ETD Guide/Universities/Role of the Graduate School and Graduate Program

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This section looks at how electronic publication of theses and dissertations will enhance graduate education. Topics discussed include: improved knowledge of electronic publication technologies, greater access to scholarly information, wider distribution of an author's work, and student and faculty concerns.


The move by Graduate Schools to allow or even require students to submit theses and dissertations as electronic or digital documents (ETDs) creates much excitement, both positive and negative, among the students and faculty who will be affected by this initiative to digitize these important documents. These positive and negative views will no doubt be tempered by increased knowledge of the ETD process and through increased experience in creating and archiving ETDs. At this time in the development of the ETD process, I believe the importance of an open-minded approach to this new way of expressing the outcomes of masters and doctoral research is captured very well in the following statement by Jean- Claude Guédon in his work, Publications électroniques (1998):

When print emerged, universities failed to recognize its importance and almost managed to marginalize themselves into oblivion. With a new major transition upon us, such benign neglect simply will not do. Yet the challenges universities face in responding to an increasingly digitized and networked world are staggering. Universities need a vision allowing them to express their dearest values in new forms, rather than protect their present form at the expense of their most fundamental values.

The ETD initiatives now under way in universities around the world are about bringing fundamental change to our current concept of what constitutes a thesis or a dissertation. In the U.S., this concept has not changed significantly since students first began to submit paper theses and dissertations in our first research universities over 120 years ago. By moving from a paper presentation of research results to a digital presentation, we make available to the ETD author a powerful array of presentation and distribution tools. These tools allow the author to reveal to masters and doctoral committees, to other scholars, and to the world, the results of their research endeavors in ways and with a level of access never before possible.

Changes in Presentation[edit]

I believe graduate schools and faculty, in the name of maintaining quality, have all too often inhibited the creativity of graduate students by forcing them into a mold to which they must all conform. This is nowhere more evident than in the thesis or dissertation where format restrictions abound. Some graduate schools have special paper with printed margins within which all written material must be contained. Some graduate schools still read and edit the entire text of every thesis or dissertation. Many have thesis or dissertation editors whose reputation for using fine rulers and other editorial devices for enforcing graduate school format are legendary.

I believe that the student must submit a high quality document that is legible, readable, and that conveys the results of the research or scholarship in a manner that is clear and informative to other scholars. The document does not, however, need to be narrowly confined to a specific format if it meets the above criteria. To create a high quality ETD students must be information literate. That is, they must, at a minimum, have a level of knowledge of office software that will allow them to create a document that if printed would result in a high quality paper document. This kind of properly formatted digital document thus becomes the primary construct of the author, rather than a paper document. In conducting training workshops for Virginia Tech students, a number of which are older non-traditional students, we have found that this lack of office software skills is the single greatest impediment to their being able to produce a good "vanilla" ETD—that is, an ETD that has the appearance of a paper ETD, but is submitted as a digital document.

As early 1999 about 80% of Virginia Tech's 1500 ETDs are vanilla ETDs. Accordingly, we have emphasized the development of these skills, which number less than ten and can be taught in an hour, in our student ETD workshops. Once the student has the fundamental skills to produce an ETD, they are ready, if they desire, to move on to more advanced topics for producing a visually and audibly enhanced ETD. Advanced topics include landscape pages; multimedia objects like graphs, pictures, sound, movies, simulations; and reader aids like internal and external links, thumbnail pages, and text notes. Students are not required to use these enhancement tools, but by giving them access to these tools we open creative opportunities for students to more clearly express the outcomes of their masters or doctoral research.

To maintain quality, the student's thesis or dissertation committee must actively participate as reviewers in this process and must be prepared to exercise judgment concerning the suitability of material for inclusion in the ETD. The resulting "chocolate ripple" or in some cases "macadamia nut fudge" ETDs are the forerunners of a new genre of theses and dissertations which will become commonplace in the future.

Whether tomorrow's graduate students are employed inside or outside the university environment, the ubiquitous presence and use of digital information will certainly be a major part of their future careers. For this reason efforts to increase the information literacy are certain to benefit graduate students long after they have used these skills to produce a thesis or a dissertation.

Valuable Content[edit]

The traditional view is that the doctoral dissertation and less so the masters thesis provides a one time opportunity for the student to do an in depth study of an area of research or scholarship and to write at length about the topic, free of the restrictions on length imposed by book and journal editors. Such writings may contain extensive literature reviews and lengthy bibliographies. They may also contain results of preliminary studies or discussions of future research directions that would be very valuable to the researchers and scholars who follow. Primarily because of restrictions on the length of journal articles, such information exists only in theses and dissertations. I believe this view is correct and should be maintained in the digital thesis or dissertation.

Access and Attitudes[edit]

The attitudes of students and faculty toward the value of theses and dissertations vary greatly. For the reasons given above some value them highly. Others, particularly some faculty, see them as requirements of graduate schools that have little value. These individuals consider the journal publication the primary outcome of graduate student research. I do not dispute the added value of the peer review process for journal articles and for books, yet I do firmly believe that so long as the scholar or researcher using ETDs as information sources recognizes theses and dissertations for what they are, these documents are valuable sources of information.

Indeed, these information sources have been grossly underutilized because of the difficulty in obtaining widely available, free access to them either through university libraries or through organizations like University Microfilms. If a comprehensive worldwide networked digital library of theses and dissertations existed, I believe the impact and utilization of these sources of information would rise in proportion to the increased access. This view is supported by experience at Virginia Tech in our ETD project. Research done in 1996 by the Virginia Tech library showed that the average thesis circulated about twice a year and the average dissertation about three times a year in the first four years they were in the library. These usage statistics do not include the use of copies housed in the home departments of the students or the usage of dissertations in the University Microfilms collection. Even so, the usage of the 1500 ETDs in our digital library far outpaces the use of paper documents.

Growth in usage has been steady and remarkable. For the calendar year 1998 there were over 350,000 downloads of the PDF files of the 1500 ETDs that were in the VT library. This is over 200 downloads for each ETD in the collection. The distribution of the interest in the ETDs is equally remarkable. The majority of the interest comes from the U.S with inquiries in 1998 coming from the following domains: 250,000 from .edu, 88,000 from .com, 27,000 from .net, 6,800 from .gov, and 3400 Inquiries also come from countries around the world including the 8,100 from the United Kingdom, 4,200 from Australia, 7,300 from Germany, 3,900 from Canada, and 2,200 from South Korea. The most accessed ETDs have been accessed tens of thousands of times with many over one thousand accesses. To learn more about accesses see

Publication and Plagiarism[edit]

When the ETD project began at Virginia Tech, some students and faculty expressed great concern that publishers would not accept derivative manuscripts or book manuscripts from ETDs. For some publishers this concern is legitimate and the ETD project has put into place a system for students and advisors to restrict access to ETDs until after journal articles appear. This system seems to satisfy faculty, students and publishers. Publishers that have discussed this matter with us usually have not expressed concern with the release of the ETD after the journal article is published. One exception may be small scholarly presses that publish books derived from ETDs. These presses view the book as having a sales life of several years after the initial date of publication. In these cases, it may be necessary to extend the period of restricted access well beyond the publication date of the book.

For the longer term, however, it is important that researchers and scholars regain control of their work by becoming more knowledgeable about their rights as original creators and as holders of the copyrights to the work. This requires universities to have active programs to educate their faculty and students about copyright. Publishers also need to be educated to be less concerned about ETDs interfering with the marketability of their journals. This can be done, in part, by an effort on the part of researchers and scholars to educate publishers of their professional journals. They need to help persuade journal editors that ETDs most often are not the same as the journal articles derived from them, and that there is a serious difference because they have not been subject to the stamp of approval that is the result of peer review. As such they should not be considered a threat to the news value or to the sales potential of the journal. It is interesting to note that a Virginia Tech survey of students who had released their ETDs worldwide showed that twenty students had published derivative manuscripts from the ETDs with no publisher resistance to accepting the manuscripts.

It is also noteworthy that the American Physical Society has a practice of sharing electronic copies of preprints of manuscripts undergoing peer review ( Those that successfully pass peer review are published in the Society's journals. This practice is essentially the same as the practice being proposed for ETDs above.

The risk of plagiarism is next on the list of concerns of students and faculty. We do not yet have enough experience with ETDs to speak authoritatively about this issue. If one thinks a bit about it though, it seems that the risks of exposure of plagiarism will deter such activity. Most researchers and scholars still work in fields where a fairly small group of workers have detailed knowledge of their work. It follows that because of the size of the field and because of the ease of detecting plagiarized passages in electronic documents, the risks of detection will make wide spread plagiarism unlikely.

More disconcerting to me is the closely related concern of researchers and scholars that by reading their students ETDs, other researchers and scholars will achieve a competitive edge in the contest for grants and contracts. Most research in U.S. universities is done in the name of supporting the well being of the nation and is being sponsored directly or indirectly with public tax dollars. There is something wrong with a view that research and scholarship should not be shared among other researchers and scholars for the above reasons. Yet the concern is understandable in today's financially stretched research universities where the competition for promotion and tenure among young faculty is fierce. Similarly, faculty are encouraged to develop intellectual property in which the university claims a share. I'm not sure if we have gone too far down this road, but I am concerned that our obligation as scholars to make our work known to other scholars is being compromised. A result of this compromise is that the goal of scholars to advance knowledge through sharing knowledge may also be slowed.

How Virginia Tech implemented the ETD Requirement[edit]

ETD discussions with the Graduate Dean, the Library, and Ed Fox, a faculty member conducting research on digital libraries, began in 1991. At that time we were exploring the possibilities of optional submission. Shortly thereafter Adobe Acrobat® software for creating and editing Portable Document Format (PDF) files came on the market. This software for the first time provided a tool that was easy to use and allowed documents to be moved between computer operating systems and platforms while retaining the original document formatting. This was a great step forward in increasing worldwide access to information while retaining the original author's formatting style. At this time we began a pilot study to determine if the Acrobat® met our needs. We determined rather quickly that it was the most suitable product for our needs at that time. In my opinion that conclusion holds true today.

We continued discussions with the Graduate School and the Library and in the Fall of 1995 concluded that we would seek to make the submission of ETDs a requirement of the Graduate School. We took a proposal to the Commission on Graduate Studies and Policies for discussion. A degree standards subcommittee discussed the proposal amongst themselves then with ETD team members, Ed Fox from Computer Science, Gail McMillan from the Library, and John Eaton from the Graduate School. In these discussions the expressed concerns dealt with archiving and preservation, the burden to the students and the burden to the faculty and departments. After full discussion, the subcommittee recommended approval of the proposal. The commission discussed and approved the proposal, subject to the following provisions.

  • That a student training process be conducted to show students how to produce an ETD.
  • That necessary software (Adobe Acrobat®) be made available to students in campus computer labs.
  • That the faculty not be burdened by this process.
  • That a faculty/graduate student advisory committee be established to advise the Commission on Graduate Studies and Policies on the ETD project.

With these provisions agreed to, the Commission approved a one year voluntary submission period to be used for beginning the student ETD workshops, informing the university community, and development of the infrastructure needed to move to requiring ETDs, after which ETDs would become a requirement in the spring semester of 1997. All went very smoothly while the process was voluntary. Workshops were started, software was placed in campus computer labs, visits were made to departments, articles were published in the campus newspaper, and the advisory committee was formed.

Late in the spring semester of 1997, after the mandatory requirement began, a small but vocal group of faculty, mostly from the life sciences and chemistry expressed a serious concerns about compromising the publication of derivative manuscripts from ETDs made available world wide. While we had a provision for withholding release of ETDs pending publication of manuscripts, the time period of six months was thought to be short. The ETD team responded to this concern by giving the student and the advisor greater control of the access to the ETD through the ETD approval form which can be found at The modifications made to the ETD approval form seem to have satisfied faculty concerns about publication, and since that date the ETD project has operated very smoothly at Virginia Tech and is now rapidly becoming and integral part of graduate education.


The ETD project has provided the opportunity for fundamental change in the expression of and access to the results and scholarship done by students in research universities around the world. These tools also can easily be extended to the expression of and access to research done by faculty. As scholars, we should not let this opportunity slip by. As Jean-Claude Guédon said "Benign neglect simply will not do".

Next Section: Role of the Library and Archives