Digitisation, Copyright, and the British PhD Thesis

In the autumn of 1997 I submitted a PhD thesis, with the snappy title Modernity and Identity in the Detective Novels of Raymond Chandler, for assessment at Newcastle University. Some time later, after it had been examined, copies were deposited in the university library in Newcastle, and at the British Library. In the days of paper and hard covers nobody gave a second thought to handing them over. Now though there is a plan to digitise and make available online every British PhD thesis written since the 1600s. I am happy to be included in the scheme, but I have misgivings.

The vast majority of PhDs–mine included no doubt–lie unopened and unread in one of the British Library’s vast warehouses. In truth, few are worth reading in their raw form, though many are later rewritten as books. PhD theses are pedantic and technical, written for the examiners to prove the writer’s ability to corral a set of knowledge and sustain an argument. Books are written for their audience, whoever that may be, but PhD theses are no fun at all. They are written to meet a set of academic requirements, not for wide public consumption or the all-seeing eyes of Google and Bing.

It is natural to be a little bit afraid of having such a stunted, constrained, and raw piece of work on display, but the real issue here is one of choice. What I find irksome is the assumption that everyone will be happy to have work published online even though it was never intended for publication. This is work some writers may no longer endorse, or feel comfortable about. There is a way to opt out, but it depends on authors knowing they are involved in the first place, and university libraries do not seem to feel obliged to tell them. There is also the question of whether the choice needs to be a binary one. Why have PhD authors not been given the chance to license their work, allowing different levels of freedom to share and copy, rather than just the option to remove their work from the digitisation scheme?

The current copyright system clearly doesn’t work well with this new environment in which vast quantities of data are being made public, and the Library’s attempts to reassure with talk of copyright agreements, and tracking the recipients of downloads, miss the point entirely. Since most authors have not granted permission for this kind of distribution it is possible that the participating libraries themselves are the primary copyright abusers, but in any case, hard-line copyright statements are not really in the spirit of open access.

The expectation of wide availability will change the nature of the PhD thesis, and that is probably a good thing. In an open access environment there needs to be a reconsideration of who this work is for. But before that can happen we need to find a more sensible way of licensing this material, perhaps using Creative Commons licenses on all new PhDs as a matter of course. Trying to ignore the issue (and the rights holders), and hoping for the best, as the British Library seems to be doing, is not good enough. Like most people in this situation I don’t mind my thesis being part of the process, and I will be glad to get hold of an electronic copy when it becomes freely available. Even so, it would have been nice to be asked first.