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April 26, 2001 Electronic scholarship is growing fast






by Barbara Black

Last summer, a group of Canadian graduate students were shocked to discover that their theses were up for sale on the Internet. The potential seller was a commercial entity called contentville.com.

The students were outraged, because this potential transaction was advertised without their approval. However, it was legal.

When a student at Concordia submits a thesis ready for defence at the School of Graduate Studies, he/she completes a form giving permission for a third party, namely, the National Library of Canada, to receive a copy, in accordance with an agreement with Canadian universities that goes back some 40 years.

Also of long standing is an agreement with Dissertation Abstracts, a service of UMI, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is owned by Bell and Howell, to store theses. UMI has more than 1,500,000 doctoral and Master’s theses from the U.S., Canada and the Pacific Rim. For many years, they have made them available, at a modest fee, to anyone who wished to purchase them.

UMI, in turn, has subcontracted some of its services to contentville.com, who are putting selected theses on line, and this is where the authors of the theses got uncomfortable. While they naturally wanted their work to be known, they balked at having it advertised to the world in general without their approval or hope of compensation.

At the annual meeting of the deans of graduate studies of Canadian universities, held in Winnipeg last fall, representatives of all the stakeholders met. Even before that, the National Library was reviewing its contract with UMI, requesting that contenville.com remove Canadian theses from its Web site.

Dean of Graduate Studies and Research Claude Bédard was an active participant in that meeting, and he said recently that “this affair has had all sorts of ripple effects.

“For one thing, when the news broke, everybody rushed to log on to contentville.com to see if their thesis was there! Also, we are revising the form we ask graduate students to sign, so that they are provided with more information, and more choices.”

At the same time, Bédard has just completed a study as part of a task force of CREPUQ, the Quebec rectors, on the issue of electronic theses. Only one university in the world actually requires that theses be submitted electronically only — that’s Virginia Tech, in the U.S.

“Based on two pilot studies at Laval and the Université de Montréal, we found that these Quebec universities are quite advanced in this field,” Bédard said.

Indeed, when one thinks how thoroughly computers have taken over the process of writing and compiling data, a thesis written in longhand or on a typewriter seems like a relic of a bygone age.

Nevertheless, there are disciplines and regions in which the computer is not yet king, and the arbiters of scholarship must proceed carefully to be equitable to all. The task force’s report and recommendations have been submitted to the Comité des Vice-recteurs aux affaires académique, of which Concordia’s Provost and Vice-Rector Research, Jack Lightstone, is a member.

As a result of contentville.com scandal, the National Library of Canada is considering setting up a national Web site for Canadian theses, and Bédard looks on this prospect with interest.

“It would be great — we could certainly hold our own,” he said. And it would be the beginning of a revolution against the commercial publishers of hard-copy journals who are currently holding cash-poor institutions to ransom. As young faculty members come on line — literally and figuratively — new ways to own and share knowledge will be developed.

“We are facing cartels who steal and pillage,” Bédard said bluntly. “The best we can do is to influence the new generation of young faculty.”

Finally, last week’s announcement by MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that it is posting nearly all its academic material — from lectures to problem sets, has sent shock waves through academe.

The project, called OpenCourseWare, or OCW, will take 10 years to complete and cost $100 million. It is voluntary — professors may choose not to participate — but it is aimed at sharing knowledge as widely as possible. Visitors to the site will be able to access the material for free, but not for credit from MIT.