Confidentiality of PhD Theses in the UK

Added by Drtinabarnes on 21 July 2010 14:19

The tension in the modern research environment between the long-standing academic principle of free and open access to research and the commercial need for confidentiality to protect competitive advantage, is well known to the academic community.

Any University’s chief concern with requests that a PhD thesis be kept confidential (that is kept out of the public domain following examination) is that such requests are fundamentally at odds with academia’s mission to support efficient scientific and technological progress – to avoid “reinventing the wheel”.  Embargoes on public access to theses also prevent critical debate of research findings – transparency in research is essential to maintaining quality.  The realities of diminishing government funding and a greater emphasis on ensuring that research has economic and social value has however meant that universities are working ever more closely with industry and with commerce in defining and funding research.  Requests for confidentiality are therefore the price that must sometimes be paid for this pragmatic approach.

But why is confidentiality such a big issue when PhD students are, after all, generally encouraged to publish journal papers on their work anyway?  The problem is that journal papers offer only specific details on a very narrow element of what is being done, whereas the PhD thesis must be able to stand alone as a complete exposition of the research.  It must therefore contain sufficient detail (in data and analysis) to enable the examiners to assess the quality and robustness of the research, and its contribution to knowledge.  And while a journal paper is quite deliberately disseminated as widely as possible, the PhD thesis has traditionally only had to be placed in the University library to be considered a “public document”.  Technically the thesis is accessible to the public, but in reality access is limited by its physical location and by restrictions on duplication to avoid copyright infringement.  Traditionally therefore, confidentiality with respect to the thesis has been of minimal concern.

The advent of electronic submission of PhD theses, with access made possible via e-depositories, changes the landscape considerably.  The potential for theses to become as widely accessible as a modern journal raises the prospect of a sizeable increase in the number of requests to embargo public access to PhD theses after examination, for a variety of reasons.  The survey of UKCGE members on which the 2010 report on “Confidentiality of PhD Theses in the UK” is based, found that, contrary to expectations, there had been little change in the number of requests to restrict access to PhD theses since the original survey in 2004; “commercial reasons” remained the most frequently cited justification for an embargo.  One of the reasons for this surprising result could lie in the slow growth in electronic submission and access to theses also revealed by the survey.

Responses to this report among delegates at the UKCGE Summer Conference, suggest that there is significant uncertainty within universities with regard to the many practical issues that electronic access to PhD theses raises.  I would be interested to hear your comments on this.  What are the issues for you?  Is this an area where you would welcome further investigation?  Does you university already have policies in place for dealing with such issues? 

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For access to the full UKCGE report “Confidentiality of PhD Theses in the UK”, go to:

Click here to see Tina’s presentation on the report at the UKCGE Summer Conference.

Dr Tina Barnes is a Senior Research Fellow for WMG (formerly Warwick Manufacturing Group) at the University of Warwick, and a co-opted member of the Executive Committee of the UK Council of Graduate Education (UKCGE)

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