The availability of digital theses and the BL as ‘middle man’

Interesting posts by both Mercurius Rusticus and Oxoniensis on the news that the BL is shifting away from microfilming new theses to a system whereby students will submit theses to their own institutions’ digital archives. The HEIs will then either make these theses available themselves or via the EThoS homepage. Both are worried that this will actually make it harder to gain access to these theses. I don’t think so, and for a few reasons.

1. EThoS proudly proclaims its intention of ‘bringing the UK to the forefront of international e-theses provision.’ Unfortunately, the UK is already ‘behind the 8-ball’, as they say in rubbish sport commentary, here. Take a look at what European and North American institutions are already making available and you will see what I mean. (Posts below about Cesare Cuttica’s thesis and comments, plus my remarks on already existing digital repositories.) The UK is playing catch-up, there are already plenty of great theses available free to download. The more the merrier. Hurry up Britain.

2. The BL’s role as a ‘middle-man’ in all this seems pretty redundant – already you can go straight to the digital archives of many HEIs in the UK and download theses free-of-charge. The relative scarcity of history theses here is a result of the fact that arts and humanities students still look towards the publication of a monograph as the ultimate ‘output’ for their work. (See 3. below, however.) The only role I can see for EThoS is as acting as a non-subscription database of available electronic theses, as opposed to something like Index to Theses. Limited as that is, it will doubtless be helpful to researchers without an academic affiliation. So, more, not less accessible, especially for private scholars.

3. We are talking about the media through which theses are distributed. This doesn’t affect the author’s right to restrict access to their thesis, which they had even when these things actually had to be viewed in hard copy. However, as I have suggested elsewhere, the trend towards publishing theses on-line will, if anything, increase the likelihood that postgraduates will allow immediate access. Why? We are moving towards a governmental research assessment format which will essentially bring the arts and humanities into line with the social and hard sciences. I’ll leave aside the question of whether this is a good or bad thing but there will be a greater emphasis on ‘metrics’ which, given the way this data is collected, will privilege articles and electronic publications above monographs and edited collections. The shorter timescale recently announced for the new REF also makes a move away from the scholarly monograph more likely.

4. Charging for download. Again, unlikely, and if it does come into play, very dumb. Hardly anybody makes money from academic monographs. I think you could have just about bought a week’s worth of shopping from Tesco from my royalty payments for Revolutionary England and the National Covenant. The aim of these works is, of course, to disseminate the researcher’s findings, rather than to make them rich beyond their wildest dreams. Outside of the UK, most electronic theses are currently available free of charge, so UK institutions will be shooting themselves in the foot if they insist on making people pay for theses. (Not to say they won’t do this, of course!)

5. JISC is driven by government directives about ‘knowledge transfer.’ It is unlikely to support restrictive, subscription-only or pay-on-demand schemes.

6. Even if these schemes turn out to be a bit rubbish, there is very little to stop frustrated researchers from getting themselves a blog or a webpage and publishing their own thesis there. Forward the digital revolution!

Now, what the BL should really be doing is digitising all those old theses it has on microfilm and making them available, free of charge, online.

Published in: on June 9, 2008 at 10:48 am  Comments (2)  
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  1. I have not fully assimilated the contents but one of those managing the EThos scheme has posted (identical) comments on the Mercurius Rusticus and Oxoniensis sites earlier today. There also appears to be an intention to explain the scheme more clearly via a future Royal Historical Society newsletter.

  2. Thanks. I’m posting the comment from Anthony Troman here which clarifies the purpose of the scheme and should allay a lot of people’s fears.

    Making UK Theses much easier to obtain!

    Following an article in the Royal Historical Society’s May Newsletter, a number of inaccuracies about the new UK Electronic Thesis On-line System (EThOS) are circulating. This post is a bid to highlight these inaccuracies and to pass on the facts. You can read more about EThOS at the project website ( and, if you really want detail, the published EThOS toolkit is available here

    Who am I? I am a Project Manager at The British Library and I have been involved with the development of EThOS from the very beginning. I defined the model which is Opening Access to UK Theses. Here are some facts:

    • EThOS was developed with generous funding from JISC, CURL (now RLUK) and the partners including The British Library and several UK Higher Education institutions led by Glasgow and Imperial.

    • EThOS makes ALL UK theses (e- and paper based) available via a ‘one-stop shop’ by harvesting e-theses from Institutional Repositories and digitising paper theses on-demand from researchers.

    • Any e-thesis held by the system is available for immediate download.

    • The central system, which allows consistent and coherent access to all theses, is managed by The British Library and includes the access system and a digitisation studio.

    • When a researcher wants access to a paper thesis, the system contacts the institution, digitises the thesis and loads it to the EThOS system. The system then emails the researcher who can immediately download it. Supply times will be greatly improved over the current microfilm service.

    • Once a thesis is digitised it is available for immediate free download forever!

    • Institutions wishing to offer Open Access to their paper theses can pay for the digitisation on behalf of the researcher i.e. access to the thesis is FREE at the point of use! We expect the majority of institutions taking part to support this level of service but it is at their discretion – there are other models should an individual institution be unable to offer Open Access.

    • EThOS offers ‘added value services’ where the researcher can order printing of the thesis or supply on CD/DVD. The researcher will be charged for these services – see the toolkit for the actual figures. But remember, the thesis can be downloaded for free.

    • For its part, The British Library is offering all services on a not for profit basis.

    So, by implementation of the EThOS system, anyone anywhere in the world will be able to search and access UK theses on-line and will be able to download them to their desktop from a single point of contact. The number of theses available for immediate free download will rapidly increase as more and more are digitised and, by its very existence, EThOS will encourage further the already rapid move towards electronic submission.

    I hope that this post addresses your concerns. It is unfortunate that misinformation has been circulated – we will be offering the Royal Historical Society the opportunity of an article directly from those who have developed the system and there will be a lot more information made available about EThOS as we approach its live implementation later this year. In the meantime, use the links given above for further (accurate) information.

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