Web Magazine for Information Professionals

EThOSnet: Building a UK E-Theses Community

Jill Russell outlines progress towards an e-theses service for the UK.

EThOSnet is a project funded by JISC, CURL and the project partners, to bring the UK to the forefront of international e-theses provision. It is a highly practical and participative project to turn the prototype e-theses infrastructure that was developed by EThOS, into a live service that will revolutionise the document supply arrangements for theses and greatly increase the visibility of UK research.

The Electronic Theses Online Service (EThOS) Project arose after several earlier initiatives in the UK had articulated an urgent need to improve on the present methods for giving researchers access to PhD and other higher-level theses. Researchers normally consult theses in their paper originals from archives, or via copies on microfilm, and this arrangement no longer meets their needs and expectations.

The EThOS Project phase 2005-2006 achieved its aim of creating a functioning prototype e-theses service capable of replacing the existing document supply arrangements. The EThOS model is based on a central hub and institutional repositories (IRs), and conforms with current international standards and repository practices. The project also addressed the two key obstacles identified by those earlier discussions, namely building a service model that is free at the point of use, and agreeing practical ways of dealing with the intellectual property rights (IPR) and disclosure issues surrounding theses.

A wide range of stakeholders was consulted, including postgraduate research students and their supervisors, registrars and university administrators, library staff, IR managers, and many graduate schools and postgraduate committees in individual Higher Education institutions (HEIs). All welcomed the initiative, recognising the need for HEIs to adopt e-theses for the future (provided that there are adequate safeguards for IPR and non-disclosure), and demanding an urgent upgrade to the service for the retrospective materials that researchers still need to access.

The Achievements of the EThOS Project

The official evaluation study for the project [1] was very positive about the achievements of EThOS. It realised its aims, which were

The project workshops were very successful and generated a great deal of interest and discussion together with valuable information and feedback that contributed to the overall success of the project. In consultation with the participants, EThOS developed practical solutions to the two key challenges of e-theses, namely IPR and covering costs:

Intellectual Property Rights

The EThOS toolkit recommends practical approaches to dealing with IPR queries [2], in line with the spirit of existing practices when disseminating printed theses via libraries. A risk-assessment approach and opt-out mechanism will help HEIs decide which theses are safe to supply, and where to be cautious about potentially infringing material. In some cases (in both the print and online worlds), there may be a requirement for a period of non-disclosure of research findings (eg pending a patent application), and this is supported either through an embargo period controlled at the central hub, or an arrangement with IRs not to harvest designated ‘sensitive’ categories of material at all.

Covering Costs

The EThOS business model will create a service that is financed on a cost-recovery basis and is free to researchers at the point of use. This desire was overwhelmingly expressed by participants, and is in line with moves towards open access in academic circles. The costs to HEIs will shift from those currently incurred in acquiring theses and in handling document supply of those items, to the effort required to support the central requesting service and the cost of converting theses that are not yet available in digital form.

The digitisation of the theses that are not available in born-digital form is the most expensive part of the service. HEIs can choose to become sponsors of the service or associate/collaborating institutions. Sponsoring institutions will be asked to commit funds of £2K to 8K p.a. (based on their JISC banding) for a minimum of three years, in order to secure the initial start-up work required for the service. This sponsorship will guarantee a quota of theses to be digitised in response to requests from readers, together with all the benefits and economies of scale of being part of a large collaborative service. These rates will reduce as time goes by and will eventually dwindle as the requirement to digitise from paper drops away.

The business model is calculated to cover all of the costs of:

Member HEIs will also benefit from all the central services supported by the EThOS hub at the British Library, including:

Progress during 2007

The EThOS project phase finished in the autumn of 2006, but the partner members continued to work behind the scenes on making a UK-wide e-theses service a reality. There has been a noticeable cultural shift in this time, in the expectations of researchers who more than ever assume that recent material will be downloadable via the Web, and amongst libraries and archives who now have a great deal of experience in managing electronic materials alongside traditional print-based collections.

Electronic theses are widely recognised as a Good Thing, which combined with a significant growth in institutional repositories in the UK, and gradual moves towards mandating the deposit of electronic versions of theses by new generations of research students, means that the UK is now ready for a fully-fledged and co-ordinated service. The EThOSnet Project is the implementation phase, building on the sturdy foundations laid down by the EThOS Project, to transform it into the EThOS service.

Over 70 UK HEIs responded formally to a briefing paper [3] and consultation on EThOS carried out by JISC in February 2007, and several others have come forward since to enquire about participating. Over 50% of libraries who are members of CURL say that their parent institutions (which produce of the majority of UK research theses) already have, or are actively seeking, a formal mandate for researchers to deposit an electronic copy of their thesis as a condition of award of a doctoral degree. The remaining institutions have some form of voluntary arrangement, or are following developments with a view to adopting e-theses in the near future.

A glance at the OpenDOAR [4] directory of Open Access repositories shows that recent, born-digital theses are gradually being added to IRs. EThOSnet has set itself the task of supplementing this slowly-growing body of born-digital material with a critical mass of key theses digitised to meet the demands of researchers. This endeavour will get off to a good start through a separate JISC-funded e-theses digitisation project [5], which will digitise at least 5,300 theses over the coming 12 months. However, the conversion of theses to digital format remains the biggest task facing the EThOS service.

There was one significant disappointment after the original project phase, which was that the ambitious start date for a live service (predicted for 2007) could not be achieved. In the first two months of the new EThOSnet Project, the team has learned from the experience of HEIs that have had early successes with e-theses, and noted queries received by the Project. This information has been used to develop the detail of the project plan and to plan towards a start date for the live service in 2008.

EThOSnet Aims and Objectives

As stated in the project description,

‘the overall purpose of the EThOSnet project is to build a strong EThOS sponsorship network amongst the HE community and to achieve a high level of technological and organisational sustainability for a successful move from prototype to ‘live’ service. In order to achieve this overall aim, the project will seek to meet five main objectives:

1. To extend the EThOS partnership and encourage ‘early adopters’ - this will require stepping up the advocacy campaign initiated by the EThOS project and putting in place a highly visible ‘sign-up’ process with a view to achieving a sufficient level of buy-in to ensure future viability;

2. To increase the number of e-theses already available in the EThOS prototype, thus enhancing UK repository content by significantly increasing its critical mass and extending its scope to material that is currently poorly represented in digital repositories;

3. To enhance the procedural infrastructure and upgrade the EThOS Toolkit accordingly with a view to improving institutional workflows in close partnership with registry and academic staff and to addressing the HE community’s concerns, identified by the independent evaluation, regarding the management of third-party rights and the detection of plagiarism;

4. To scale up the EThOS technological infrastructure for the move from prototype to ‘live’ status;

5. To monitor and test relevant technology trends in order to identify those technologies which EThOS may be able to adopt in the future to improve further the management of e-theses and consolidate the embedding of the service within institutional practices;’


EThOSnet aims to have as many HEIs as possible participating in the live service, in order to make a comprehensive body of theses available to researchers. A critical level of participation is also necessary to ensure the viability and sustainability of the service.

EThOSnet hopes to achieve this by fostering a strong community of sponsoring HEIs working together with the British Library. The Project is developing a suite of resources that participants can use and adapt in order to support the creation of e-theses in their own institutions, whatever stage they are at. These materials are intended to assist key HEI staff (usually library and registry staff, as well as repository managers, all of whom handle theses at different stages in their lifecycle of creation and consultation), and to support postgraduate student authors and their supervisors.

We are finding that the idea of a comprehensive e-thesis service is now widely accepted, and that the enquiries we receive from prospective participants are shifting away from general matters and moving more towards dealing with the nitty-gritty practicalities and specific issues that arise from handling e-theses and from the advocacy process within their own institutions.

In the light of this, the EThOSnet advocacy team plans to contact prospective participants to guide them through this process. We will develop a very practical checklist that participants can use to ascertain how near their own HEI is to being ready for the live service, and develop supporting FAQs. We will work on gathering data on costing old and new models of thesis supply, and gleaning helpful statistics from the existing document supply arrangements, eg on the most frequently requested material by subject, by HEI, by date, etc in order to help participants predict likely future demands and target their efforts to best effect. We also hope to build a community of participants, through visits and workshops, and by creating a new blog where interested members can discuss issues and share their experience. EThOSnet will also direct significant efforts into enhancing the Toolkit of advice and guidance, and into technical enhancements. These include:

Enhancements to the Toolkit

Technical Enhancements

Born-digital theses from the project’s partner institutions and early participants, and a body of c.7,000 theses being digitised from other project funds will be added to the central hub over the coming months. Work on testing and refining workflows will result in a ‘soft’ launch in early 2008. A date for the launch of the full service, and then for the cessation of the present thesis supply service will be announced as soon as possible.

We are also uncovering a great deal of interest amongst HEIs in thesis digitisation projects over and above the immediate needs of the service. Therefore, EThOSnet will endeavour to assess the extent of this demand and consider ways of meeting this, for example by using any spare capacity in the digitisation service, or running separate supplementary projects alongside the core service.

Get Ready for the Launch

If you are a member of staff in a UK HEI and involved with any stage of handling theses, eg a member of library or registry staff, or a repository administrator, there are many things you can be doing to prepare for the launch of the live EThOS service:

By encouraging HEIs to collaborate, by creating a co-ordinated and comprehensive UK service for researchers, supported by the British Library, and by engaging the expertise and interests of all the players in the UK e-theses and repositories scene, the live EThOS service will be greater than the sum of its parts.


  1. Key Perspectives Ltd and UCL Library Services (2006), Evaluation of options for a UK electronic thesis service: Study report http://www.keyperspectives.co.uk/openaccessarchive/reports/EThOS%20Report%20-%20final%20published%20version.pdf
  2. The EThOS Toolkit: Legal Issues http://ethostoolkit.rgu.ac.uk/?page_id=8
  3. JISC (2007) Briefing Paper: Electronic Theses: EThOS - the Electronic Theses Online Service http://www.jisc.ac.uk/publications/publications/pub_ethosbp.aspx
  4. The Directory of Open Access Repositories http://www.opendoar.org/
  5. JISC UK theses digitisation project http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/programmes/programme_digitisation/theses.aspx
  6. UK discussion list for electronic theses and dissertations http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/lists/E-THESES-UK.html
  7. EThOS Toolkit of guidance http://ethostoolkit.rgu.ac.uk/
  8. EThOS Web site (under development) http://www.ethos.ac.uk/

Author Details

Jill Russell
Digital Assets Project Manager
Information Services
University of Birmingham
(Member of the EThOSnet project team)

Email: info@ethos.ac.uk or j.c.russell@bham.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.ethos.ac.uk/ (under development)

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