Monday, March 31, 2014

Creative Problems

The open-access requirement for Electronic Theses and Dissertations (ETDs) should be a no-brainer. At virtually every university in the world, there is a centuries-old public component to the doctoral-degree requirement. With digital technology, that public component is implemented more efficiently and effectively. Yet, a small number of faculty fight the idea of Open Access for ETDs. The latest salvo came from Jennifer Sinor, an associate professor of English at Utah State University.
[One Size Doesn't Fit All, Jennifer Sinor, The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 24, 2014]

According to Sinor, Creative Writing departments are different and should be exempted from open-access requirements. She illustrates her objection to Open Access ETDs with an example of a student who submitted a novel as his masters thesis. He was shocked when he found out his work was for sale online by a third party. Furthermore, according to Sinor, the mere existence of the open-access thesis makes it impossible for that student to pursue a conventional publishing deal.


Sinor offers a solution to these problems, which she calls a middle path: Theses should continue to be printed, stored in libraries, accessible through interlibrary loan, and never digitized without the author's approval. Does anyone really think it is a common-sense middle path of moderation and reasonableness to pretend that the digital revolution never happened?

Our response could be brief. We could just observe that it does not matter whether or not Sinor's Luddite approach is tenable, and it does not matter whether or not her arguments hold water. Society will not stop changing because a small group of people pretend reality does not apply to them. Reality will, eventually, take over. Nevertheless, let us examine her arguments.

Multiyear embargoes are a routine part of Open Access policies for ETDs. I do not know of a single exception. After a web search that took less than a minute, I found the ETD policy of Sinor's own institution. The second and third sentence of USU's ETD policy reads as follows [ETD Forms and Policy, DigitalCommons@usu.edu]:
“However, USU recognizes that in some rare situations, release of a dissertation/thesis may need to be delayed. For these situations, USU provides the option of embargoing (i.e. delaying release) of a dissertation or thesis for five years after graduation, with an option to extend indefinitely.”
How much clearer can this policy be?

The student in question expressly allowed for third parties to sell his work by leaving a checkbox unchecked in a web form. Sinor excuses the student for his naïveté. However, anyone who hopes to make a living of creative writing in a web-connected world should have advanced knowledge of the business of selling one's works, of copyright law, and of publishing agreements. Does Sinor imply that a masters-level student in her department never had any exposure to these issues? If so, that is an inexcusable oversight in the department's curriculum.

This leads us to Sinor's final argument: that conventional publishers will not consider works that are also available as an Open Access ETDs. This has been thoroughly studied and debunked. See:
"Do Open Access Electronic Theses and Dissertations Diminish Publishing Opportunities in the Social Sciences and Humanities?" Marisa L. Ramirez, Joan T. Dalton, Gail McMillan, Max Read, and Nan Seamans. College & Research Libraries, July 2013, 74:368-380.

This should put to rest the most pressing issues. Yet, for those who cannot shake the feeling that Open Access robs students from an opportunity to monetize their work, there is another way out of the quandary. It is within the power of any Creative Writing department to solve the issue once and for all.

All university departments have two distinct missions: to teach a craft and to advance scholarship in their discipline. As a rule of thumb, the teaching of craft dominates up to the masters-degree level. The advancement of scholarship, which goes beyond accepted craft and into the new and experimental, takes over at the doctoral level.

When submitting a novel (or a play, a script, or a collection of poetry) as a thesis, the student exhibits his or her mastery of craft. This is appropriate for a masters thesis. However, when Creative Writing departments accept novels as doctoral theses, they put craft ahead of scholarship. It is difficult to see how any novel by itself advances the scholarship of Creative Writing.

The writer of an experimental masterpiece should have some original insights into his or her craft. Isn't it the role of universities to reward those insights? Wouldn't it make sense to award the PhD, not based on a writing sample, but based on a companion work that advances the scholarship of Creative Writing? Such a thesis would fit naturally within the open-access ecosystem of other scholarly disciplines without compromising the work itself in any way.

This is analogous to any number of scientific disciplines, where students develop equipment or software or a new chemical compound. The thesis is a description of the work and the ideas behind it. After a reasonable embargo to allow for patent applications, any such thesis may be made Open Access without compromising the commercial value of the work at the heart of the research.

A policy that is successful for most may fail for some. Some disciplines may be so fundamentally different that they need special processes. Yet, Open Access is merely the logical extension of long-held traditional academic values. If this small step presents such a big problem for one department and not for others, it may be time to re-examine existing practices at that department. Perhaps, the Open Access challenge is an opportunity to change for the better.