Thursday, January 31, 2008

Ethics and the Open Access Dissertation

Doctoral dissertations and master's theses have always been considered real, citable pieces of work (even if they aren't sufficient for the purposes of establishing new names). I've certainly cited some theses and dissertations in my own work, particularly if they represent the only printed evidence of a certain line of research. Yet, these academic products aren't necessarily considered as high impact or "important" as the final, independently peer-reviewed products that usually (hopefully) come out of the required document. For this reason, the lowly dissertation may get ignored - or worse.

The Internet (or at least, the paleo-nerd component of it) is abuzz about an article in the latest Nature (the discussion there includes links to additional information as well as statements from folks connected to the affair in various ways), alleging academic misconduct, at least some of which allegedly involved the. . .appropriation. . .of ideas from a master's thesis (among other alleged. . .incidents). The matter is reportedly under investigation by a relevant professional society. No bones about it - this is a serious situation Regardless of how things turn out in the end, or what actually happened, this is an issue about which every researcher must think carefully.

As a grad student, I want to put my money where my open access mouth is, to quote Dr. Vector. In (hopefully) a few short months, I'll be signing the line that makes my dissertation open access. Do I worry about being scooped? Maybe a little. . .but that's a risk I take by publishing an abstract or presenting at a conference, or even just talking to a colleague. Without these actions, science would certainly grind to a halt. And, getting my dissertation out there hopefully means I can mark my territory. But, the whole situation does make me think twice now.

So what can we do? One key step is to be extra, extra aware of what is happening in the grad student community. Although it is probably little solace to the grad student concerned, aetosaur workers might consider citing a certain M.Sc. thesis over articles published by other researchers (or at the very least, calling attention to the priority of ideas, if it's necessary to cite both). I generally try to do this anyhow, if an otherwise unpublished dissertation or thesis brings up some ideas that were later discussed (usually and hopefully independently) by other authors. UMI has a freely searchable database of dissertation titles and authors (the full abstract database requires a subscription, unfortunately) - it doesn't hurt to take a quick look to see if there is anyone that should be cited!

Increased communication brings with it increased productivity, as well as increased risk of skullduggery. VP is a small community, and it doesn't take long to acquire a good or bad reputation. Here's hoping for an ethical and uncontroversial future.


Anonymous said...

Andy: I say go for it. OA should deter plagiarism, for at least
two reasons. First, deposit in an OA repository puts a time-stamp on your
work, allowing you to establish priority over a plagiarist. Second, OA
makes work more visible and discoverable (say, by search engines), and
therefore makes any plagiarism more detectable. Smart plagiarists will
focus on non-OA literature, the more obscure the better. Making your
dissertation OA will benefit
you, your university, and other researchers in your field.

Andy said...

I completely agree - the more people have access to the literature, the easier it is to ferret out such problems and ensure that the proper researchers get the credit.

Mike Taylor said...

... except that Bill Parker and Jeff Martz DID both make their dissertations widely available. Didn't protect them.

Andy said...

Which then is the dilemma brought up in the original post. . .as many others have said in other forums, perhaps the worst, long-term consequence of this whole thing (aside from Parker and Martz losing priority and well-deserved credit for their work in the primary literature) is that many people are going to be much more hesitant to share their thesis or dissertation research prior to more formal publication.

The sad fact is that unethical researchers will steal ideas from conversations, emails, conference presentations, dissertations, theses, and rumors of a colleague's research. It's just more difficult to prove if there's not a dissertation document out there in the first place. . .And open access or not, most university libraries keep freely loanable copies of all their theses and dissertations. Just depositing a copy of this thesis constitutes a risk.

I am really hoping that the current investigation will serve as a strong deterrent and warning for the academic community, and that the Truth (with a capital T) will surface in the matter.

Masters Dissertation said...
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