_Due to a reporting error this article incorrectly stated that Nancy Schoonmaker, a recent Ph.D. graduate of UNC’s history department, organized a conference to discuss her objections to the graduate school’s dissertation policy. A conference was planned by one of the presses considering publishing Schoonmaker’s work to discuss the ramifications of mandatory open access. The article has been changed to reflect this correction. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the error. _
After years of self-funded research and travel, Nancy Gray Schoonmaker, a recent Ph.D. graduate of the University’s history department, was finished.
In spring 2010, she had finally completed a more than 700-page dissertation about spiritualists in the 19th-century South.
But when Schoonmaker filed her intent to graduate, she learned a harsh lesson: the University owned her dissertation — and the right to publish and reproduce it for free through UNC Libraries.
“Currently, in order to graduate you must check a box stating that you allow your dissertation to be published online,” said Laura Blue, president of the Graduate and Professional Student Federation, in an email.
By checking this box, masters and doctoral degree candidates grant UNC a license to publish and reproduce their thesis or dissertation in the University’s library database. The general public can then search for these published documents at no cost.
But graduate students are working to reform this graduation requirement, which they view as a hurdle in the process of publishing their dissertations elsewhere.
The problem is felt most by history students who are working toward publishing books but is less relevant to science students, who benefit from having their work put online, students said.
“A lot of us are afraid that it will be harder for us to publish things if it’s already out there in electronic version for anyone to find,” said Anna Krome-Lukens, a history student and GPSF secretary.
Steve Matson, dean of the graduate school, said he is aware of some student concerns, but pointed to an option in which students may request that their dissertations remain private until one year after graduation.
Under this option, the dissertation will be published online for full access by the general public after the embargo period has ended.
Krome-Lukens said she thinks there are two pressing problems with the option.
Information about the embargo is scarce, vague and difficult to find, she said. And one year is not enough, she said.
“Ideally students would be able to request an embargo of three, four or five years,” she wrote in an email.
As she neared graduation in 2010, Schoonmaker said she protested the policy once it came to her attention.
“I objected strenuously and in writing, but was basically told that the University owns my work and I had no recourse but to accede if I wished to graduate,” she wrote in an email.
Because her research had been funded personally — and not by grants — Schoonmaker said she thought it was unfair that the University could display her work in a free and public database.
“Had I been aware that the University planned to give my work to any and all at no charge, I would have written a very different and much shorter dissertation so I could protect much of my research for future projects,” she said.
Schoonmaker expressed her objections in a conference planned by a press considering publishing her dissertation, but she said the University still has a long way to go in addressing them.
Although other history students said they have also found the University’s publishing requirements problematic, Blue, a chemistry student, said the policy is not all bad.
“It promotes the good research that is occurring on campus and can draw prospective students here. There also may be some archival value,” she said.
Matson also stressed the benefits of the system.
“The submission of dissertations electronically makes it much easier for dissertations to appear online,” he said. “The archive will be more condensed and will last longer.”
The dissertation embargo policy differs slightly from other universities’ offerings for graduate students.
At Pennsylvania State University, graduate students have three choices: open access, limited restriction for two years or complete restriction for two years. After the two-year period is over, all dissertations become open to the public.
“Journals have come around to accepting the fact that dissertations are submitted online these days,” said Pauletta Leathers, editorial assistant in the university’s thesis office.
At the University of Virginia, students have the option of copyrighting their thesis prior to submission.
Matson said he, like Blue and Krome-Lukens, wants the policy to be fair.
“We want the electronic dissertation process to be clear, fair and to follow established practice,” Matson said. “We want students to believe the process represents them well.”
Contact the University Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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