Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Aetosaurs and the Open Access Dissertation

It's done. The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology has weighed in on allegations of plagiarism and claim-jumping centered on those spiny aetosaurs. The end verdict is "not guilty" on one charge and "inconclusive" on the other (but please read it for yourself), and I won't comment here where others have already (summarized here). I do wish to discuss, however, one point from the official SVP document that has not been addressed elsewhere.

"Sixth, the expectation that theses and dissertations that have not been republished in widely read periodicals will be read by most workers or manuscript reviewers is unlikely to be realized. If students publish material in theses or dissertations that they intend to republish in other venues, they should be wary about circulating their work until publication is well under way, if they are concerned that their work is topical enough that other workers might want to draw immediately from their findings." [p. 3 of SVP executive committee statement; italics are my own]

My main concern here is with the statement that it's unlikely that dissertations and theses will be read by other workers. This may have been true 20 years ago - today, this is changing very rapidly. You can find dissertations on Google Scholar, Dissertation Express, Theses Canada Portal, and DATRIX, just to name a few (although it's admittedly easier on some of these options than others). UMI now offers the option to distribute your dissertation under an open access scheme (with options for an embargo, for those concerned about such things). I have chosen to release my dissertation on open access (and will update here when my dissertation is readily available). Searching for dissertations and theses on a research topic should be part of any basic literature search (although whether or not this would have avoided the problems leading to the ethics investigation is certainly debatable).

The responsibility runs both ways. Students have an obligation to ensure that their thesis or dissertation is available and accessible via the information superhighway. This means making it available through relevant databases (and UMI's dissertations and theses have been crawled by search engines since 2006, apparently, with more complete access since 2007), and in most cases could [?should?] probably entail open access (with or without embargo). All paleontologists have a responsibility, too - to keep on top of the literature and other researchers' work. Even without a search engine, it wouldn't take a genius to figure out that a student who has had one or more conference presentations on thesis-y sounding research may have a thesis in his or her name on that topic. And with a search engine, there really is less of an excuse now. Sure, there will still be dissertations that slip through the cracks - but is this any different from not finding a peer-reviewed article just because it was in a journal outside your normal reading list? So--make those dissertations and theses available, and spend a few minutes on Google!

[This discussion is not intended to comment on the correctness or incorrectness of the SVP's general ruling about the charges. As Kevin Padian said, "There’s something for everyone to like – and dislike – about the statement. . ." I'm just calling attention to an area that fits in nicely with the mission of this blog.]


Sarah Werning said...

Excellent post!

Another thought: with virtually every US university library catalog online, it's no problem to request any dissertation or thesis produced in the United States via interlibrary loan. I agree that dissertations and theses should be shared openly (and I will be posting my MS in full online when I get back from the field). But even if one wanted to follow the suggestion about being careful sharing your unpublished thesis, it would be impossible. With UMI submission required for dissertations at most schools and interlibrary loans so easy these days, sharing your dissertation or thesis is unavoidable these days.

The internet has fundamentally changed everything, and I suspect some members of the academic old guard have yet to realize this.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with the recently publicized claim that luck was the reason dinosaurs survived longer (about 200 million years longer?) than aetosaurs (both lived together for about 30 million years before aetosaurs went kaput). I think the real reason may be that dinosaurs even at that early time were walking/running on 2 feet, such as coelophyis, followed later by the tyranOsaurs. And even the 4 legged big herbivourous dinosaurs such as brontosaurus, had a long neck on a big body. This all means that these 2 legged, standing dinosaurs, and huge long necked 4 legged herbiverous dinosaurs could see much farther, owing to standing or long necks on huge bodies - and seeing much farther was a competetive advantage over the low-to-the-ground 4 legged aetosaurs. Being able to see much farher let those dinosaurs see food sources at a greater distance, as well as enemies to avoid. That surely was a big advantage over the aeotsaurs. How could it just be luck?

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