The Role of Electronic Theses and Dissertations (ETDs) in Furthering Research in India
Submission of a thesis marks an important milestone in the life of a research scholar. The award of the degree depends on the submission of a thesis/dissertation by the student, and it is often read only by a small group of people—the student themselves, supervisor, external examiner(s), fellow lab members, and collaborators.
But, what is the fate of this gigantic document once the student has graduated? Can other researchers across the globe access the valuable insights presented in a thesis? What is the role of technology in making the original oeuvre of a research scholar globally available and accessible?
AuthorCafé’s recent webinar aimed to answer these questions.
The webinar was moderated by Dr. Savita Ayyar, Founder of Jaquaranda Tree, and a consultant with AuthorCafé. The esteemed panelists*—Prof. Girish Ratnaparkhi, Prof. Vijaysekhar Chellaboina, Dr. Moumita Koley, Dr. Sridhar Gutam, and Dr. Danny Kingsley—shared their valuable thoughts and perspectives on electronic theses and dissertations.
Prof. Ratnaparkhi and Prof. Chellaboina, shared philosophical and academic views, whereas technological and policy perspectives were highlighted by Dr. Koley, Dr. Gutam, and Dr. Kingsley.
Prof. Ratnaparkhi describes a thesis/dissertation as a personal account/diary of a student, to which all other panelists couldn’t agree more. His take on the Ph.D. journey was a philosophical one, as he himself quoted multiple times, and to us, it made perfect sense! A Ph.D. student is like an apprentice, who after 5–8 years of training, goes from being a sheep lost in the meadow to the master of a particular subject.
The knowledge output produced by a Ph.D. student is like a drop of water that makes up the ocean of knowledge that there is.
When he was asked by Dr. Ayyar about how knowledge can be made accessible to all, his was an all-inclusive response that knowledge is mostly free, and databases are more-or-less accessible except for the pay-walled journals. He cited an example of PLOS journals, which are moving away from full-text pdfs to clickable figures, which is already a step forward towards data availability and accessibility.
Prof. Chellaboina started by giving a brief account of how the view of dissertations has evolved over time. In the past, the dissertation was the most important documentation for a research scholar, and papers used to be published post-dissertation. However, currently, the focus has shifted towards publishing (a couple of) papers first, which in themselves are considered valid pieces of work. In fact, some universities allow students to submit their research paper manuscripts as the chapters of their thesis.
While papers are concise, often bound by the word limits imposed by journals, only specifying the key ideas, theses have no such formal restrictions. This is why the content of theses is expected to be padded with the minutest of details, especially including failed endeavors. The purpose of documenting research is to enable fellow and future researchers to build upon it because it does not make sense to keep reinventing the wheel.
Failed endeavors form a crucial part of any work: these are definitely not expected to go into papers.
ETDs are particularly handy as content such as codes and programs can be made accessible via links. Recalling the good old days, Prof. Chellaboina shed light on the era of microfiche archived copies, which used to be shared in the past via mail (not email). These are of course obsolete now.
We know that today’s research forms the foundation of tomorrow’s science and technology. The more rigorous and detailed the research documentation is, the more convenient it would be for others to reproduce it. Of course, one needs to be mindful of the potential scooping and patent spoilers before the patents are finalized!
The national policy perspective on the accessibility of theses and dissertations was beautifully covered by Dr. Koley. She set the tone for the policy perspective on sharing (of natural resources and knowledge) through the work of Prof. Elinor Ostrom, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, on theories of natural resources commons and knowledge commons. The latter necessitated the need for sharing scientific knowledge for the benefit of the community, which is why it is crucial to embrace the open science philosophy.
In the Indian context of open science, the Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy clearly mentions that open access and open data from publicly-funded research should be freely available for everyone to use. But, the implementation of such a policy is challenging. This is where ETDs in India can contribute to Open Science.
The competitive structure of the research ecosystem, constraints from pay-walled journals, and stricter intellectual property protection, was reiterated by her as it hampers the growth of scientific knowledge. The theses in institutional repositories may be difficult to access for various reasons. Some may even be locked if they contain sensitive information such as patent-worthy research. Here, ETDs could come to the rescue by allowing the locking of only the patent-worthy material; after all, ETDs are electronic, and they do not have static text: they support various electronic formats, text, images, and multimedia as well!
ETDs can enable accessibility, transparency, reproducibility, and reliability. In terms of implementation, the one-model-fits-all-data approach does not work, and therefore institutional policies can be incorporated within ETDs.
Data reproducibility and research repeatability are major concerns, which is why a change is required in the research culture itself. Interesting food-for-thought questions were raised: why publish papers in journals when publishing an entire thesis in ETDs would do? The end purpose would still be served this way, so why not change the mindset and focus on the broader vision of open science via the dissemination of original work to the community.
So, as Dr. Koley mentioned, through technology and policies, we can make strides from Open Science 1.0 to Open Science 2.0. This has multi-fold benefits: the culture of publish-or-perish may be resolved. Students would be able to focus better on doing good science rather than being pressured into producing publish-worthy results. The chances of data manipulation, which arise from the pressure of getting high-impact publications, are also anticipated to drop.
Dr. Gutam briefly touched upon his days of thesis writing when he had access to only the theses available in the university library, but thanks to digitalization, present scholars can access theses available on the web at the click of a button. Talking about electronic formats, why should theses and dissertations be available only as pdfs and not in more conveniently accessible and clickable HTML and XML formats?
The latter would not only enhance interoperability but also facilitate data mining. Dr. Gutam emphasized the need for researchers to learn and adapt to the latest technologies that would facilitate handling, accessing, and sharing of resources, for which support from librarians and IT teams becomes indispensable.
Shodhganga and KrishiKosh are Indian ETD repositories wherein digital copies of Indian theses and dissertations are deposited.
Dr. Gutam further emphasized that ETDs should be made more open by integrating policies, technological involvement, and capacity building. Of course, the authors, being the owners of the theses, have to consent to their institutions to openly share their research oeuvre first!
The final panelist Dr. Kingsley addressed the motivation for ETDs by first sharing a brief history of how digitalization has not only helped in making theses/dissertations available in Australia but has also reduced the manual labor in maintaining records. The University of Cambridge, in 2015, started digitizing the theses/dissertations in the library catalog and depositing them in an accessible repository, which was indexed and hence Google-searchable and findable.
“We had made Stephen Hawking’s thesis available a year before, so obviously that broke the internet. And, that was obviously our most downloaded thesis, but that’s a bit of an outlier. So, we took the next most downloaded thesis. …And, that had been downloaded about 450,000 times. …Open access theses are the most used material in libraries. …In the ten years that it had been existing before we made it available online, no one had looked at it, and once we made it online available, open access, it had been downloaded 450,000 times! …It is ludicrous not to do this (make theses/dissertations open access online).” Dr. Kingsley
It is imperative to bring up the FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable) data principles for making research available. Technology and policy go hand in hand to achieve this feat.
Ultimately, theses/dissertations are a fantastic key to opening conversations with the academic community. When asked about how sensitive research material can be dealt with in the context of EDTs, she comprehensively explained that such materials could be either redacted in theses or put in the addenda (which would be locked, while the theses would be open access). For the work intended to be patented, the workflow for depositing theses in the repository would be different from the rest.
If accepted worldwide, what might be the future of ETDs, one may wonder! The sky’s the limit, so why not have an archive with beyond-the-text documentation such as PowerPoint presentations? In the words of Prof. Chellaboina:
“We are talking about a young generation that uses videos for their resume. …I think we need to archive all these aspects of the research work in a format that is accessible to every part of the world… This will add a lot of value in terms of progressive science…”
As is evident, this webinar on ETDs ended on a positive note with a lot of learnings and food for thought. And, these are closely aligned with the broader vision of AuthorCafé—engaging with the research community.
The panelists for the webinar were
- Prof. Girish Ratnaparkhi, Associate Professor and Dean (Academic), IISER Pune
- Prof. Vijaysekhar Chellaboina, Professor and Dean of Engineering, GITAM
- Dr. Moumita Koley, STI Policy Researcher, DST-Centre for Policy Research, IISc
- Dr. Sridhar Gutam, Senior Scientist, ICAR – Indian Institute of Horticultural Research
- Dr. Danny Kingsley, Associate Librarian, Flinders University
The article expresses the opinions of attendees at the AuthorCafé webinar.