Academic Scholarship in the Digital Age

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Academics stand on a precipice separating our past, where genres of communication evolved slowly, and our future, where new genres emerge overnight. Our concept of research, the authority of knowledge, and the shape of content are being radically challenged. Amazingly, we have difficulty imagining what dissertations or academic digital libraries will look like ten years from now. The shape of a dissertation is evolving from the first six-page, handwritten thesis at Yale University in 1860. Today's researchers and scholars are challenging the conventions of linear texts, one inch margins, and texts written for extremely narrow audiences. They are integrating video, audio, animation, and graphics. They are creating interactive elements, including real-time video, pivot tables, and online writing spaces. Graduate students are defending proposals and dissertations online. At some universities, students are even completing a dissertation without printing a word. Faculty are serving on dissertation committees at universities distant from their home campuses and using tools such as NetMeeting to mentor from a distance. Rather than accepting that their research and scholarship will be read only by a select few (i.e., their committees), graduate students can now expect many readers. Why? Because of digital libraries of ETDs—electronic theses and dissertations.

The term ETD refers to a master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation that is archived electronically. Most ETDs come in "plain vanilla" format—that is, as straight text loaded in a word processing or portable document format. Increasingly, though, ETDs are loaded in more technologically sophisticated formats, what Virginia Tech calls "whizbang" ETDs—that is, a collage of documents that include color images, streaming multimedia, animation, and interactive features.

Within the United States, thanks to Virginia Tech’s leadership over the past few years, over 60 research universities and professional organizations have joined the NDLTD (Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations), a consortium dedicated to improving graduate education by promoting digital libraries of electronic theses and dissertations. (For participating members, see The NDLTD has inspired significant work abroad through its workshops.  University leaders argue that requiring students to author electronic theses and dissertations (or offering it as an option) introduces graduate students, faculty, and libraries to electronic publishing. Digital libraries of theses and dissertations enable a university to distribute widely the intellectual work of its graduates and to introduce its students to the Knowledge Age. At Virginia Tech, for example, many popular theses and dissertations are available to the public electronically. In 1996 there were 25,829 requests for ETD abstracts and 4,600 ETD requests; by 1999 (January-August), there were over 143,056 requests for abstracts and 244,987 ETD requests. As of October 1999, the most popular ETD at VT had been requested over 75,000 times. The United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, Taiwan, France, and Malaysia are the world's top readers of ETDs (for more information about VT's Scholarly Communications Projects, click here.).

In Germany, where publication of the dissertation is a requirement, five research universities and the German National Library are working collaboratively to facilitate ETDs. In Canada, the University of Waterloo, the University of Toronto, York University and the National Library of Canada are working collaboratively to streamline their digital library of ETDs. England's national ETD research is undertaken by the University Theses Online Group.  In turn, the Australian Digital Theses (ADT) Project is a collaborative project between seven Australian universities: The University of New South Wales (UNSW, lead institution), Australian National University, Curtin University of Technology, Griffith University, University of Melbourne, University of Queensland and University of Sydney. Austria's online ETD work can be accessed at  In Africa, Felix Ubogu at Rhodes University is leading the "Database of African Theses and Dissertations" (DATAD) project.  (For more information about these and related initiatives, see

Some American universities are working independently of the NDLTD to develop their own digital libraries of ETDs. For example, in his proposal to present at the March 16-18th symposium on ETDs, Larry Stone offers this update regarding MIT’s digital library in his abstract for the upcoming symposium on ETDs:

The MIT Digital Thesis Library has been available since autumn 1998, growing at a rate of ten to twenty titles each week. Virtually nothing has been done to advertise or promote it other than linking from the MIT Libraries Web site. It is currently used by patrons from all over the world, and it has been linked by Yahoo, the Internet Scout project, and even USA Today. The average usage is about 6,000 requests per day, 4,000 of which are individual page images. (

Presently Virginia Tech and West Virginia University are the only two American universities that require students to submit theses and dissertations electronically. As of August, 1999, Virginia Tech held the world's largest collection of ETDs: 2070 ETDs.  Virginia Tech's digital library provides links to 758 ETDs with unrestricted access and 514 ETDs with access restricted to VT only. At last year’s conference on ETDs, sponsored by Virginia Tech, approximately a half dozen schools reported that they expect to make ETDs a mandatory requirement for graduation.  The University of Texas at Austin, which grants more Ph.Ds than any other American university, is working toward making ETD s a mandatory requirement for graduation in May of 2001 (see Leibowitz, 2000).

Despite the success of Virginia Tech and West Virginia University, many schools find strong resistance to requiring or even recommending ETDs. Even at MIT, Kevin Glavash reports in his proposal for the upcoming ETD symposium that only about a third of the students appear enthusiastic about publishing their research electronically. For many students, ETDs initially sound like yet another hurdle. In addition, students and graduate mentors worry that publication of a thesis or dissertation constitutes publication, which could dissuade print publishers from publishing derivative books or articles.  In response, members of the NDLTD typically allow students to restrict access to their theses and dissertations for a given time to the university’s campus. Some publishers have officially pointed out that they do not typically publish dissertations; instead, they publish revisions and that dissertations are already published by UMI (now Bell and Howell).  Clearly, for those in the trenches, while we know ETDs are an inevitable part of our future, we also know troubled waters are ahead.  As an example, let me share a brief story about our ETD initiative at the University of South Florida.  This story illustrates the difficult faculty development issues intertwined in discussions regarding the evolution of scholarship.

The Graduate Council: Notes from the Back Burner

I knew I was in trouble even before the Chair of the Graduate Council opened the door: we were asked to wait outside. Forty-five minutes later, we entered the room and were handed a copy of the agenda. We were surprised to see that our presentation was described as "New Business."

My colleague, Monica Metz-Wiseman, and I have been working our campus for over three years to develop electronic theses and dissertations.  Monica has directed the library's task force while I've directed the university-wide faculty task force on ETDS.  We were going to the meeting to get the new Graduate Council’s continued support for our ongoing effort to require electronic theses and dissertations at the graduate level. From our perspective, this was old business. 

When the Chair of the committee finally opened the door, one of my colleagues rushed over to greet me. "If you ask me," he whispered, "we should be writing with quills." There were about twenty people crammed into the small room. They wore coats, ties, and business suits. They looked hot, harried, stressed.  While we introduced ourselves, a pile of paper starting moving around the room. From everyone’s stares, I could see it was an important package. As I passed the package off to the person sitting next to me, I briefly glimpsed its contents, and I was surprised to see it was "Proposals for Graduate Certificates" rather than our material. We’d been given twenty minutes, so we’d allotted about 10 minutes to informing the committee about our ETD initiative via PowerPoint (see Graduate Council 1), and then ten minutes for questions. Our presentation was brief and to the point: we strongly recommended requiring all graduate students to submit their theses and dissertations to a digital library.

The discussion part of our time became surprisingly contentious.  Unlike the previous Graduate Council, this group was less receptive to our ETD initiative, addressing numerous concerns:

 "If this is such a great idea," a professor wondered, "why aren’t they doing it at the University of Chicago?"

"Paper is the only reliable archive we have," argued another professor. "We cannot allow solely electronic dissertations, no matter what the other universities do."

 "I think we should keep to paper. Have you ever tried to read anything on a 5 inch floppy? It’s maddening. We can’t trust technology."

Monica and I were surprised by the heated response to our presentation. It quickly became apparent to us that the new Graduate Council, unlike the Graduate Council that had favored our work in the previous year, wasn't enthused.  However, now, as I look back on this meeting, I realize we shouldn't have been so surprised. The transformation from the printed word to the online word is a gigantic leap. New authoring spaces—created by the Internet, multimedia software, and the digital libraries—are challenging our concept of research and scholarship. We are all struggling to find our direction in the shifting sands of the digital age. My colleagues are wise to take the time necessary to reflect on where we want to go and how technology can help us get there.  Moving from printed, linear texts to multimedia dissertations is a sea change and we cannot expect this transition to be all that smooth--particularly at a huge campus such as USF.

Concluding Comments on the Future of Academic Scholarship

Predicting the future of academic scholarship is a little like predicting the stock market: it is volatile, unpredictable. Perhaps an adolescent girl is working away at an invention that will transform communication. But right now, I do believe I can identify a number of upcoming trends:

Dissertations will matter more than they have in the past. Thanks to digital libraries, which ramp up access from one or two readers to as many as 60,000, students and universities will pay greater attention to the quality of students' research and writing. 

Along with greater access, both students and universities may begin to pay greater attention to the quality of scholarly writing.

Progressive universities will use their digital libraries of ETDs to market their programs, and universities will provide the resources students need to write multimedia research. 

Multimedia documents will transform author-reader relations.  For example, authors can interact synchronously with readers, create different reading paths for different readers, and use visuals, animation, and pivot tables. 

Students will search worldwide the digital libraries of ETDs, resulting in research that is more collaborative and more current.

Across disciplines, students will provide links that clarify the significance, methodology, and findings to multiple audiences, including lay audiences, thereby helping the general public better understand the value of academic scholarship. For example, students in the social sciences can incorporate video of cultures and primary subjects; they can create polyvocal case studies and ethnographies—that is, studies with alternative interpretations.

Faculty members will work more collaboratively with students, resulting in more complete bibliographies and saved time.

Faculty and graduate students will work more regularly with software development companies (e.g., the USF-Microsoft Corporation project).

As these predictions suggest, technology does more than provide new ways to communicate: technology transforms who we are and how we construct knowledge.  The Internet, digital libraries of theses and dissertations, and multimedia software create many new questions regarding how we train graduate students, what resources we need to provide, how to enhance readability, how much of a dissertation can be video or graphics, how committees interact with students. In St. Petersburg, Florida, March 16-18th, ETD leaders from throughout the world are gathering to explore needed research, practical implementation strategies, and model faculty development programs and samples of new media research.  We invite you to join us.


Leibowitz, Wendy R. (2000). U. of Texas Says It May Require Digital Dissertations. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
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