Neil  Jacobs EThOS: A New Start for Doctoral Theses in the UK
Jinfo Blog

Friday, 31st March 2006

By Neil Jacobs


But who will benefit from EThOS? And why establish the service now?

The context of a thesis: a university or college

Neil JacobsGlobal access to scholarly publications is improving, thanks mainly to the growth of institutional repositories as well as associated IT developments in universities and colleges.

Statistics indicate that when doctoral theses are made openly available in electronic format, their usage levels increase significantly. Data from universities such as Virginia Tech <> reveal that many of the theses made available in institutional repositories are accessed not only by a very large number of people from educational establishments but also by individuals in industry and the voluntary sector.

Access figures also indicate that e-theses are consulted by users from a wide range of countries. Such high visibility serves as a means of showcasing high quality research, and it is a useful way of attracting sponsorship and potential students.

At present, the vast majority of UK theses are still stored as paper copies and only made available for consultation within university libraries or provided on inter-library loan from the British Library, in microfilm or paper format <>. As a result they are currently underused.

However, following the recently completed EThOS Project <>, some universities and colleges are using the EThOS Toolkit <> to establish institutional repositories, which include e-theses, and to make the organisational changes that will populate these repositories. This approach promises savings to universities and colleges and improvements in the availability of theses (plus supporting material such as video or databases) in the long term.

The EThOS service and business model

EThOS will maintain a UK database of theses, from which researchers will be able to find, select, access and archive e-theses that have been produced in UK universities and colleges. The service is a partnership between UK universities and the British Library, and the service model includes a wide variety of ways in which universities can participate. The central EThOS hub can harvest e-theses and/or records of paper theses from institutional repositories or elsewhere, and then work with universities to deliver those theses that are requested, either directly (if the thesis is already in electronic format) or by digitising the thesis. The aim is to ensure that EThOS is a viable, attractive and well-used service.

EThOS will make e-theses available free at point of use. The large-scale digitisation of paper theses is essential because the vast majority of theses produced over the past 10-15 years are not in electronic format, and this is where the heaviest demand will fall. Paper theses will also continue to be produced until all universities have implemented an institutional repository and made the necessary changes to their internal procedures. Theses only need to be digitised once - they are then permanently available for free and immediate download. Large-scale digitisation is only required until the bulk of the theses wanted by researchers are digitised. It is estimated that after 10-15 years the operation will be scaled down. Digitised theses will be returned to the originating institution for inclusion in their institutional repository.

EThOS is a cost recovery service - all funds raised will be spent on the service and digitisation of UK theses. Universities and colleges offering content via EThOS have a choice of relationship type. Large institutions will be asked to help guarantee the financial viability of the service by making an annual advance payment, for which they will receive digitisation of a guaranteed number of its theses, including those ordered on demand by researchers. The number of theses digitised will be to the full value of the advance payment figure and the minimum initial commitment will be three years. The fee depends on the size of the university or college, and varies from 8,000 GBP per annum for a large institution to 2,000 GBP for smaller institutions. Universities and colleges that wish to pay for the digitisation of individual theses may join EThOS as associate members.

EThOS is a partnership between UK Higher Education and the British Library, with various sets of roles and responsibilities available. A university facing the move from paper to electronic theses can work with EThOS in a variety of ways but, if the aim is natively to manage the thesis lifecycle electronically, then there are a number of steps that will need to be taken by the university. These are spelt out more fully in the EThOS toolkit <>, and are summarised here.

Making a business case

First, as with any project, there needs to be a viable business case. Managing paper theses, and making them available, takes time and effort. It is also relatively ineffective in showcasing what should be some of the most innovative research being undertaken at the university. Simple calculations can estimate the direct costs of a paper-based approach, but the benefits (for the university, for students, for supervisors, etc) that are forgone by managing paper theses are more difficult to assess. However, these and other benefits need to be presented as they are relevant to each of the various constituencies within the university, in order to underpin support for any move to electronic theses. The benefits are maximised by combining any such internal moves with participation in the EThOS UK national service, since EThOS will certainly be the main port of call for those seeking UK theses.

Of course, a business case needs to recognise costs as well as benefits. If a university has a repository, or plans for one, then much of the infrastructure can piggy back on that. There is a specified metadata schema for UK e-theses, by which their records need to be exposed via Open Access Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAI-PMH) to the EThOS central hub; the deposit or submission process for theses will need to gather metadata to ensure this is possible. If the university is setting up a repository specifically for e-theses, then there is also a wider range of questions to answer, such as the software to use, and the sustainability of the repository and the items within it. This can be informed, though, by the EThOS offer, which includes a commitment by the British Library to maintain access to theses in the long term.

There are likely to be considerable cultural and administrative challenges in the move to e-theses. Of course, these will be eased by building and presenting the business case well. There are policy questions, such as whether the university repository will hold only doctoral theses, or include other types of document, and whether deposit of a thesis into the repository will be optional or mandatory. Obviously, mandatory deposit will result in more theses being deposited, but it will require more work to get such a policy through the relevant university committees. The EThOS toolkit notes that 'more than one university committee may need to be approached and a proposal to allow, or require, the submission of theses in electronic format may need to be discussed at several meetings before it is accepted formally. It may prove helpful to put forward a discussion paper for approval in principle at an early stage so that committee members are familiar with the idea by the time detailed paperwork is submitted'.

Legal issues and open access

Establishing an e-theses program contains relevant legal questions. The EThOS Toolkit notes that 'British theses are protected under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 as unpublished works. The copyright of a thesis generally belongs to the author but this ownership may be assigned by written agreement either specifically or as part of an undertaking between the researcher and the awarding institution when the course of research was entered upon. If the awarding institution actually employs the researcher to undertake the work, the copyright belongs automatically to the awarding institution unless a contract freely entered into by both parties specifies otherwise.'

An expert review has been completed of IPR issues as they would affect the EThOS service. In future, EThOS partner institutions can put in place appropriate licenses to define the permissions granted by rights holders to supply theses submitted. However, EThOS will digitise paper theses submitted prior to this licensing without asking permission from the primary rights holder (usually the author), unless that rights holder has stated otherwise. This is a pragmatic approach, since retrospectively locating thesis authors is impractical. However, because the benefits of EThOS accrue mainly to the UK higher education sector, with no profit or other benefit being derived by the service itself, this approach was considered to be most sensible. From now on, however, universities should ensure that they obtain sufficient rights to enable them to make doctoral theses available in the long term, typically by use of a deposit license agreed at the time the thesis is first deposited in the repository. These rights should then be passed as appropriate through the EThOS service, via the central hub, to the end user, in order that everyone involved is aware what they can and cannot do.

The EThOS service is Open Access, for theses from participating institutions. However, doctoral degrees are often sponsored or otherwise undertaken in partnership with commercial companies who may wish to maintain a degree of control over the intellectual property contained in a thesis. Furthermore, material over which third parties have rights may be included in a thesis for other reasons, perhaps because the student is unaware that such inclusion in a public document is not permitted. The EThOS toolkit notes that 'instead of creating these problems, technological advancements have merely illuminated the failings of the current system to address appropriate copyright management at source. Albeit, institutions have an obligation to ensure current authors are more aware of the implications of third party material being included in theses; institutions need to raise awareness with advocacy. Moreover, for born-digital theses, institutions need to encourage authors to seek permissions from any third-party copyright owners. However, where permissions are not forthcoming authors must be well-informed of the need to edit their material before submission to the repository'. Furthermore, where a third party, such as a sponsoring company, wishes to impose an embargo on a thesis, the repository needs to be able to encode this. The EThOS arrangements specifically allow for this.

The future

The current provision of theses in paper and microfilm format is costly to both universities and colleges and the British Library. The inefficiency of the current arrangements has led to a situation that is unsustainable; it is hard to see how the current British Library service can continue in the face of technological developments in other services around the world. The supply of theses in electronic format through institutional repositories and EThOS will provide a timely and state-of-the-art alternative, which will be of benefit to authors and readers of theses, and to the institutions that host them.

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