Should graduate theses and dissertations be sold for profit? This is the enigma currently troubling both the National Library and graduate student associations across Canada.
The issue arose when a member of the Canadian Historical Association's Graduate Student Committee found her master's thesis for sale on the American Web site www.contentville.com. This finding led graduate students throughout the country to re-examine the licensing agreements they had signed with their universities.
"Our main concern is that these theses and dissertations are being sold by a third party for profit, without students having a choice to bring to it," said University of Calgary Graduate Students' Association Vice-president External Monique Tuffs.
A copy of all published Canadian theses and doctoral dissertations is sent to the National Library for storage. As set out in a mandatory non-exclusive licensing agreement, the library then contracts out the microfilming of these documents so that they can be made available to the academic community through interlibrary loans. In order to keep costs low for both parties, the microfilm contractor, UMI Dissertations Publishing, a division of Bell & Howell Information and Learning, is permitted to sell copies of the theses for a profit.
"In most cases, it was a surprise [to students] that the theses were actually being sold, that it was not just in the academic community," said Director of Bibliographic Services to the National Library David Balatti. "On our side, we were very much concerned about this because we have tried to be very forthright about what we are doing in the program. We actually do have a document that we issue at the time that the student submits the thesis explaining what's going to happen to their thesis."
Students feel that the sale of theses for profit violates their intellectual property rights and results in a loss of power over the distribution of their writings.
"It's an issue of control really; if we had control over it then there would not be an issue," said Tuffs. "If we had an option to opt out then it would not be an issue."
Tuffs explains that the licensing agreement is somewhat unclear.
"It's a very vague document," she said. "We were told that you have to sign them, and later we were told you don't have to sign them, but if you look at the graduate studies calendar it says that it is policy that we have to sign. As it stands right now, you can delay the process of the thesis going to the National Library
for two years but not very many students know about that option."
Tuffs added that the agreement does not take into account the easy distribution of information through new mediums like the Internet.
Balatti agreed that changes must be made to account for these changes.
"We are at the point now where decisions have to be made about how we
are going to handle electronic theses," he explained. "There are a number of issues here that are of great concern for which there are no easy answers. There's been a lot of discussion and the National Library in partnership with a couple of other organizations is hosting a national discussion of this issue. We're very optimistic that we will come out of the meeting with a clear sense of what the Canadian academic community wants from the National Library in terms of such a program."
Until these decisions can be made at this national conference between the National Library and graduate student associations, the Web site in question, www.contentville.com, has been asked to remove Canadian theses from their database.