or industry funders would see it as their right to request thesis embargoes, but doing so ignores the very principles of university research practice. At least, that’s my strong opinion. It’s great that some students are getting supported outside the university, or being dangled book contracts for their hard-earned research. It’s not cool that these grants are starting to come with so many thick strings attached.

As the essay in the Chronicle points out, we really lack the evidence to show that digital dissertations undermine the sale of scholarly books. Surely, no one is going to poach a thesis whole when it appears on line for all the world to see? I mean, really, what kind of readership are we talking about here? The open access movement has always had its detractors, those who fear that wide dissemination encourages intellectual theft. But that rocket has left the space station and increasingly we are creating a digital community of shared information. That’s a good thing. There is, indeed, a problem when a creative writing dissertation, say, a novel appears first online and then in a bound publisher’s copy, but in turn we might ask why are we creating programs that inevitably lead to such embargoes?  I like creative writing programs but a creative thesis worth publishing should have no more than a year in the dark. Publishers should get their acts together and publish the bloody material before everyone forgets everything.

As for industry, it seems to me that students need to be doing research that they can safely claim as their own, or at least claim to be first authors of, and nothing less should do. If their work is being supported by industry with strings and embargoes attached then we should be discouraging that tendency. It follows that we should be supporting our students without such strings. This is their moment to stretch intellectually. There’s enough time for getting into bed with the devil, however well meaning, greedy, or just plain insensitive to the principles of publicly funded research.

I hate to think of ourselves as being even more removed from the public sphere than we already are. Open. Access.


Dr. Faye Murrin is Dean pro tempore of the School of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Biology. She completed her B.Sc. (Hons.) at Memorial University, her M.Sc. at Acadia University, and her Ph.D. at Queen's University. Her research interests have always been focused on fungi, in particular the cell biology of insect pathogenic fungi and, more recently, the ecology of mycorrhizal mushrooms in the boreal forest. Dr. Murrin has served in a number of positions on the Council of the Mycological Society of America and was awarded the title of MSA Fellow for her contributions. She was awarded the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Membership Award as founding co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Summer Program. Dr. Murrin participates in public lectures and workshops, and is a Director on the board of Newfoundland Foray, Inc.

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