Image from Flickr user ginnerobot

For a while now, I’ve been listening in on discussion in Digital Humanities about the pros and cons of digital dissertations. From Seventeen Moments in Soviet History to a master’s thesis on composer Henry Cowell, my colleagues have promoted the digitization of dissertations in the humanities.

The discussion of the benefits of open-access (in concert with the “security dangers” of the same) has played a big role in departmental, institutional, and online discussions among scholars. For a review of this issue, see GradHacker’s recent post on access to dissertations. But that’s not the topic of this post. My question is:

What about the social and natural sciences?

If the discussion to move into the digital age with theses and dissertations is happening in the sciences, maybe it’s just not happening online. As you can see from UMass Amherst’s list of open access dissertations, a variety of departments are represented, including Polymer Science and Engineering. But this site merely allows the download of pdf dissertations, a soft copy just like the hard copy no one’s reading in the library.

I’m interested in creating a complex digital dissertation that includes my collected data as a searchable database. But there are a myriad of questions that follow, aside from plenty of formatting issues. Can I offer my references as a Zotero public collection? Are there institutional copyright laws on data collected from materials they own – in my case, a skeletal collection? How will such a digital dissertation be forward migrated when its platform is outmoded in 5, 10, 20 years? Possibly most critically:

If I’m going to put in the energy to create a better dissertation by making it digital – and still include all relevant data, tables, and text – should I still have to produce a brick-like manuscript?

These are topics that I’ll try to hash out over time and report back on as I find answers (or make decisions if there’s no precedent!) Unfortunately, I think the answer at the university and the department level to the last question will be, “Yes, you still have to write a ‘real’ dissertation even if you make a better one in the Series of Tubes.”

However, one answer to the forward migration question, which also entails where a digital dissertation is hosted, might be found in the previously mentioned music master’s thesis is that you can click through to the website OR download the dissertation in html form. Unfortunately, Michigan State trails behind other large American universities and lacks an institutional repository for even pdfs of theses and dissertations.

Perhaps the archaeologists in the audience will be able to help out with this discussion and exploration. As a social science with plenty of hard, quantitative data, how are your peers tackling the dissertation?

Do you think this can be an individual battle with a dissertation committee? What are the benefits of bringing the fight to a bigger audience to forge a path for ‘alternative’ dissertations?