[Archive copy mirrored from: http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/ETD/about/etd-mla.html]

Electronic Publishing and Doctoral Dissertations in the Humanities

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum
Department of English, University of Virginia

1996 Convention of the Modern Language Association, Washington DC
Session 567: "Electronic Publishing and Scholarly Integrity"

I'd like to start with a short bit of verse that is printed after the title and signatures page of a recently completed dissertation at the University of Virginia. If you're ever in Charlottesville you can read it for yourself, assuming that you're willing to make your way to the basement floor of Alderman Library where dissertations and theses are shelved. The poem's lines are addressed "To the Reader in the Stacks":

	Thief? Voyeur? Which one you are
	   Is no concern of mine. But know
	How those who labored years to get
	Their prose into these binders black
	   As body-bags regard the type
	Who rifle them: Go home and work.
	   Or don't. But put my pages back.[1]

Certainly "scholarly integrity," the theme of this session, is a notion at issue in these lines, and not only for their intimations of plagiarism. The author presents a conservative vision of intellectual property and regards the dissertation as a kind of self-consuming totem. Such a vision is, I cannot help but think, the product of the long periods of grueling personal isolation which completing a dissertation entails, the ambiguous status of the work itself within the doctoral candidate's own professional community, and, the frank recognition that the all-but-collapsed job market will most likely ensure the research's consignment to the basement stacks. All of this comes together in this wicked little boobytrap of a text, which I sprung precisely as I was browsing Alderman's dissertation stacks during a moment of benign (or so I had thought) work-avoidance.

According to UMI (formerly University Microfilms, Inc.), "The first American Ph.D. program was initiated at Yale University in 1860, with requirements that included at least one year of study on campus, an examination, and a dissertation based on original research. The first recipient was James Morris Whiton, whose dissertation in Latin on the proverb 'Brevis vita, ars longa' was accepted in 1861. Handwritten, it was six pages long."[2] More recently, the dissertation has come to be seen as the draft of a book-length manuscript which will be the first of several major publications before an untenured professor receives a promotion (or indeed, before a graduate student or adjunct instructor will have an opportunity to compete on the tenure track). Time does not permit me to work through these broader social and institutional considerations more carefully, but they should not be bracketed in surveying the idea of an electronic dissertation.

I want to distinguish at the outset between two uses of the term electronic thesis or dissertation (ETD). Most broadly, it applies to any thesis or dissertation that is submitted, archived and accessible solely or at least primarily in an electronic format. Such a dissertation might be written on any conceivable subject, and need avail itself of no presentational or organizational feature that could not be duplicated in paper. Questions of "integrity" manifest themselves mainly in the realm of library science and information retrieval. In addition to this "plain vanilla" model, electronic thesis or dissertation can also mean something like "hypertext" or "multimedia" dissertation, that is a dissertation which is not only submitted, archived and accessible solely in an electronic format, but which is also self-conscious of its medium and which uses the electronic environment to support scholarship that could not be undertaken in print. Examples of this might include a dissertation written as a non-linear hypertext which seeks to experiment with the conventions of academic argument, or else a dissertation consisting not only of text and data, but also digital images and even sound, video, animation, and three-dimensional models. Here questions of integrity become more pronounced, and relate not only to the technology per se, but also to the institutional settings which dissertations have traditionally inhabited, and the scholarly practices which they are expected to participate in, and indeed, affirm. In other words, for some, ETDs raise questions of decorum. [3] My objective in the short time I have here will be to simply offer a quick overview of the current state of both forms of electronic dissertation.

Though their potential as an area of scholarly electronic publishing has thus far been largely neglected, at least in comparison to, say, the idea of an electronic journal, the last year has seen a significant increase in the amount of attention devoted to electronic theses and dissertations. In addition to such anecdotal evidence as coverage in the Chronicle of Higher Education,[4] and active threads on Humanist (an international humanities computing electronic discussion list), there have been several key developments at the institutional level: first, beginning in January of 1997, Virginia Tech University will require electronic submission of all its theses and dissertations -- these documents will be archived in both PDF and SGML formats, will include protocols for handling multimedia objects, and will be served over the World-Wide Web;[5] second, the U.S. Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Post Secondary Education (FIPSE) has agreed to fund a proposal for a National Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations (NDLTD), beginning in September of 1996;[6] and third, UMI has released guidelines for submission of dissertations in electronic formats, and has expressed a willingness to accommodate students working in multimedia and hypertext.[7]

The Virginia Tech initiative, which was first discussed as early as 1987, and which has been actively underway since 1991, with funding from the Southeastern Universities Research Association, has potential implications for every university with a graduate degree program. The rationales for Virginia Tech's ETD project include: 1.) Preparing graduate students for their professional careers by introducing them to the use of digital libraries and giving them practical exposure to electronic publishing; 2.) Promoting collaboration between graduate research programs at separate universities by making graduate scholarship visible and accessible via a network archive; and, 3.) More efficient and economical use of the university's own library and administrative resources. For example, Gail McMillan, director of the Virginia Tech Library's Scholarly Communications project, believes that, "There will be more timely public access to current research -- all day, everyday. It will never be checked out, or overdue. We will be able to serve more users without increasing demands on staff, such as to circulate and reshelve material. Electronic data does not require shelf space, physical copies, [and] the [MARC] record will come largely from existing electronic text."[8]

Indeed, the Virginia Tech ETD project is demonstrating that theses and dissertations, perhaps more than any other form of scholarly writing, are the ideal candidates for electronic publication. Theses and dissertations are consulted, for the most part, by a specialized audience with highly selective research needs. It is the rare dissertation which is scrutinized cover to cover when ordered from UMI; often only a specific chapter or discussion or set of references is of interest to the reader. Consider instead a network-accessible archive of theses and dissertations, searchable by topic and speciality, publication date, citations, or a range of other criteria. The contents of such an archive would be embedded within a system of hypertexted cross-references to the full-text of documents inside, and when possible outside, the archive itself. The FIPSE proposal (which I mentioned earlier) for a National Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations is an important first step in establishing the infrastructure of such a resource. The NDLTD's project director, Edward A. Fox of Virginia Tech, writes:

With access to the NDLTD, graduate students will be able to find the full texts of related works easily, to read literature reviews prepared by their peers, and to follow hypertext links to relevant data and findings. Their professors will be able to point to the best examples of research in their area, even to the level of an interesting table, an illustrative figure, or an enlightening visualization. Also, students can benefit by learning how to become electronic publishers, preparing them for their future work. Since this educational initiative targets all graduate students, it is unique in its potential to train future generations of scholars, researchers, and professors.[9]

Where is UMI in all of this? In addition to agreeing to accept theses and dissertations in electronic formats, UMI has also announced plans to begin digitizing the full text of all newly received dissertations sometime in late 1997, with the aim of serving those documents -- for a fee -- via the World-Wide Web. At this time it's uncertain what kind of impact a project such as the NDLTD will have on UMI's current position as a publisher of graduate research. UMI is, however, one logical provider of the long-term logistical and technical support the NDLTD archive would require, and has expressed interest in assuming that role. In any case, I believe that it's clear that the activity of this past year represents the end of the beginning of a series of developments that will culminate in the electronic submission, archiving, and distribution of all theses and dissertations sometime within the next ten to fifteen years (which might in fact seem a conservative estimate given that some pundits maintain that the printed word as such will be outmoded by then).

If that's the big picture, the implementation of the ETD "from above" as it were, then let me now turn to the case of graduate students who have elected to undertake an electronic thesis or dissertation at their own initiative. These are generally the projects I spoke of earlier as hypertext or multimedia dissertations. I have collected, at a Web site which I developed and maintain, a directory of ongoing ETDs in the humanities.[10] I believe this directory includes most, though perhaps not all, such projects currently underway. At present, the site lists close to twenty electronic theses and dissertations, representing a full range of humanities disciplines: art history, philosophy, American studies, English, history, music, and religious studies. The common denominator of these projects is that their authors are utilizing the digital environment to sustain research that either could not be undertaken in print, or else could be undertaken in print only on very different terms. Let me offer some examples of what these students are doing.

Frank Grizzard, from the history department at the University of Virginia, has recently completed an electronic dissertation. Entitled The Construction of the Buildings at the University of Virginia, 1817-1828, the dissertation is a documentary editing project consisting of, in addition to a 400 page monograph, "approximately 1,700 primary documents, transcribed and annotated [and] 2,800 images from microfilm." Electronic presentation of this material makes the full-texts and images available to the reader as a searchable archive of primary sources. Allen Partridge, a doctoral candidate in an interdisciplinary fine arts program at Texas Tech University is beginning a dissertation on the impact of digital media on contemporary theater. "My topic," he writes, "is so deeply entrenched in hypermedia that it would be impossible to document the research in any other form." Here is Partridge's answer to one-inch margins: "The plan as of November 1996, is to create the piece for Internet enhanced CD-ROM. The finished work will incorporate multimedia technology, HTML, and VRML in a custom designed interface, which I hope will be generated with Microsoft's Visual Basic Five or Macromedia Director, or some combination of these." Scott Schlesinger, at UCLA, recently completed an electronic dissertation in music theory: "The CD-ROM portion of the [. . .] dissertation discusses the various factors in transcribing an orchestral work such as "Peter and the Wolf" by describing the various characteristics of the orchestra sounds compared with the pipe organ stops. The CD-ROM program includes text, organ and orchestra excerpts, and organ and orchestra sound excerpts." Constanze Witt, who is researching an art history dissertation at the University of Virginia, was attracted to the electronic format by the "need to present high-quality images of works of art that are not represented in US museums, together with a large amount of (also unfamiliar/not readily available in US) information." Her project thus uses its electronic environment to provide the reader with access to contextual materials on a scale impossible in print media. Specifically, Witt's research focuses on objects found within Celtic tombs, and she also intends to offer her reader 3-D models. Two projects in religious studies, an M.A. thesis by Henrik L. Boes at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a Ph.D. dissertation by Todd Blayone at McGill University are -- in very different ways -- examining the impact of various new media technologies on contemporary religious practices; both Blayone and Boes are convinced that it is necessary and appropriate to match their medium to their message. Finally, my own dissertation, in English at the University of Virginia, was undertaken with a similar purpose. Last fall, as I was putting together my prospectus on aspects of electronic media, I began talking with my advisors about the possibility of doing some or all of the work in hypertext. There was, I'd noticed, a fair amount of hypertext criticism and theory already on the shelves, but that's precisely where most of it was: on bookshelves, and not, by and large, in the medium it claimed to explicate. An important component of my own project, I decided, would be to use an electronic environment in a performative mode in order to materially respond to the ideas developing in my writing. The proposal was approved on those terms, and the dissertation is now in progress.[11]

While about half of the projects listed in the ETD directory focus explicitly on the social and cultural implications of the new media technologies, it is important to recognize that the electronic format is capable of enriching -- indeed, in many cases of transforming -- the way scholarship is performed even in more traditional areas. (As I believe Grizzard's, Schlesinger's, and Witt's work has shown; another example is Alan Howard's American Studies M.A. program at the University of Virginia, in which students have been producing Web-based theses for the past two years now.) By using the word "transformation" as I just did, I would also maintain that there is more at stake than simply adding some new tools to the academic desktop. The poet and critic Charles Bernstein, for example, has argued that the split between the often radical critiques of knowledge and representation now commonplace in the humanities, and the conventional, expository stylistics of the monographs in which these critiques are usually presented reveals, "an often repressed epistemological positivism about the representation of ideas."[12] In other words, Bernstein makes the case that the same division between form and content which inspired several of the electronic projects I describe above is in fact pervasive throughout the humanities. The most salient point here is not, I think, that every ETD must harbor a deconstructive gesture, but rather that a shift to new technologies of writing and new modes of academic production necessarily entails a critical examination of the dominant, normalized, and therefore often transparent codes of mainstream academic discourse. Theses and dissertations are particularly significant in this regard as they are by definition the first major academic project a scholar will undertake. Surely some professional self-scrutiny at this stage of a career is healthy and desirable.

I want to consider one last issue in the short time I have remaining. Perhaps the most serious concern facing graduate students wishing to produce theses and dissertations in electronic formats is the question of their archival stability and long-term sustainability. What assurances are there that an electronic thesis or dissertation will be accessible even ten years in the future, let alone the many generations acid-free paper can now promise? Let me first suggest that it is reasonable to expect corporations like UMI (who are in fact already moving in this direction) to take up some of the responsibility for keeping pace with the inevitable technological change. It is also vital for those involved in the development of ETD standards to recognize the importance of adopting non-proprietary formats, such as SGML (HTML), JPEG, MPEG, and VRML. Finally, I would argue that the astonishing preponderance of electronic scholarship that already exists in other scholarly genres -- whether an electronic journal such as Postmodern Culture or a hypermedia archive such as Jerome McGann's Dante Gabriel Rossetti project -- suggests that questions of archival stability and long-term sustainability are problems -- more accurately, challenges -- endemic to the medium as a whole, and are not therefore sufficient objections in and of themselves to graduate students wishing to undertake electronic projects at the thesis or dissertation level. Indeed, I would point out that it is precisely those developing scholars who are presently either at or nearing their thesis or dissertation who will play a major role in responding to these archival challenges in their subsequent careers as scholars in the networked university.

I began with a poem addressed to the reader in the stacks. Let me close with one final word on ETDs: that the reader, of course, need no longer be in the stacks. As I work on my own electronic dissertation, I place all my work, drafts as well as more polished pieces of writing, on-line on my Web site.[13] The dissertation is thus being written "live," in real-time on the network. Usually the first question I'm asked is one apropos of scholarly integrity: how I make sure that someone somewhere isn't "stealing my ideas," or even my actual prose. I can't know for certain, of course, but in my opinion the risk of plagiarism is remote, and increasingly I've found the whole idea something of a red-herring. Here's why: in return for placing my work on-line,

I've been able to receive feedback on the project on a constant basis and from people other than my readers here at Virginia;

Sometimes the feedback has come from people outside the academy, which is always helpful or at least refreshing;

Far from being castigated for exhibiting "rough" or "in progress" writing and ideas -- something I was nervous about at first -- I've been thanked for it;

Not long ago a grad student working on a related topic in another discipline wrote to say she'd noticed I hadn't added to the site in a couple of weeks, and that I should keep at it; we then exchanged posts on our respective research methodologies;

Finally, as far as protecting my ideas go, I feel at least as secure hiding them in plain sight a la Poe's purloined letter. In other words, I've decided not to wait until I secure a book contract to begin establishing a voice and a critical presence in my field.

I will not go gently to those basement stacks and binders black as body-bags.


Return to Electronic Theses and Dissertations in the Humanities: A Directory of On-Line References and Resources


[1] The dissertation was completed in 1994 on a subject in twentieth century poetry. I've chosen not to include its title and author's name here.

[2] See http://www.umi.com/hp/Support/DExplorer/shortcut/lore.htm.

[3] See Charles Bernstein's essay "Frame Lock" at http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/bernstein/frame.lock.html, where he argues that all too often the dissertation represents little more than a socializing gesture to the norms of academic discourse.

[4] Mangan, Katherine S. "CD-ROM Dissertations." Chronicle of Higher Education, March 8, 1996. A 15.

[5] See http://etd.vt.edu/etd/.

[6] See http://etd.vt.edu/etd/scenarios/fipseabs.html for an abstract of the FIPSE proposal; for its most recent discussion, see "National Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations: A Scalable and Sustainable Approach to Unlock University Resources," Edward A. Fox et al., D-Lib Magazine (September 1996): http://www.dlib.org/dlib/september96/theses/09fox.html.

[7] See http://www.umi.com/hp/Support/DExplorer/prepare/submit.htm.

[8] McMillan's remarks are from a Spring 1996 Virginia Tech press release, available at http://etd.vt.edu/etd/press/sura.html.

[9] See "National Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations: A Scalable and Sustainable Approach to Unlock University Resources," Edward A. Fox et al., D-Lib Magazine (September 1996): http://www.dlib.org/dlib/september96/theses/09fox.html.

[10] Electronic Theses and Dissertations in the Humanities: A Directory of On-Line References and Resources is located at http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/ETD/ETD.html.

[11] All of the projects described in this paragraph are listed in the directory of electronic theses and dissertations which I maintain (see previous note for the URL). All quotations are drawn from the project descriptions at this site. In addition to the half dozen or so ETDs I discussed here, the directory also includes a number of other projects, many of which are groundbreaking in equally significant ways.

[12] See Bernstein's essay "Frame Lock," URL noted in #3 above.

[13] My own electronic dissertation, Lines for a Virtual T/y/o/pography, can be found at http://www.engl.virginia.edu/~mgk3k/.

Last Modified: December 20, 1996