Until recently, academics said that a doctoral thesis had a readership of five – the candidate, their supervisor, their two examiners and their mother. (I had two supervisors, but my mum
didn’t read [skimmed] it (1). Still, one of my examiners’ supervisees read it, so I guess my thesis had a readership of six.)
As Antiochepedia‘s Christopher Ecclestone commented,
I have tried to find some old theses (originating a few decades back) and it is well nigh impossible to extract them from the academic institution where they were published.. Their authors have gone on to drive taxi-cabs and cannot be contacted. Even worse if they have died because then one needs to find their estate to get approval to access the document.
But now, electronic theses and dissertations (ETDs) are quite common, sometimes standard; and they can be ‘100 times more likely to be circulated than print theses and dissertations [PTDs]’.
To give an idea of the difference (assuming one person checks out/downloads one thesis once), if there were 100 PTDs in a library, only 26 would be read; but if there were 100 ETDs in a library, each of them would be read 461 times.(2)
Online access to my thesis
In the first four months of online access to my PhD thesis, it was downloaded around 185 times from Sussex Research Online (SRO); it was downloaded 16 times from Conflict Antiquities; and it was used 835 times on Scribd.(3) So (minus any repeat visitors to Scribd), it had more than 1,000 readers.(4) That affirms my commitment to free public access to my research findings.
Even ignoring the Scribd users, it was downloaded around 200 times. (Downloading could signal “deep” thought about the political and ethical dilemmas, as opposed to one-click views to check facts.) To put that in context, there are only about 100 Cypriot professional archaeologists and archaeology students; or, including international archaeologists and students, about 400.
It’s genuinely reassuring and encouraging to know that other archaeologists and cultural heritage workers, and members of local and diaspora communities, are reading my research and engaging with my arguments.
Widening access to knowledge
And it’s difficult to overstate how different, and how significant, open access is.
Printed theses are “grey literature”: they are published, and theoretically readable and citable; but there may only be one or two copies of the document, available in one or two places (in the same country, maybe the same city), accessible under strict conditions; and the documents will probably be unpublicised, possibly not even catalogued in detail.(5)
They may only exist on microfiche, only readable with reader machines; then, still more difficult to search and read than paper; and any photographic evidence quite ruined.
Even if they’re not open access, electronic theses are still (generally) easier to access, use and distribute than printed ones; but they are (generally) only shared within the academic community. If the would-be reader knows they exist, they can be e-mailed around the world. (However, would-be readers may be dependent upon the author replying to their request; and upon the author not refusing to provide a copy to a critic or political enemy.)
Open access theses
Online, open access ETDs share information on a radically new level.
My fieldwork research was done in Cyprus (and my library research and writing were done in Cyprus, Greece, Turkey and the UK); but there is only one printed copy of my thesis, and it is stored in Sussex University library, outside Brighton (UK).
(By chance, my examiner’s supervisee took the examiner’s copy of the thesis to Cyprus with her, finished reading it there, and left it in the library of the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute (CAARI); but that is not really a model for enabling local access to research.(6))
Now, not only well-informed or well-connected academics in the UK can study and use my research; and open access publication does not merely mean that a greater number of academics in the UK can read my thesis.
Researchers with poor institutional access, or without any institutional affiliation (like me); archaeologists and other cultural heritage workers in Cyprus, Greece and Turkey, and elsewhere with violence, destruction and looting; and concerned local and diaspora communities can use my research too; and simply curious members of the public can read my thesis.
(Notably, open access completely bypasses the academic black list/boycott of the northern Cypriot archaeological community.)
Widened access to knowledge, increased potential for change
Because all of these people can access my research, they can correct or discuss it on my blog (or take it away and tear it to shreds in community forums); thus, they can improve both research methods and methodology, and public knowledge of their own communities.
Furthermore, they can use my research to reform archaeological policy and practice (7); they can use it to campaign for protection of their cultural heritage; they can cut out and keep bits about their village; they can laugh at a gadjo’s blunderings; or they can ignore it and go about their day.
So, open access naturally advances both scholarship and social change.
1,000 blog visits
Pleasingly, this post also drew enough readers that the blog passed 1,000 visits. Embarrassingly, I forgot to link to my thesis.
[Update, 26th January 2012: now more than 1,000 people have read/used my thesis via Scribd.]
1: Evidently, she did read this.
2: Obviously, these numbers are not true statistics – one person could check out/download more than one thesis; and more than one person could read a checked-out/downloaded thesis. Also, the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University numbers seem to show how many PTDs were read at least once, but not how many times each PTD was read (so if 100 people read a PTD, they would be counted as 1).
3: The University of Sussex put my thesis online on the 26th of August 2011; the next day, I made the PDF available on Conflict Antiquities and elsewhere (and a month later, I produced a slim, black-and-white print copy).
4: Of course, there’s also immeasurable circulation. I know that my examiner’s supervisee left an examination copy of my thesis in the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute (CAARI) library; but I don’t know if/how many people have read it. And I know that the official PDF of my thesis is circulating via e-mail; but I don’t know how many recipients have read it, or passed it on to others.
5: I’m not saying “paper’s bad”, or that electronic publication/storage should replace physical archiving; I’m just looking at access to, and the spread of, information at the moment.
6: It’s worth noting that CAARI’s library is cheap, but still pay-to-access; and there is not even a copy in the library of the Archaeological Research Unit (ARU) of the University of Cyprus (UCY), let alone one in the library of Eastern Mediterranean University (EMU).
7: I’m not saying they will; I’m just saying they can.
[Ecclestone’s comment inserted, and post extended to discuss wider implications, on the 8th of January 2012; blog hits noted on the 11th of January 2012; links to thesis added on the 13th of January 2012.]