Steve Sachs Duke


Monday, June 02, 2003


A book is a terrible thing to waste. I recently had my first experience working in Duke Humfrey's Library, the special collections wing of Oxford's Bodleian library system. I went there a few days ago in search of a doctoral dissertation written in 2001. However, when I went to the desk to collect it, I was somewhat surprised by the procedure. Before the library staff allows patrons to view an Oxford dissertation, they require you to sign the following statement:

"I recognise that the copyright of this thesis rests with the author and that no quotation from it or information derived from it may be published without the prior written consent of the author."

The author of each dissertation signs a similar statement, agreeing to deposit a copy in the Bodleian and noting that this non-disclosure agreement will be enforced on all those reading it.

This requirement puzzles me. I can certainly understand a limit on republication of the work, for reasons of copyright. What I wonder is, wouldn't a general rule of non-disclosure be entirely counter to the purposes of scholarship? If the University is going to retain theses in its libraries, rather than destroy them, it's presumably doing so to facilitate their use by other scholars. But why would it then handicap those scholars, prohibiting them from quoting or deriving conclusions from a dissertation without the author's written permission?

There are only two situations I can think of where an author might reasonably deny such permission. First, the author could be embarrassed by some language used in the dissertation or some of the conclusions reached. But a dissertation is a pretty public thing anyway; it will be read and reviewed by a panel of academics, some of them less friendly than others. If you're not willing to subject your ideas to scrutiny, you probably shouldn't submit them in the first place.

Second, the author might intend to publish a book based on the dissertation, and would be unwilling to have his or her most important conclusions leaked to the academic community beforehand. In this situation, a dissertation is viewed as an unpublished manuscript to which scholars are briefly granted access as a favor, and it would be impolite of them to publish information or to quote from it and thereby steal the author's thunder. But why should the role of scholars consulting the dissertation be viewed in such a condescending way? A discovery in a new dissertation would be appropriately cited; academic communities already have rules against plagiarism, and conclusions aren't given much weight anyway unless the evidence supporting them has been published. Moreover, there's nothing preventing a reader from stealing the author's ideas or approaches to the material--only "information" is protected. And in any case, this problem could be solved by limiting the restriction to a simple "grace period" (say, 2 years), during which authors would have the opportunity to publish their work unmolested.

One might argue that it's unfair to change the policy when the author expected his or her work to be examined only in privacy. But the University gets to set the policy; and if it chose to require all future dissertation authors to open their works to public scrutiny, it could. And there may be real value in opening up these works to others' eyes. Not all dissertations will be published, and not all dissertations will have their importance recognized at the time they are written. If a dissertation containing a significant and previously unknown piece of evidence has languished in obscurity for decades, why should a scholar who locates it and wishes to cite its conclusions have to hunt down the author to seek written permission? (And what do you do if the author's dead? Max Weber's doctoral dissertation--which, I should note, discusses commercial law in medieval Europe--has recently been translated and published, and early works by famous authors are always of biographical interest.)

I don't think these concerns would be limited to wild-eyed hackers, pirating DVDs and screaming "Information wants to be free!" Making good information more widely available is the essence of scholarship, and there are only a handful of academic sins greater than unnecessarily keeping books and ideas behind locked doors.

But perhaps my concern is more parochial in its origins. Living in the U.S., I've grown accustomed to our strong tradition of fair use--guaranteed by the copyright law and rooted in the First Amendment--especially when academic research is involved. Maybe I should have realized that things might be different in Britain, given that this country doesn't have any Bill of Rights. (And don't give me that "Human Rights Act 1998" line; is the Queen in Parliament still sovereign, or isn't she?) So when I see that the non-circulating New Bodleian has a total of two photocopiers, or that British copyright regulations allow academics to copy only "5% [of a book] or one complete chapter, whichever is the greater," I start remembering why we fought the American Revolution.

The worst thing about the dissertation agreement, by the way, is that the restrictions are absurdly broad. In the U.S., at least in the context of libel, "publication" can mean simply communicating the statements to a third person, and almost all information relating to a work is "derived" from it in some way. So, all in all, the prohibition seems to cover my telling you that in 2001, Lucy Allais wrote her D.Phil. dissertation on Kant. I derived that information straight from the dissertation itself (though I could also have derived it from the publicly available title, "An interpretation and defence of Kant's transcendental idealism"). If Oxford wants to do anything about it, they know where to find me.

(I'd add, "Put that in your gown and smoke it," but doing so would violate the terms of the Bodleian Oath.)




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© 2011 Stephen E. Sachs


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