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From the Chronicle

Thursday, May 15, 2003

Ohio State U. Plan to Put Dissertations Online Meets Resistance from
Graduate Students


      Some graduate students at Ohio State University are resisting a new
policy requiring them to submit their doctoral dissertations
electronically so that they can be posted online. The students say they're
worried that they might not be able to get the works published in print if
they've already appeared on the Web.

      Ohio State instituted the policy last fall. Archiving the
dissertations online saves space in the library, university officials say.
And online dissertations have a better chance of being seen by more
people, which in turn raises the profile of the institution.

      Most important, says William A.T. Clark, associate dean of the
Graduate School, the policy conforms to the mission of the university.
"Our requirement is that a dissertation shall be a contribution to
knowledge, so there is an implication that it shall be available to the
community at large," he says.

      However, graduate students and administrators in the English and
history departments -- the main objectors to the policy -- worry that
posting the documents online could affect the students' abilities to
publish the dissertations with journals or university presses.

      "If [a dissertation] is already available on the Web, there is a
question whether publishers will be equally inclined to publish it," says
Debra A. Moddelmog, a professor of English who is the director of graduate
studies in English. "It seems to be such an uncertain area that we are
recommending our students not to put their dissertations online."

      Ms. Moddelmog says the issue has also raised questions among
students about how much control the university can assert over their work.
"Our concern is whether this is going to take control of the copyright out
of the hands of the student and into the hands of the university," she
says. "We feel like if we agree to let them do this, it will just lead to
further slippage of the author's rights to his or her works."

      One graduate student in history, who asked not to be named, also
worried that the policy would increase the chances that someone else might
plagiarize a student's dissertation.

      The university has made some concessions to allay the students'
concerns. A student can now request a one- to three-year delay in the
online publication of the dissertation, which gives the student more time
to place the dissertation with a journal or university press. The
university is considering offering a five-year delay.

      "The university has no interest in harming the careers of our
students," Mr. Clark says. He adds that publishing the dissertations
online will help foil plagiarists because more people will have access to
the dissertations and be able to recognize when portions of them are
copied elsewhere.

      No matter what delays are adopted, he points out, all Ohio State
dissertations will be posted online sooner or later -- and he says that
the university is well within its rights to institute such a policy. The
university has traditionally retained some intellectual-property rights to
dissertations and student work in the sciences, because the research
involved is often done with university grants and equipment.

      Institutions have claimed intellectual-property rights to student
work in the humanities less often, but Mr. Clark thinks a case can be made
for doing so. Graduate students are producing such work with the help of,
and at the behest of, the university. Some of them are employed as
teaching assistants or are working under scholarships.

      Ray K. Harris, a lawyer who handles copyright and patent cases for
Fennemore Craig, one of the largest law firms in Arizona, has studied
university polices on intellectual property. He says that copyright on a
dissertation can be transferred to the university in only two ways: if the
student enters into an agreement with the university or if the student is
employed by the university. "Absent one of those two things, the student
would own the dissertation," he says.

      However, he says, even if a student owns the copyright on a
dissertation, the university can establish a policy that requires online
publication for graduation. "It's a Catch-22," he says. "The student can
say, I'm not going to authorize you to publish it. By the same token, the
university has the right to set the criteria for graduation. So the price
for not publishing it could be not getting the degree."