Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Theses Unbound

Alason Roberts looks at the use of theses in academic libraries.

Is the age of the printed thesis doomed? The University Thesis On-line Group (UTOG) has recently completed a survey, funded by the British Library and JISC, on the use of doctoral theses in UK universities [1]. The survey forms the first phase of UTOG’s work of addressing the problems and opportunities presented by making theses available electronically.

Surveys were distributed to all authors completing PhD theses in the year to October 1996 in eight participating institutions, representing a cross-section of UK universities. Each author’s supervisor also received a separate survey, and a third was dispatched to all UK university libraries. The results are available as a British Library research report.

Sixty six per cent of respondents claimed to use theses in their research. Most are alerted to relevant theses through personal communication by other researchers in their field : the ‘invisible college’. Many commented that they relied upon personal communication in this way because they found it difficult to source theses relevant to their research through other means, for example abstracts and indexes.

Theses are largely consulted by authors in their institutions, either in university libraries or departmental collections. The majority of supervisors (80%) reported that copies of their institutional theses were held in their department or departmental library, and librarians’ returns show that 95% of university libraries hold the doctoral theses produced in their institutions. These factors also encourage students to consult locally rather than further afield.

The survey sought to discover how keen authors of theses were to see their work published: would they wish to further develop their thesis into a work suitable for publication in a different form, such as an academic monograph? Even though most indicated that they would like to develop their research, over two-thirds responded that they would be willing to publish their thesis more widely in its present form. The majority (over 85%) of theses are already made available for consultation in print immediately. Supervisors generally did not encourage their students to withhold theses, unless for reasons of commercial confidence, and very few expressed concern about plagiarism.

Central to the survey was the wish to ascertain whether theses were currently being produced in a form which would readily allow a shift to electronic-based production and dissemination. From the survey it appears that nearly all UK doctoral theses are produced in electronic form using standard software packages. In theory, this should make publication over a network straightforward. Authors listed a large variety of inclusions such as graphs, photographs and tables, most of which are also readily digitised. Supervisors indicated that there is already some use of local area networks to make theses available. As might be expected, applied sciences and engineering show slightly more development in this area than other disciplines.

The positive attitude of thesis authors and their supervisors, and the potential technical feasibility of the concept, suggest that there are few barriers to widespread electronic dissemination of a thesis on its completion. While recognising the enormous cultural shift required for this to happen, UTOG has nevertheless been encouraged by the survey to continue on its projected path to address the cultural and technical hurdles to establishing a model for the electronic distribution of UK theses. A prototype finding list and thesis distribution service will be established and evaluated. Other outcomes of the process will need to address model regulations and procedures which will assist the electronic passage of a thesis through its production to its management (including archiving) and eventual use.

Although this work is at an early stage in the UK, interesting developments have already taken place in the US. Work on the concept of a national electronic theses and dissertations service began in 1987, and since then has involved Virginia Tech, University Microfilms International (UMI) and the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI). Last year, the US Department of Education provided grant support for a three-year project to develop a National Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations (NDLTD) [2]. Adobe, IBM and OCLC have all become involved in the development of a standard for electronic thesis structure based on the Standard Generalised Mark-up Language (SGML). A Document Type Definition (DTD) has now been produced. The viability of the scheme has been underlined by the policy decision at Virginia Tech to require that, from January 1997, all theses and dissertations are submitted electronically.



Available from the British Library as a photocopy or microfiche from the British Thesis Service, Document Supply Centre, Boston Spa, Wetherby, West Yorkshire LS23 7BQ, UK.
A Web version can be found at

[2] NDLTD Project

Author details

Alason Roberts
Sub Librarian, Bibliographic Services
Edinburgh University Library
Edinburgh EH8 9LJ
email; a.roberts@ed.ac.uk Tel : 0131.650.3402
Fax : 0131.650.3380