|12 Aug 1999|
Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations
"Perhaps no technological development in recent years has so energized the academic community as electronic theses and dissertations (ETDs)."
In the next section I present scenarios that many involved in NDLTD believe will become reality. In subsequent sections I report on one perspective regarding the emergence of electronic theses and dissertations as a genre and the growth of international collaboration in this domain. Although based on many experiences since 1987, the events that have occurred at Virginia Tech and discussions with people from hundreds of universities and other organizations, the remarks made are solely my own.
In the future
Databases can keep track of citations to these works and can record the large numbers of references from theses to other parts of the scholarly literature. Scholars can explore the findings of recent graduates within weeks of completion of their dissertations, and can delve into the details of methodology, data and analysis. Some data sets, visualizations, programs, videos and other accompanying materials from research projects can be directly linked to theses, allowing scientific experiments to be replicated, discussed in classes and extended in new directions. Libraries can ensure that the work of graduate alumni is archived and preserved in electronic form.
Building on their exposure to digital library methods from working with ETDs, universities can expand their use of these technologies to handle courseware and other records. Most importantly, scholars, having submitted their own theses and dissertations when they were graduate students, can become comfortable with and knowledgeable about digital libraries and electronic publishing, allowing a broadening of the Information Age so more people are involved, and their involvement is more serious.
Past and present
With over 60 members, NDLTD is growing rapidly in the United States and around the world. NDLTD was first funded as the National Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations6. The US Department of Education's grant of September 1996 established a national programme. By early 1997, international demand broadened the scope into a global effort (hence 'Networked' instead of 'National'), made possible by a friendly federation among universities7. Now NDLTD's federated digital library8 supports multilingual distributed searching (http://www.theses.org) of all sites that provide suitable access. This is through WWW searching or through ANSI standard Z39.50. Z39.50 is sometimes called the 'information retrieval protocol.' It supports client-server access to bibliographic and text collections. It was also the basis for the Wide Area Information Service, WAIS, that was popular in the early 1990s.
Solutions to controversies
This problem is generally more one of will than way. But it might be wise for universities to solve this important requirement on a small scale with ETDs, in preparation for solving the problem on the large scale for their many other electronic documents. The broader problem should become easier to solve as new technologies facilitate the development of complex documents in non-proprietary standard formats such as XML. XML (eXtensible Markup Language) is a derivative of SGML supported by the World Wide Web Consortium. See the Web Matters article on XML.
Another controversy about ETDs concerns the relation between theses and dissertations and other types of scholarly work. Some believe that theses are poorly written and not worth sharing; others argue that students and faculty need to improve the quality of theses, and use multimedia to make them more expressive, and that their literature reviews, bibliographies, and rich detail make them a unique and important genre10. Some say that people should read journal papers instead of theses; others argue that we can have both, each with a different type of use, and that the rising costs of journals make theses of particular value, especially internationally. Some say that making ETDs available will hurt the careers of young scholars. However, digital library technology, coupled with flexible university policies, allows some or all of an ETD to have access limited to the originating campus, so that publishers will not view subsequent journal submissions to have been previously 'published'.
Education affords a sustainable economic and social model
Although there is some startup cost to launching such a programme, the training materials, software, automated workflow system and other support infrastructure (http://etd.vt.edu) provided through NDLTD makes the actual investment small. Once a requirement is in place, a fully electronic process is less expensive than the old paper-based system. In short, as long as universities have their students create theses and dissertations as part of their educational programmes, making them prepare ETDs and load them into a local digital library is a minor and improved variation on the normal process that quickly becomes habitual and financially appealing.
Support turns potential into reality
Other organizations that have participated on the steering committee include Dissertations Online (representing German members), National Agricultural Library, National Library of Canada, National Science Foundation, Organization of American States, Southeastern Library Network, UNESCO, University Thesis Online Group (representing the UK), US Department of Education and the World Bank. There are funded national projects in Australia and Germany. The National Library of Portugal plans to handle submissions for all universities in that nation. It has been suggested that mirror sites be established in connection with NDLTD sites in places such as India, South Africa and the UK. There also are NDLTD members in Hong Kong, Italy, Mexico, Russia, Singapore, South Korea and Spain. Invited presentations have been or will be given in many other nations, including Croatia, Japan and Taipei.
Important endorsements have been provided by publishers. The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Computer Society (IEEE-CS), the largest computer professional societies, along with American Chemical Society (ACS) and Elsevier have all provided supportive policy statements available at the NDLTD Web site. Although ACS requires that publication in their journals precedes the worldwide release of a related ETD, the other three mentioned allow the worldwide release of related ETDs without any timing constraint. Additional publishers, editors and editorial board members will no doubt issue their own clear policy statements soon. Encouraged by the support of publishers, we hope that students preparing their ETDs will make their work freely available worldwide, as often and as soon as possible.
Interest in the growing ETD collection (http://www.theses.org) has been phenomenal. Statistics about downloads of ETDs indicate that, in contrast with an average paper document circulation of two to six times per year (observed by Virginia Tech Libraries), typical electronic theses are downloaded hundreds or thousands of times, from tens of thousands of sites around the world.
Those interested in ETDs, which in the future could be submitted in numbers exceeding 100,000 each year, should encourage participation in the ETD initiative. Membership of NDLTD is open, free of charge, to all colleges and universities, as well as other organizations wishing to offer support.
Edward A. Fox
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