One Size Doesn’t Fit All in Open Access

How a creative-writing faculty had to lobby for changes to protect graduate students’ work

Illustration by Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

March 24, 2014

Andrew called me about a year after he had graduated from our master’s program in English. "My thesis is for sale on Amazon," he said, without salutation or preamble. "It costs $50."


At the time he called, Andrew was in his second semester at Texas Tech University, pursuing a Ph.D. in creative writing and fiction. He explained that the master’s thesis in fiction that he had completed at Utah State University—the one that I had directed and that had helped earn him admission to several doctoral programs—was being sold by Amazon and Barnes & Noble without his knowledge or permission. His thesis work, he had learned, was also available as a free download from Utah State’s Digital Commons, a new institutional repository.

His words, the ones he had spent two years crafting and honing, and which he hoped to publish as a novel, were already accessible on the university’s website to anyone, anywhere, anytime, at no cost. One click.

Andrew was our wake-up call. He had taken his finished thesis to the graduate school and done what the people there told him to do to graduate. Utah State had only recently begun requiring the submission of theses and dissertations in its digital repository. Andrew was, in fact, one of the first of our students to go through that process.

Several phone calls later, to the graduate school and the campus
library, I learned about my university’s digital repository and the submission requirement. I also learned about a form that Andrew had filled out when he followed another university requirement and submitted his thesis to ProQuest, a national archive. On that form was a small box that he was supposed to have checked if he didn’t want ProQuest to sell his thesis to third parties like Amazon. He didn’t understand the significance of checking that box, so he hadn’t checked it, and he hadn't received any guidance on the question from the graduate school. So his work was "published" and offered for sale without his knowledge.

For the past two years, creative-
writing faculty members in the English department at Utah State have been working to ensure that what happened with Andrew doesn’t happen to other students. We have learned a great deal about open access and electronic theses and dissertations (or ETDs, as they’re called).

While a university, especially a public, land-grant one like Utah State, has responsibilities to ensure the dissemination of knowledge, what we have come to understand is that creative writing is a unique category of work, which needs to be protected. One size doesn’t fit all in hats or in open-access policies. We have also learned that many creative-writing programs, especially small ones, remain unaware of the ramifications when their institutions adopt mandatory ETD policies. Their students face difficulties similar to Andrew’s, and their work is equally vulnerable.

The good news for creative-
writing programs everywhere is that more and more institutions are recognizing the need for 
nuance in the pursuit of open access.

Why creative writing is a special case. A digital repository exists to capture, preserve, and provide easy access to research undertaken at a university. Once documents are uploaded there, anyone can have access to them. Theses and dissertations are seen as the products of a public university—work that taxpayers have supported, and part of the knowledge the university is making. A digital repository allows work to reach countless people when, in the past, it might have been read by only a few. That benefits the scholar in many fields, but not in creative writing.

Open-access policies at many institutions are built around the needs of the STEM fields. But the arts work differently. What creative writers make is not a replicable, observable experiment or a data set that is then interpreted, but rather art itself. A short story or a poem does not derive its value from conveying the results of a tested hypothesis. The words are not a conduit for content. The words are the content.

The same novels, memoirs, and collections of short stories and poetry that our top graduate students submit as their theses may very well be formally published. But it can take several years or more for that to happen.

Requiring students to submit their creative work to a digital repository harms them in several ways. The most obvious: Free accessibility jeopardizes future publication. A 2013 study by East Carolina University focused on creative-writing theses and found that the majority of publishers considered thesis work that had been submitted to digital repositories to be "prior publication," precluding the presses from publishing such works. And many literary journals, such as the Indiana Review, will not accept "any part of a thesis or dissertation that has been published electronically."

So students who, as a routine matter of university protocol, submit creative work to their institution’s digital repository are giving up the right to publish all or parts of that work in other venues.

Our field’s professional society, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, makes its position on this matter clear: "Just as it is important for graduate students in the sciences to protect the patent potential of their work, graduate students in creative writing need to protect the copyright potential—and specifically, first serial and book rights—of work they produce for their capstone creative projects." The association is adamant that universities not require electronic dissemination of graduate creative theses, and recommends that graduate students be required to submit only paper copies and that they be fully informed of their options.

Some universities are making nuanced decisions in their ETD policies, in order to protect students’ creative work. At the University of Iowa—the gold standard for creative-writing programs—graduate students have been exempted from the mandatory ETD policy. They submit their theses in paper form only. That is also true at Bowling Green State University. At Wesleyan University, students can choose among open access, limited access, an embargo, or an opt-out option. At Marquette University, in addition to various embargo options, students are allowed to limit access to their creative work. At the University of Tennessee, students are allowed to make their master’s theses into "creative projects" that are not subjected to the graduate school’s ETD policy.

Some potentially negative outcomes of a mandatory ETD policy are hard to measure. Creative-writing faculty members might discourage students from submitting their best work for a thesis if they know that a mandatory ETD policy could prevent that work from getting published later. Students may "route around" the graduate school, finding ways to protect their work and damaging the spirit of a graduate creative-writing program.

And there is the question of whether those mandatory submission policies would withstand a legal challenge, since they coerce students into giving away their opportunity to publish in order to receive their degrees. As one campus librarian wrote on her blog, universities should be educating people about the benefits of open access and not "clubbing them into compliance."

Taking the middle path. After learning about those issues, we took steps to change the mandatory-submission requirement for creative-writing students.

At first we asked the dean of graduate studies to allow any students whose thesis was a work of creative writing to opt out of the requirement. Instead the graduate school offered a five-year embargo of the work. An embargo means that the work is deposited into the institutional repository but cannot be accessed at all for a set number of years (typically one to five).

If you are in creative writing and your institution is establishing or revising its ETD policy, there are two databases you need to be concerned about: first, the campus digital repository, like Digital Commons at Utah State; and second, ProQuest, a national archive for a wide range of materials, including newspapers, periodicals, and theses/dissertations. As of a year ago, ProQuest no longer sells theses and dissertations to third parties like Amazon, but it still makes them available to anyone, anywhere. Students can ask ProQuest for an embargo on access to their work, but the archive grants only a two-year embargo, which must be renewed by the student.

In my department, we initially negotiated the five-year, renewable embargo with our graduate school and the two-year renewable embargo with ProQuest. We were not delighted by that compromise, but it seemed like a good start. Then I got the phone call from Bonnie.

Bonnie graduated from our program a year ago. She asked for the five-year embargo on her thesis with Utah State and the two-year embargo through ProQuest. Because she is a diligent student, she called a few months after the thesis had been deposited to make sure the Utah State embargo was still in place. She was told by the library that it was. Two months after that, she received a phone call from a stranger who had just found her work online and wanted to talk with her about it. The embargo had been compromised accidentally by someone in the library. Her work was no longer protected.

Embargoes are less effective for other reasons as well. They place an undue burden on the student to check regularly that they are still in place. Additionally, if an embargo is in place until the publication of a work, then at the very moment it’s published, the release of the embargo puts a free copy into the marketplace.

In the end, we felt the only way to truly and completely protect creative work was to place a paper copy in the library, thereby allowing public access through a library visit or interlibrary loan but ensuring that the work would never be digitized without the author’s permission. After much negotiation with the graduate school and heated discussions about whether one copy in one library constituted public access in the digital age, we reached a compromise: Students who complete a creative-writing thesis at Utah State now have the option of submitting just the critical introduction and abstract to Digital Commons and ProQuest, and then submitting a paper copy of the creative work itself to the library.

Of course, students can choose to submit a full electronic copy to Digital Commons and ProQuest. And there may be compelling reasons to go that route. But now, students who want to protect their future publication rights can do so. The words that they have entrusted to us are safeguarded, and students’ rights are maintained.

What made the difference to our graduate school was the research we conducted on the policies of other universities. We found that many had some form of protection in place for creative theses, though the degree of protection varied. Five of our peer institutions rely on paper copies only, or on the submission of a single chapter, an abstract, or an artist’s statement. Not surprisingly, those are universities with strong M.F.A. or writing programs. Smaller institutions, or those without M.F.A. programs, like Utah State, did not offer the same protection. Often their faculty members were unaware of campus policy regarding ETDs.

We were able to argue to our graduate school that the cutting edge in open access—at least in the creative-writing field—is, ironically, paper. Novels, memoirs, essays, and poems reach far more readers than most academic writing does. To preserve the possibility of reaching those readers, though, means safeguarding the work until it can be published. Institutions that understand the necessity of a nuanced ETD policy will not only attract the most talented writers, but they will also be leaders in the open-access discussion.

Jennifer Sinor is an associate professor of English at Utah State University.