of the American Society for Information Science and Technology   Vol. 28, No. 1    October / November 2001


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Meeting Review

Report on the Fourth Annual Symposium on Electronic Theses and Dissertations

March 21-24, 2001, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA

by Kimberly Douglas

Kimberly Douglas, director of the Sherman Fairchild Library and manager of technical information services at the California Institute of Technology, can be reached by mail at Caltech 1-43, Pasadena, CA 91125; by e-mail at kdouglas@caltech.edu; by phone at 626/395-6414; and by fax at 626/431-2681.

The Conference opened to a crowd of 165 attendees with a rousing call to action by Caltech Provost Steven Koonin stating that electronic theses and dissertations (ETDs) could and should unleash scholarly material for more general accessibility. Indeed throughout the conference there was direct evidence of a building sea change accompanied by less obvious hints of inevitable movement in the conversion of theses from a print genre to an online communication medium of record.

Within the plenary sessions, Simon Pockley's riveting narrative of his personal experience in researching, documenting and releasing the results of his investigation into what began as merely a family history project and ended as an international censorship sensation provided the most startling evidence. Charmingly titled, "Killing the Duck to Keep the Quack: The Poetics of Access and Closure in Australia's First On-Line Doctorate" ( www.cinemedia.net/FOD/FOD0055.html).

Pockley elaborated on the manner in which the content and the technical environment conspired unwittingly to create a whole new beast or "monster," as he put it. As he delved into the story matter, controversial images of aborigines in the 1930s and unintentionally made the material internationally discoverable by putting it on the Web, he found his research investigation took on a public and continuing life of its own. The dissertation, though "finished" in 1997, has become a discussion forum and continues to change constantly.

A theater arts graduate student, Shannon Bradford, who created the first html thesis at the University of Texas at Austin, illustrated another example of the evolving genre. Her thesis on the 25-year history of the Deaf Theater in Sydney, Australia, relied more credibly on the actual gestures as presented in media files, than on the word descriptions of movement necessary in a solely text-based thesis. The inclusion of media thus broadened the format scope of the traditional thesis and established that a thesis is not required to be book-style printable.

At the end of the 2 -day conference, Jean-Claude Guedon, comparative literature professor at Concordia University in Montreal, took a cultural view of how authorship historically developed and argued that the print-based thesis system destroys dialogue between author and reader or teacher and student. The ETD, he said, sets up a new environment in which the primacy of intellectual exchange is re-established. The digital evolution of theses has shown that communities can be made that validate through interest. Thus the electronic thesis is, in fact, a developing cognitive laboratory in which new validation mechanisms are possible through open communities of discourse.

Axel Plathe of UNESCO Information and Informatics Division and Ed Fox of the Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations (NDLTD) delivered the overt messages of the conference in two plenary sessions. Plathe made clear that UNESCO is committed to the principle of free flow of scientific information and now materially supports the creation of ETDs.  This ETD conference set a new standard of international participation (24% of the conference attendees) thanks to UNESCO's funding of a number of participants from developing countries. Their presence and perspectives were a constant reminder of the ultimate objective of expanding access to scholarly information.

Fox argued that exemplary electronic theses are now providing models for a new information genre in which authors can express their findings, using navigable media and links creating alternative information spaces to reach different audiences. The multilingual UNESCO International Guide for the Creation of ETDs (http://etdguide.org ) was announced along with an appeal for contributors.

Intellectual property issues were covered in a number of sessions. In particular a breakout session about the publisher perspectives on the appearance of ETDs addressed the perennial decision that all Ph.D. candidates face in the current system of journal-based peer-review validation: Does an ETD constitute prior publication? According to the survey conducted at Virginia Tech there are only a few publishers with the policy that ETDs do constitute prior publications. This issue thus appears to loom larger than it is in actuality. This presentation is summarized in "Do ETDs Deter Publishers? Coverage from the 4th International Symposium on ETDs," Gail McMillan. College and Research Libraries News, v. 62, no. 6 (June 2001): 620-621.

In another breakout session efforts to use XML as a native format to support archiving by a number of institutions (University de Chile, Universite de Lyon 2, University of Montreal, University of Iowa and the Humboldt-Universitaet zu Berlin) were described. However, there is still much work to be done. In the meantime Acrobat's PDF continues to rule as the more generally accepted and production-ready file format despite its proprietary nature. Nevertheless XML and PDF are acknowledged to be complementary, and institutions will do well to begin with PDF while educating and also making efforts to integrate XML into their processes.

Other technical presentations focused on metadata standards ranging from extracting Marc from the established Dublin Core metadata set for theses to producing an XML-encoded metadata standard that is Open Archives Initiative template compliant.

The ETD conferences are small: about 200 focused individuals attend. For any organization seriously considering ETDs or for those tracking the impact of the network on scholarly communication this conference is a must to make the contacts and to gain a fast-forward education on the issues and solutions. Given the conference size and concentration of players, much work can be accomplished in the 2 days. The networking tables over lunch are a particularly fruitful opportunity to engage with experts on a specific topic. There are numerous social opportunities to network with this group of knowledgeable, committed and communicative individuals.

The proceedings for the 2001 conference are expected shortly at the following site: www.access.wvu.edu/ESRA/.

The CNI Spring Task Force Meeting in April 2001 includes a report on the Status of the NDLTD by Gail McMillan: http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/theses/presentations/CNINDLTD.pdf

The next ETD Conference will be held at the University of West Virginia in March of 2002.


Editor's note: A related article appeared in the February/March 2001 issue of the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology. (Lee, Kyiho, "Construction of a Full-Text Database and Service System for Korean Electronic Theses and Dissertations." www.asis.org/Bulletin/Mar-01/lee.html#lee )

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