There were giants in the earth in those days

[Cross-posted at Cliopatria.]

Recently, I followed Gavin Robinson's lead and tried out the British Library's EThOS beta. EThOS stands for Electronic Theses (dissertations) Online Service, and it's just what you'd expect from that -- an electronic thesis delivery service. There's not too much new about that, but EThOS does have some very impressive features. First is the scope: nearly all British Universities are participating (with two very major exceptions, unfortunately: Cambridge and Oxford). What's more, any thesis ever accepted in Britain is eligible for inclusion in the database, possibly going back to the 1600s, according to the FAQ. This could become a rich vein of primary source material for intellectual historians. Second is the fact that the theses have been OCRed, not just scanned. This means that you can do keyword searches on the PDFs, for example. Third is the fact that they are free! Mostly, anyway. If you only want an electronic copy, it's free (hardcopy costs, obviously). If the thesis you want hasn't been scanned yet, then you may be asked to contribute towards the cost of that, but in most cases, not. And it doesn't appear to matter whether you are in the UK or not (which is good, because I'm not).

As for the cryptic title above, one of the theses I downloaded was one I've long wanted to read but have never seen until now: Howard Roy Moon, The Invasion of the United Kingdom: Public Controversy and Official Planning 1888-1918 (London University, 1968). It's quite widely cited and I wondered why it hadn't been published. Now I know why: it's 735 pages long! I am suddenly feeling rather inadequate. Clearly, historians back then possessed superhuman powers. Or at least very strong arms, and hands adapted for furious typing and scribbling.

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14 thoughts on “There were giants in the earth in those days

  1. Chris Williams

    They didn’t have strong arms, they had, in the main, fiancees.

    Man, that database rocks. Even if for some reason they aren’t letting me download my own thesis. Perhaps there’s some kind of typo counter worked into the OCR as a quality control.

  2. Post author

    Chris:

    Your thesis isn’t available yet, but it’s letting me request its digitisation. It’s a bit of a strange way to do it — you have to add it to a basket and go through a checkout process, even if you’re paying nothing.

  3. Lester

    Just noticed Chris’ remark that “They didn’t have strong arms, they had, in the main, fiancees” and am amused.

    This fiance can safely report that equality has finally arrived in that area.

  4. JDK

    Just thought I’d have a look at the coverage of the ‘top ten’ (always good for an argument). As well as Oxbridge being missing, also missing are Nottingham Uni, LSE, St Andrews, and Durham isn’t offering ‘open access’. Most of the usual suspects are participating to be fair, and when Oxbridge arrives at the C19, I’m sure they’ll see the benefits of telegraph and Morse and join in too. As ever in the British Uni system, patchy and separatist at the top.

    Neat thing though!

  5. Post author

    I don’t know — why would any university want people to actually read the research their postgrads have produced, when it could gather dust in a dark corner of a library instead?

    More seriously, I do wonder if academic publishers might be more reluctant to publish books from PhDs if the latter are easily accessible online …

  6. Lester

    Bah! Humbug. These internet generation scholars, they want it all and they want it now. When I went to university, the postgrads’ research was physically locked in a giant metal cage in a dark corner of the library, and you had to beg for it.

    (…and we’re talking about the 2000s here, I’m a young ‘un)

    Seriously, this is wonderful stuff, apart from the publisher worry.

    I know there was a wave of publishing contracts that specified no internet content, but it also seems that publishers are having to get over that now in most fields, so surely academic publishing will have to catch up. (I’m not an academic – I work in publishing – but I don’t work in scientific any more so I don’t know what they do about things that have been on arXiv… )

  7. Post author

    Yeah, that’s true, it’s not like publishers can avoid trying to adapt to the existence of the internet. (Though some industries are trying their best …) Re: arXiv, on the one hand it would seem to undermine the traditional academic publishing model, though on the other there was a pre-existing tradition of wide dissemination of paper preprints on the physical sciences, which doesn’t seem to be true in the humanities. So perhaps the cultural shift with arXiv was smaller than the technological shift?

    Though I guess one difference is, what value does publishing a thesis add to it? When a journal publishes a paper which was already available on arXiv, it’s adding peer review and the legitimacy that confers. But a thesis has already been peer-reviewed, so (aside from the opportunity to revise it further) the main point of publishing it as a book would be to make it available to a wider audience (or indeed to any audience at all!) So if theses are going be automatically PDFed and put on the web, that function becomes much less attractive.

  8. Lester

    I’d ask, but I don’t think anyone I work with now is in the business of thesis publishing, I’m afraid.

    For us rapacious villains here in the commercial world, a major motive for publishing something as a book is, unfortunately, to sell it – for academia above the “university set text” level, libraries become significant buyers. Libraries are always strapped for cash (and space) and usually don’t pay the laser printer bill themselves, so will probably not be very eager to buy costly tomes when they can direct readers to PDFs. This bodes rather ill for getting anything in print at all (or making a pile in academic publishing) unless there’s a factor I’m missing.

    On the other hand, it seems to me that the more equation-heavy material on arXiv is the material to which a often publisher does least work and yet has traditionally extracted very good money from, which has always seemed a little iffy to me when so much of it is publicly funded. On the other hand, even in some of those areas an awful lot of editorial work is needed to make a book, and it would be a big loss if it were to go (such as when the authors write in a second language). I’ve never worked in academic humanities publishing, but am under the impression that an editor and professional indexer are still considered pretty vital – long may that last.

  9. Post author

    From the theses-to-books I’ve seen, I’d definitely agree that good editors and indexers are vital! I suppose the take-home-message is that the book version will have to add something to the thesis version (over and above nice binding
    and so on) to be viable. Which is probably fair enough anyway.

  10. JDK

    Good points.

    Just to be awkward a moment, isn’t the reason for publishing something because people really want to read it? I mean peer review is a pre-publication qualitative validation, but I’m not interested in just impressing peers (nice though that is) but laying out a ‘story’ I hope is of interest to others, pushing knowledge around to anyone prepared to invest a bit in reading it. Rather than counter-point scoring in an ivory tower with the three others in the ‘field’. But then I’m not an academic; I just have one at home.

  11. Post author

    Ideally, yes, people would want to read it! But turning the thesis into a book is also a good career move — as in, can help you get a job — regardless of whether anyone actually reads the book or not. So it’s not only point-scoring in a negative sense but a positive sense too …

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