Open Access and MFA theses

March 20, 2008

UPDATE: After conferring w/ my boss here in the digital library division, I have learned that my school’s institutional repository does have this scenario covered–MFA students will be granted an automatic waiver from global access, other students w/ patents pending on their material will also be after the patent process is confirmed (eg Engineering students). So, our TDs will be accessible on-campus but not on the open web. UMI’s copy will still be available for anyone who can their hands on it. Works for me.

I think that the the open access publishing model (where the academic community takes control of scholarly publishing using web-based journal tools and institutional repository space that individual universities own) is crucial to the future of academic work. Why? 1) The ballooning costs of buying access (not even ownership in the case of online journals) to scholarly work are crippling academic collection building and will continue to do so as the market is basically built on monopolies and 2) as the publication of scholarly work depends on publishers who are 100% for-profit entities, it is going to become harder and harder to gain rights to republish scholarly material of any kind. These publishers are not built to recognize the intellectual value of the material they own–they increasingly want large sums for anthologies and other reprints that cannot be paid by the authors and UPs who want to publish the work and never expect to see any kind of profit based on doing so. We must take ownership of our work, or we will lose it in a more permanent way than ever before. It won’t be free to do this, but it won’t cost as much as what we currently pay to rent access to scholarly work.

One wing of open access publishing is the use of electronic theses and dissertations (ETDs). This, eventually, could mean no more waiting for to get a physical copy of someone’s dissertation mailed to you–you can click and open any time. (BTW, this is already true for more recent TD’s if your institution has access to Proquest TDs.)

Of course, there are numerous implications to this model which, even in my most librarian mode, I am not blind to. Which leads to

Exhibit I: The U of Iowa recently instituted mandatory electronic deposit of all graduate theses and dissertations henceforth. Again, I am generally in favor of this, and newsflash, this is the way the academic world is heading. My own U is trying to go 100% digital for graduate T&D’s starting this fall. These documents will be made publicly available in our institutional repository.

The U of Iowa, of course, is home to the most famous MFA program in the country, the Writer’s Workshop. As the MFA is currently structured, it is considered the terminal academic degree in the field. As such, the final product of the degree is considered an academic work, created w/in the academy for academic purposes.

Only, that’s not really how it works. Although it may look like and academic degree and act like one in the job market (after you have a publishing career anyway), students in MFA programs think of themselves as writers, not academics, and the MFA is usually a period of intense, focused work geared toward the production of a saleable manuscript. I think it even says that in a lot of MFA descriptions–you need a booklength manuscript to graduate. That’s a measure that reflects the demands of the marketplace, even if the degree is earned in the academy.

So you know where this is headed. U of Iowa MFAs don’t want their TD’s electronically accessible. They are afraid that having a clickable version online will disqualify that work from consideration by publishers. They might be right–we don’t know yet, although there has been no trouble for writers of more obviously academic work getting their stuff published once it has been made electronically available. It also remains to be seen just how visible these ETDs will really become. Institutional repositories are not indexed by Google or any other web search engine. They are stuck underneath layers and layers of library gateways. To find one, first you would have to know it existed. Of course, you could just make a habit of frequenting the IR’s of schools whose ETDs you wanted to keep abreast of… it would be possible to find them, but it’s not like you could just type it into Google and wham. At least not yet.

This is a quandary for me, as both an MFA student and an MLIS student. I resent the attitude of exceptionality displayed by the departments in question at Iowa–the idea that their work should be exempt from a policy geared toward the general good, not toward any kind of desire on the University’s part to make money from their creations. That’s paranoid, but also a sign that the academics and librarians who support open access are not getting the message across (although Peter Suber always tries). Getting control is not the point behind this, the point is maintaining access. If your work is different from other products of the university academic community, then maybe you ought not do it within the academy. Letting you off the hook (which is exactly what the Dean eventually did) sets a precedent that could allow departments to beg off and defeat the whole… well, movement sounds a bit ideological, but a movement it is.

On the other hand, well, if having my MFA thesis online means I can’t publish it, that sucks. And I’ll have to raise a fuss about it when the time comes for me to upload, although I kind of doubt that the Deans at my school will take my concerns as seriously as Dean Lopes at Iowa. In fact, I should probably start raising this issue now if I have any hope of getting around it…

The only real solution, I think, would be to require some kind of critical piece or let the artists’ statement alone count for the actual “thesis” in question and make the manuscript of creative work part of an unpublished defense process, b/c simply letting MFA’s off the hook is problematic both to the status of the program w/in the academy and to the process of gaining control of academic work.

[Probably going to be cross-posted at my library blog.]

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One Response to “Open Access and MFA theses”

  1. Incertus Says:

    I think the Iowa people are full of crap, frankly–there’s no way I can imagine that having your thesis available online–when it’s already available in the Iowa library for anyone who wants to go there and look at it–would mean that it has been published and that it’s ineligible for prizes or to be sold. Furthermore, the vast majority of theses aren’t ever published in anything like the form in which they’re accepted–they’re heavily modified, revised, and rarely look like they did when accepted by the university, so it would be easy to argue that it’s not even the same work anymore. My first book, when it appears, will contain perhaps five poems that were in my thesis, and those will be heavily revised, and I’m far from the exception.

    The cynic in me says that this is nothing more than Iowa saying that they’re too important to be bound by these sorts of rules, but I wonder if there’s not a little fear involved as well–fear that people looking to apply might check out the theses of recent grads and discover that the difference between Iowa and other programs is more fluff than substance.


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