My final point is about an implication of my work that was very much unexpected. This is the fact that my dissertation has now been published in full and is available to anyone on this planet with access to the World Wide Web at no cost (other than that involved in accessing the World Wide Web itself). Initial statistics showed that between April 2000 and May 2001 my work attracted just over one thousand visits by almost seven hundred individual visitors. The largest proportion of them came from within the University of Toronto and accessed my pages via internal search engines. Ten per cent of hits arrived via the Google search-engine which is promising. A further seventeen per cent came from a dozen individual computers in various countries, while the remainder (approximately twenty-five per cent) were from other machines. Unfortunately no subsequent reader figures have been made available to me but the potential to reach a very diverse readership from all around the world is clear.
In recent years, publishing Doctoral dissertations has created increasing problems. In countries such as Sweden and Germany, where a Doctoral thesis has to be published as part of the degree requirements, the financial burden to either the Universities or the Doctoral candidates themselves has been enormous, and changes to the rules will be necessary in the future. In other academic traditions, such as that of the UK and the US, PhD dissertations are not normally published and available only as interlibrary loans, often after considerable effort — eventually arriving in the form of microfiche and with stringent restrictions as to the amount that may be reproduced. For these reasons, the impact of Doctoral dissertations on the discipline at large has been, or will be, drastically reduced. Increasingly, a PhD thesis is known only to the student's own supervisor and examiners plus a few personal friends.
Soon after my PhD had been accepted and with some traditional academic values and traditions in mind, I contacted three major British publishing companies about a combined book and World Wide Web project resulting from my research. All declined. One publisher said it did not have its own web page yet. The other two refused because of disappointing estimates of the book's prospective sales revenue, as one of them put it. It struck me then that there is a wider problem here.
It appears that the visibility and therefore potential academic impact of somebody's Doctoral dissertation, or indeed academic monograph more generally, is currently dependent not only on the technical literacy of the publishing companies but also on the money they can make out of it. This is even more worrying when considering that in many cases the Doctoral dissertation is the single most substantial piece of research researchers will ever write. To make matters worse, young academics are generally being evaluated on the basis of their publications, which leads to the bizarre (although possibly exaggerated) situation where a career may come to a halt because the person's manuscripts promise disappointing sales revenues to the shareholders of the main multinational publishing companies. Moreover, the prices many publishers now charge for their hardbacks — and many titles never make it to a paperback edition — are higher than most students, and indeed academics themselves, can actually afford to pay. Libraries too struggle with ever increasing prices (and numbers) of academic books and journals.
In this situation, the World Wide Web offers an alternative and I am of course not the first person to discover this (see e.g. Vielitz 2003, 8). Certainly there are costs involved here too. But they are of a very different order and I believe that in the future they have a good chance of being covered by the major research funding bodies, central libraries or other large academic institutions, or by a set proportion of the original project funding (see Harnad 1995). What is most important in contemplating such visions is the increasingly realistic possibility of severing the quasi-automatic link between scholarly credibility and prestige on the one hand and publication in journals or book series of commercial publishers on the other hand. Electronic publication formats offer a possible way to maintain visibility while remaining independent and committed to academic standards that are not biased by the commercial interests of publishers (Harnad 1995; Darnton 1999; Best and Grove-White 2000; Guédon 2000; 2001). This will not please the big academic publishers but it might rescue the intellectual credibility of the academic discourse (Baldock 1999).
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Last updated: Wed Jan 28 2004