Report on the 2011 Inaugural United States Electronic Theses and Dissertations Association (USETDA) Conference
James RW MacDonald
The inaugural conference of the United States Electronic Theses and Dissertations Association (USETDA) was held in Orlando, Florida, May 18-20, 2011. Themes from the conference are discussed, including Copyright and Publication, ETD Workflow, and ETD Preservation and Discovery.
The inaugural conference of the United States Electronic Theses and Dissertations Association (USETDA) was held in Orlando, Florida, May 18-20, 2011. The conference drew over 100 participants from 3 nations (U.K., Canada) and delegates representing 30 states. The conference organizers amazed attendees with the quality of the program. The two and a half day conference featured three excellent plenary addresses, pre-conference workshops, and 23 concurrent sessions, as well as vendor displays, poster sessions and several social events.
Held in the Holiday Inn at Walt-Disney World, the conference managed a little Disney magic when it came to costs. The conference hotel was more than affordable at 95 dollars per night and was matched by an equally affordable conference registration fee of 95 dollars. An optional additional 25 dollars secured attendees an individual membership in the USETDA. In terms of quality the conference far exceeded the cost. Undoubtedly, the conference sponsors had much to do with the affordability of the conference.
The complete conference proceedings are available online at the USETDA conference website.
The conference held concurrent sessions making it impossible to attend everything. Despite that, several dominant themes pervaded the conference: copyright and publication, workflow management and preservation.
Copyright and Publication
Copyright and publication were major themes of this conference. Two of the plenary speakers addressed aspects of copyright and open access publication. Georgia Harper, the Scholarly Communications Advisor at the University of Texas at Austin Libraries spoke concerning "...the mounting evidence that we are, in fact, offered more protection [in terms of copyright] than we need or want, and that overprotection actually can interfere with the achievement of our goals..." Harper's address had a tone of common sense and urged for less panic regarding the ins and outs of copyright law.
Greg Grossmeier, Copyright Specialist at the University of Michigan Library and a fellow with Creative Commons, followed Harper on the second day of the conference with a similar discussion and approach to copyright. Grossmeier took participants through a whirlwind tour of copyright legislation in the United States and followed it up with a better way, Creative Commons. Grossmeier urged the conference to educate their students on the benefits of Creative Commons licenses.
A lively recurring discussion and debate came up in several of the concurrent sessions on the position some publishers take to not publish dissertations in book form when they are available via open access in an institutional repository. Anecdotally, it was observed that some publishers took this stance because libraries were unlikely to purchase a published dissertation if the content is substantially unchanged from the original open access copy. Nevertheless, publishing an academic monograph remains a keystone of academic achievement, and some conference participants speculated whether encouraging open access publication of theses and dissertation would stifle the careers of our future academics. On the other hand, many participants wondered aloud whether traditional benchmarks of academic success, the old "publish or perish" model, is in need of change.
The greatest benefit of electronic theses and dissertations is the increased exposure and access brought to these valuable works. During this inaugural USETDA conference it was no surprise that topics of formal and casual conversation revolved around issues of copyright, ownership, access and publication.
Developing an efficient ETD office was another major theme of the conference. Several sessions outlined workflow management strategies for moving ETDs through the pre- and post-defense process. In a day of smartphones, online airline check-ins and automated banking it seems odd that managing the ETD submission process so often relies on using cut and paste stock email notifications, Microsoft® Word templates and folder naming conventions. Several conference sessions, including Angela McCutcheon's pre-conference session "How to Create a Highly Functional ETD Office," outlined various excellent techniques for managing the torrent of paper work involved with processing ETDs. Some examples of workflow management practicalities include: using dual computer monitors to easily compare documents, creating detailed workflow manuals for ETD office staff, and creating stock emails.
While aspects of ETD workflow management have been automated for ETD staff, for example by Proquest's UMI administrator for working with post-defense theses for submission to Proquest, this attendee was unable to discover anyone at the conference utilizing a truly end-to-end workflow management tool for ETDs. The vendor fair was relatively sparse but featured several notable companies with solutions for digitizing at least portions of the ETD process: Proquest's UMI ETD administrator tool, Bepress' Digital Commons and Eprints. Many attendees fantasized about a future paperless office with dedicated software to manage the ETD workflow process.
Proquest's UMI Administrator software for managing the post-defense workflow was a big hit at the conference. And well it should be, since the company will setup a custom instance for an institution and host it for free. Unfortunately, at this time, the well-developed tool only manages the post-defense submission process. For institutions with a submission module for their institutional repository, students are forced to input their metadata and upload their documents twice, once to their institutional repository or ETD workflow management module which passes it along to the institutional repository, and then a second time to Proquest's tool. To make matters worse outside of screen scraping Proquest does not provide any web services or APIs (application programing interfaces) to integrate an ETD workflow management module with their tool.
Tying together ETD software packages, both on the public and staff sides, to create a true end-to-end or pre-defense to dissemination tool is a worthy goal for this community. Concerning an efficient and well run ETD office Richard Pollenz said it best during his session; "This is the student's final experience with the school; it must be a positive one."
ETD Preservation and Discovery
There is little doubt that ETDs have increased the accessibility of these documents. Download statistics for ETDs from institutional repositories were compared with print circulation statistics in several sessions. One session reported an average of 284 downloads of ETDs compared to a generous average of one circulation for each print thesis. The ETD community, however, is not content to rest on their laurels. Conference attendees discussed ways to increase the visibility of student work. Many institutions still have cataloguers creating individual MARC catalogue records for their electronic theses. For the day when open standards will allow library catalogues and other search engines to harvest institutional repositories for these records, many believe the more robust hand coded record increases chances of discovery.
Once a thesis or dissertation makes its way through the graduate office workflow and off to the institutional repository, the library catalogue, Proquest, and beyond, questions of preservation and discoverability begin to arise. Lydia Motyka's presentation on the DAITSS (Dark Archive in the Sunshine State) software used by a consortium of Flordia state universities to preserve ETDs (among other works) highlighted issues of format migration. Lydia posed the question "what do you do when your file formats become obsolete?" Participants left with some great answers and at least one additional question; how to get students to submit their work not just as a PDF but as an archival standard PDF, PDF/a? Success in discovering that answer may shed some light on whether 100 or 200 years from now ETDs, as born digital documents, have died or thrived.
The USETDA conference brought together librarians and graduate studies professionals in an open and collaborative forum. Conference attendees networked during engaging sessions and excellent social events. Everything from the nuts and bolts of ETD workflow management to the foundations of scholarly communication and the "publish or perish" model was discussed. The conference organizers delivered an outstanding program at an affordable price. This inaugural event has set a positive precedent for the future of the association and the conference.
The author would like to thank the organizers of the 2010 Canadian ETD and Open Repositories Workshop and Carleton University for their generous travel grant to attend this conference.
About the Author