Growing Concern Over Digital Thesis Deposit

Concern is developing over how theses and dissertations in creative writing programs get deposited in order to satisfy graduation requirements. Institutions have begun electronically archiving creative final projects, along with scholarly ones, which could make them available online with varying degrees of access.


January 7, 2011

Concern is developing over how theses and dissertations in creative writing programs get deposited in order to satisfy graduation requirements. Institutions have begun electronically archiving creative final projects, along with scholarly ones, which could make them available online with varying degrees of access.

Some writers and poets fear those manuscripts may never become books.

“There are clearly instances where a publisher…might be reluctant to take the book on because [it’s] ‘already available,’ meaning it can be accessed online through a university library,” Dinty W. Moore, Director of Creative Writing at Ohio University, says.

“That would be a horrible result for the author, who might otherwise be enjoying trade publication, but it also goes against the goal of most programs to see graduate students succeed in the marketplace. I think universities need to be flexible in this matter, allowing delays in digital publication of a thesis, or other measures to protect the future of the creative product. Perhaps [digital depositing] makes sense in the hard sciences—I'm not really qualified to say—but speaking for the creative writing degree, one size fits all just doesn't work here.”

This week I asked directors at the top-ranked graduate creative writing programs in the country about their views on this issue. At some schools, such as Brooklyn College, NYU, and Syracuse, it hasn’t come up because printed theses on shelves are still the norm.

The University of Michigan’s MFA Program in Creative Writing does not digitally archive theses either, and Eileen Pollack, Director, is against it:

“When the matter came up a few years ago at a meeting of all the graduate school faculties, I said I was opposed to making our theses available online because that would invite plagiarism/theft.

“As things now stand, I'm not sure electronically archiving our MFA theses would affect publishing rights because most theses are rough, incomplete works. Also, in the case of story collections, many writers’ stories end up being published in magazines before appearing in a hardbound book, and that doesn't make the book itself less desirable, only more so.

“Then again, if all publishing ends up online, [and] there's only one medium, then archiving anything online means that it’s been published. A student who put a story in his thesis could not then sell it to an online magazine because what would be the point?”

Christopher Kennedy, Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Syracuse, believes the usual way of archiving will change, but, “[G]iven how many authors are also MFA grads, I imagine [publishers would eventually] be out of business if they stopped publishing writers whose theses were available online.”

Ron Carlson, Co-Director, MFA Programs in Writing (Fiction) at University of California, Irvine, says, “The issue of electronic disposition of thesis has just dawned here at UC Irvine, and we are looking at it this spring. The potential for this technology to undermine our students’ ability to offer their creative work exclusively to certain publishing houses/agencies is very real. We are going to look at ways of filing theses in efficient and proper ways which honor fair use and information without compromising the writers’ ownership.”

Joel Brouwer, Creative Writing Program Director at University of Alabama, was the first to respond with confirmation of this practice:

“Alabama now requires electronic deposit of MFA theses, except in cases where the thesis is in a nontraditional format (e.g., a handmade book, a box full of brochures, etc.) that can't be turned into a PDF. I don't think that at this stage, literary publishers are factoring electronic availability into their editorial decisions. My former thesis student Stacy Gnall deposited her poetry thesis electronically here in spring 2009; her book is now forthcoming from Alice James Press, despite the fact that the thesis is available online.

“Note too the distinction I'm making between Stacy's thesis and her book. It's extremely unusual for an MFA thesis to become a book as quickly as Stacy's has, and even in this extraordinary case, there are very significant differences between thesis and book: poems have been revised or removed, new poems have been added, the book has a different title than the thesis, and so forth. In more typical cases, where the length of time between thesis and book publication is much longer, those differences will be even more pronounced. Because of that, and because most readers of literary fiction and poetry are much more interested in sitting down with a book than with a PDF, I can't see electronic deposit cutting into book sales at this stage. It could go that way in the future, of course, if the Kindle truly kindles a fire in the stacks, but I doubt it. The problem seems to me to be much more of a concern in, say, the sciences, where theses are solely comprised of information, and the nature of the reading experience itself is unimportant.”

In response to my query, Debbie Dewees, the Graduate Coordinator at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin, forwarded me a letter from recent Michener fellow Malachi Black to the Graduate Dean’s office, written while he was a student. Black was a 2009 Ruth Lilly Poetry Foundation winner who “just had his first book of poetry published in December—works that he began while a student here,” Dewees writes. The letter, which Black agreed to share here, sums up the problem and reads in part:

“For creative writers, copyright protection (and ownership) is a principal concern. Indeed, the salability and commercial publication of our work entirely depends on our retention of the First North American Serial Rights (and, increasingly, First Worldwide Serial Rights) to our works – rights that we as authors naturally hold until we sell them via legally-binding agreements to parties (periodicals and book publishers, generally) who then own the right to publish and distribute a given work for the first time. The legal details of this arrangement can be rather arcane, but the important point is that electronic distribution in any form constitutes publication – publication that categorically disqualifies a work from later “first time” distribution (the essence of the First Rights we as writers aim to sell).

“As I hope you can understand, the new Proposed Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Guidelines are tantamount to an enforced publication agreement. Such an arrangement necessarily deprives creative writers of ownership to the publication rights that constitute the very bedrock of our livelihood; no commercial publisher would have any incentive, economic or otherwise, to reproduce and disseminate materials that are already readily accessible to readers by way of a simple Google search. If the university deprives us of these rights, it effectively deprives us of our writings: the visibility and accessibility that the new Proposed Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Guidelines so admirably enable will devalue our creative works to the extent that they are ineligible for the commercial publication on which our careers depend.

“I am aware that the new policy provides for a one-year embargo on documents, but so temporary an embargo is not adequate to protect UT’s creative writers from the deleterious effects of university-enforced electronic publication. Most publishers operate such that there is a lag of at least one to two years between publication agreement and actual publication. On a practical level, then, even writers whose books (i.e., theses) are under contract before graduation (an extremely rare few, as I’m sure you can imagine) would wind up inadvertently violating the terms of their contracts by virtue of UT’s new policy.

“These concerns have arisen at other universities. Last year, for example, the University of Iowa reached an agreement with its creative writers to ensure that their intellectual property rights were not compromised by a similar policy regarding theses and dissertations. It is my hope that we at UT can come to a similarly protective resolution.”

“We have been given a bit of a reprieve but don't know how long it will last,” says Dewees.


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