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The electronic dissemination of research findings.


Research findings can now be published by anyone on the Web, but electronic journals are needed to provide scientific and scholarly filtration. Higher degree theses or dissertations are also being published electronically. This has created many new opportunities but also many insecurities over reduced access, foregone publication possibility and unwanted exposure and plagiarism. There are also technical issues confronting dissemination by electronic means, specifically, archival stability and dependency on still evolving software and technology, but the all-powerful reach of the electronic form is proving irresistible. However, the book and research paper printed on high quality paper will always be published for reasons of their intrinsic worth.


Traditionally, research findings were published in specialized journals, and these became the arenas for scientific and scholarly debate over evidence, methodology and validity. Early scientific and scholarly publication was by a body usually under the patronage of royalty, aristocracy, church or state, such as the Academie Francaise, established in 1635, or the British Royal Society, which began publishing its Proceedings in the 17th century. In America, the American Journal of Sociology began publication in 1895, as the first U.S. scholarly journal in its field. Each of these publishing bodies remained committed to the principle that research must be peer reviewed, as a guarantee of quality and authenticity. However, the process of traditional publication, with its necessarily long lead times for an exacting process, and the economic costs involved, has created a situation perceived by some to be one of "severe restriction" (Edmonds, 2000). There is another perceived problem that minority or unpopular viewpoints can be suppressed (Martin, 2001). The established journals have rejection rates sometimes as high as 90 per cent (Getz, 1997), but such is their indirect power that there is generally no difficulty in receiving submissions. In addition, individuals who wish to submit can experience problems of delay, as well as personal costs, a particularly severe problem for those in developing countries.

In contrast, in times of war and cold war, research is subject to high secrecy, as it has been in areas of intellectual property of great commercial value. It was the desire to break secrecy that led to the development of the world's first programmable electronic computer, the Colossus, in 1943 (Sale, 2005: 3).

The Electronic Dissemination of Research Findings

Since 1990, the Web has had a profound and still emerging effect on the process of research diffusion. The Web has become an extremely important medium of research and education as a primary means of disseminating research findings and information through digital libraries and electronic documents such as e-journals, e-print archives and online conference proceedings (Noruzi, 2004). In addition to these, there is the eprint (sometimes called preprint) server. The eprint has been defined as "any electronic work circulated by the author outside of the traditional publishing environment" (Garner, Horwood and Sullivan, 2001: 250). Eprints are posted on the Web, often on an established eprint server that has been set up for a particular disciple, such as education (Leeds EducatiON-LINE, 2006).Some of the eprints are peer reviewed; many are not, receiving comment and review after publication. It is possible for an author to update an eprint at any time, but earlier versions can be retained on the server. Work published electronically outside the traditional locations can achieve an enormous level of exposure at great speed and very little cost. An interesting development is the post-publication review whereby articles are published as received and then voted on for publication in a more prestigious electronic archive (Nadasdy, 1997). For academically orientated ejournals that publish original research, peer review remains a relevant requirement. The creation by the US National Institutes of Health of PubMed Central, which aims to put online all new biomedical research, has provoked a critical reaction from the New England Journal of Medicine, which has argued that this would not be in the public interest (Blume, 2000: 1), yet open source (that is, a source code available to the general public for use and/or modification from its original design free of charge), biomedical journals, such as Biology or The Journal of Free and Open Source Medical Computing (JFOSMC), are now well accepted as being within the public interest.

Many traditional publishers are reported to be seriously worried about a transition to electronic format, and are seeking to enter the new format. A growing number of multinational publishers who are now charging for access to their electronic journals. These include Elsevier, Springer, Thomson, Kluwer and Taylor and Francis, who are publishing research findings that are provided to them generally free of charge, and thus requiring individuals and institutions to buy this information. Many journals and many publishers now offer electronic versions of their journals and/or electronic access to their articles. Most university libraries offer access to restricted (e.g., subscription based) material from these publishers; other publishers have moved to open access.

The Budapest Open Access Initiative arose from a meeting convened in Budapest by the Open Society Institute (OSI) in 2001. The purpose of the meeting was to accelerate progress in the international effort to make research articles in all academic fields freely available on the Internet. The result was the Budapest Open Access Initiative, a valid response to this problem. A considerable number of existing prestigious scholarly print journals are also being produced electronically, and are available by subscription, such as the British Medical Journal (BMJ, 2006).

The fact that some electronic journals have failed to survive is a great disincentive to a scholar contemplating submission of their valuable research findings to an EJ. Cost is also a significantly influential factor: a printed publication is expensive to produce but the printed records lasts, while electronic publication is cheap but has a maintenance cost. Production costs can be reduced by the use of text editing software which will avoid the "tedious, time consuming and error prone" process of manual HTML markups (Sosteric, 1999) and therefore aid in ensuring continuity. The archiving of electronic documents is another on-going problem that will have to be managed before the electronic journal can assume a full role in the academic process (Task Force, 1996).

A major factor advancing the acceptance of electronic dissemination is the possibility of hyperlinking texts in an article to works cited in the same article, a quantum leap forward from the traditional reference lists of printed articles, though the transition to clickable links is still troubled with social, commercial and legal difficulties, not to mention the conceptual one of relevance. In addition to the desire of scholars to disseminate their findings, the call is now being made to scholars to meet an obligation to reach out to practitioners through the power of the electronic medium (Montgomery, Eddy, Jackson, Nelson, Reed, Stark and Thomsen, 2001). The fact that many potential recipients may be on the "wrong side of the digital divide" is a huge incentive to disseminate findings electronically. (Hudgins and Allen-Meares, 2004:270),

Electronic Theses and Dissertations

The thesis or dissertation is expected to be a substantial piece of original research. In some disciplines such as Fine Art and Music, the PhD thesis may include other formats of material such as works of art, craft and design, compositions, recordings of performances and even performances and exhibitions themselves. These will be supported by a written document contextualizing and explaining the body of work presented. The growing demand for professional doctorates and doctorates with a performance component has added impetus to calls for diversification of thesis presentation, as, for example, in the case of clinical skills which cannot adequately be reflected in a written thesis. The creation of professional doctorates has led to a widening of the definition of concepts of research to take in a wider range of issues, many of which require treatment in a form other than the written document. They also allow for a wider range of people to be involved in research work (Brennan, 1995) which is another important impulse towards implementation of new forms of thesis presentation. Moreover, the electronic submission and archiving of theses and dissertations has "...the potential to extend the work of the academy more deeply into the public sphere." (Lang, 2002): 686). In addition, the electronic thesis has enabled multi-media presentation of material as text graphics, animation and sound, in an integrated way. Until the mid 1990's, multimedia applications were uncommon due to the cost of the hardware required, but now nearly all PC's are capable of displaying video, as well as style sheets, linked Excel tables, animated menus, image maps, sound files and colour-ceded indexes allowing information to be organized in non-linear ways. However, because of the storage demands of multimedia applications, the most effective medium is the CD-Rom, thus providing a convenient physical unit for the library storage and use of a thesis that can now moreover easily include a practical component (Holtorf, 2003).

Theses and dissertations have been available on microfilm since 1938 when the American organization University Microform Corporation was set up in order to provide an archiving service using this medium. Since 1997, UMI, the former University Microforms, Inc, and now a division of Bell and Howell Corporation, has accepted electronic theses and dissertations in three categories: single file text document, compound document and CD-Rom. Single file text documents can be in Microsoft Word, Corel WordPerfect, Adobe Postscript or Adobe Acrobat (PDF). By 2000, UMI Dissertation Services was able to provide copies of over one million theses and dissertations, with more than 100,000 available as Adobe Acrobat files. After its receiving university has accepted it, the electronic thesis or dissertation (ETD) is forwarded to UMI, which then creates an Adobe Acrobat version of the file that it provides to the supplying university.

The concept of the ETD was first proposed in 1987 at a meeting between representatives of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), UMI, the University of Michigan, Soft Quad and Arbor Text, agreed to finance the development of the first Standardized General Markup Language (SGML) Document Type Definition (DTD) for this purpose. The meeting agreed to investigate problems of producing, archiving and access, in collaboration with faculty representatives. One of the main goals of the ETD Initiative was to encourage students to learn about electronic publishing and digital libraries and to apply that knowledge in the preparation and submission of their own ETDs, and to encourage universities in the process of building digital libraries with a view to making intellectual property available worldwide.

In 2001, the NDLTD had 185 members, being 161 member universities including 6 consortia and 24 other institutions, of these, 45 require (as distinct from accepting) ETDs (NDLTD, 2003). The institutional members include the Australian Digital Theses Program, the British Library, Dissertationene Outline (German National Project, UNESCO, and national bodies representing Belgium, Canada, India, Portugal, Sudan and Venezuela (link). In addition there are a number of study groups including the University Theses On-line Group (UTOG) of the U.K., Biomed Central, the CERN, (the European Laboratory of Particle Physics), and the University of Montreal Press (PUM), and Cybertheses, a consortium of six Quebec universities, with the collaboration of a university in each of France and Egypt. In addition to the NDLTD, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is another leading provider of EDTs. As well as the value of making the results of research available generally, the ETD has the special value of making them available to scholars in developing countries. This could help to overcome what has been called "...the systematic marginalization of (for example) Africa's intellectuals and their academic agenda." (Yankah, 1995: 7). In scientific and health related areas this need is particularly pressing.

Thus the motivations towards ETD of comprehensive versatility including lower costs of production and archiving, training potential and infinite accessibility, are thus ones that together lay down a challenge of powerful appeal to administrators, librarians, supervisors and students, (though in some disciplines more than others), but there are also some difficult issues to be resolved. Intellectual property is a major issue: does the posting of a thesis or dissertation on the Web constitute prior publication, thus negating future publication by an established traditional publishing house or scholarly journal? The second major issue is archival stability caused by the fragility of the medium and the incompatibility of software and hardware. These are generally solved by periodic refreshment where information is migrated from one hardware/software configuration to another. In addition to the problems of obsolescence and decay, there is the problem of deliberate and accidental corruption through viral infection. The technical problems are thus considerable, but are being solved by refreshment and critical fail-safe mechanisms, standardisation of formats, such as the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), Computer Aided Design (CAD) and Geographic Information Systems (GIS), which are all initiatives under consideration by the International Standards Organization. These techniques require considerable inputs of resource, so that the technical problems are also organizational problems. (Task Force, 1996: 12). In response to concerns over the long-term stability, Edward A. Fox of Virginia Tech has proposed that organizations such as UMI should be given some responsibility for technical sustainability. He also emphasises the need for the adoption of non-Proprietary Standards such as SGML, JPEG and VRML for the maintenance of ETDs. He has noted also that the problem of stability and sustainability is not exclusive to ETDs, but is a challenge to electronic journals and digital libraries and in therefore receiving wide attention. Kirschenbaum and Fox also argue that the author of the ETD should "play a major role in responding to these archival challenges..." (Kirschenbaum and Fox, 2003). The process of transition will be influenced by the development of soundly based protocols that address the issues to the satisfaction of those considering involvement.

An international standard for books, document type definition, has been created by the International Standards Organization (ISO 12083) and this presents a standardized general markup language (SGML) which has been refined to Extensible Markup Language (XML). XML allows a limitless number of DTDs but the needs of composition and archiving are different. Another standard is that developed by the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), which together with that of the ETD project of Virginia Tech, provides a choice of DTD. The metastandards for ETDs are those proposed by the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative which is a metadata element set intended to facilitate the composition and archiving of electronic resources (Dublin Core, 2003). The current development of excellent technical administrative and legal protocols will help this process but a large task of persuasion remains before the paperless thesis can become the standard regime.


The electronic age has provided a new level of dissemination of research findings and electronic journals can provide a mechanism of scientific and scholarly filtration and prioritisation in this process. In addition, higher degree theses or dissertations are being published electronically, and the world's scientific and scholarly community is still dealing with the full implication. Although the all-powerful reach of the electronic form is proving irresistible, the beauty of the book and the paper journal will always remain a compelling motivation to publish this way,


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William W. Bostock, School of Government, University of Tasmania

William Bostock, Ph.D., is Senior Lecturer in Government, at the University of Tasmania
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Author:Bostock, William W.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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