The acceptance process of my proposal within the University of Wales

N.B. The links below have been added and did not appear in the original document

28 November 1995

The Academic Secretary of the University of Wales, A D Hall, writes to Professor Austin asking for a summary of the proposal "in layman's terms" on which the relevant committees can base their decision. In particular, he asks for comments on the following points
(i) that the prime object of the submission of a PhD thesis is to allow its examination and only secondarily to make its contents available to a wider readership;
(ii) that any proposal should therefore ensure that the work can be examined in an acceptable way, both by internal and external examiners, in terms of both of reading the thesis and conducting the oral examination;
(iii) that the choice of external examiner should not depend upon his-her access to the necessary IT equipment;
(iv) that due regard should be paid to the requirement that, following successful examination, theses should be lodged with the National Library and the College library and made available by them to the academic community, not all of whom will necessarily possess modern IT equipment.

In general terms, he states that "[i]t would be sensible, I think, to give Mr Holtorf's proposal serious general consideration, since it may prove to be the first of a number of proposed movements in the direction of electronic submission of theses and dissertations." Regarding the existing regulations of the University for PhD candidates Mr. Hall makes the point that "[t]here should be no prejudice against change and, equally, no presupposition that new methods must be accommodated." A copy of this letter is also sent to the National Library of Wales.

16 January 1996

Gwyn Jenkins of the National Library of Wales writes to A D Hall that "[i]n principle we welcome this idea. It would indeed save us shelf-space." However, he has the caveat that "HTML standards change regularly" and adds that "it may be necessary for the candidate to include the software for reading the CD together with the disc." Jenkins then goes on: "One other factor worth noting is the durability of CDs as a medium. There is no guarantee that CDs have a lengthy life-span (unlike, for example, microfilm which, it is believed, can be preserved for 500 years)."

17 May 1996

I write the following clarifications to A D Hall's letter from 28 November 1995, mainly for David Austin so that he has a good knowledge of my plans:
(i) I proposed to submit my Ph.D. thesis in HTML (with a back-up copy on CD-Rom) and I have given reasons why I think that this is essential for my project (please see my proposal). The best and easiest way to read a HTML document – and hence the way which should be used by my examiners – is by reading it on the Internet, using a Web browser such as Netscape. The main advantage of using the Internet rather than a CD-Rom is that this allows me to include links to sites outside my own work in the thesis (like a bibliographic reference but with instant access). Publication is not my first concern at this stage.
(ii) both internal and external examiners will have convenient access to the written thesis from their own desktop computers. I will provide a brief practical introduction on paper about how to read my thesis. During the oral examination it would be feasible to have networked computers present.
(iii) the choice of the external examiner is not affected by his or her access to special IT equipment, as networked computers using Netscape are now standard in all higher education institutions in the UK and abroad.
(iv) in the case of successful examination, it is perfectly feasible to install my thesis on a webserver of either the National Library or the College library (or of the Academic Computer Service on their behalf). It would then be ensured that the thesis can be accessed and read from the whole academic community, most of whom are likely to be 'networked' by the time of completion of my examination process.

10 June 1996

Alan Rogers, Director Academic Computing Service, University of Wales, Lampeter, writes a statement in which he expresses his support for my plans: "In my view this proposal deserves to be supported and Cornelius be allowed to explore the new possibilities of writing and publishing on that global interconnection of computer networks that is called the 'Internet'. I see no major difficulties for the examination process as a consequence of choosing this medium for his thesis." Mr. Rogers also describes what is involved technically, how the thesis could be examined, and that it could later be installed on a web server and thus be published world-wide without cost.

11 June 1996

My Head of Department, Professor David Austin, replies formally to A D Hall's letter from 28/11/95, enclosing the statement by Alan Rogers and fully supporting my original proposal and later clarifications (see 17 May 1996).

17 June 1996

I write the following clarifications 'to whom it may concern', in response to the letter from Gwyn Jenkins to A D Hall dated 16 January 1996 which I had not seen before:
(1) I note that the submission on a medium other than print is welcomed in principle, for saving shelf-space.
(2) having not had available the 'short statement' by the Director ACS Lampeter, Mr. Alan Rogers, the letter contains some misconceptions about my proposal
i) I propose to submit in HTML and on the Internet, not on a CD-Rom (a CD will only serve as a back-up copy). The Internet can be accessed from any networked computer using a webbrowser such as Netscape which is now standard. No additional software is needed, no costs are involved.
ii) the thesis could permanently be stored in electronic form on a webserver of the University of Wales (e.g. in Lampeter) or the National Library. It would at the same time be available for access by anyone at no cost (there would be no need for interlibrary loans). All signs indicate that such electronic storage is very durable and indeed more permanent than a CD. Should standards change it will be easy and cheap to transfer the thesis into a new format. As I am assured orally by Mr Rogers, this will happen automatically, as it is becomes necessary for the day-to-day running of a webserver. CD-Rom technology, however, depends on hardware which may be damaged physically or go out of fashion in the future.
iii) HTML standards change in the sense that they are constantly enhanced. According to what Mr Rogers tells me, his does not mean that old HTML documents would not be readable anymore.
(3) In case the Library insists on receiving a CD, it will be no problem to include the information about the equipment used to create it. Since the file will be written in HTML, for reading it there is no other software needed than a web browser such as Netscape.

23 June 1996

The University Subject Panel for History, Archaeology, Classics & Ancient History meets in Swansea and discusses my proposal as Agendum 6. It is stated in the minutes that
(1) … members recalled ... the principle that cases in which candidates for research degrees who wished to submit in a non-standard format should be examined on their merits. …
(2) Arising from its consideration of this case, the Committee resolved that the Department concerned should ensure that the candidate would be in a position to be able to provide a standard copy of the thesis, if required, and that the Convenor of the Examining Board should also check with the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, in advance of the candidate's submission, that the text of the thesis could be stored in an accessible manner there.
(3) The Committee also agreed that ability to use computers, or to access the Internet, should not be a consideration when it came to the selection of the examiners for the submission with the consequence that, should an examiner prefer to receive a standard submission, the candidate must provide such a copy for examination.
At this point I had de facto been given permission to submit exclusively in HTML, provided that the National Library of Wales and my examiners would be happy with that. Since my examiners had not been appointed at this time, appropriate clarifications were now needed from the National Library of Wales, and Michael Shanks (my new Head of Department) asked for those.

15 January 1997

Gwyn Jenkins from the National Library of Wales writes to Michael Shanks with the following observations:
1. We sympathise with Mr Holtorf's desire to use the latest technology to make his research work available to the world at large.
2. We are not convinced that putting the text of a thesis on the Internet is the right solution for the Library and its users. How will the text of the thesis be structured? Will it be too long and unwieldy for study on the Internet? Will it be possible to search its contents as well as to browse through them? On whose server will it be stored. I doubt that the Library could undertake to store the texts of all theses on its own server.
3. The Library does not, as yet, provide its readers with Internet access. Therefore, if we were to accept Mr Holtorf's thesis via the Internet, it would be unavailable to our readers for some time to come.
4. It would be more appropriate, from the Library's viewpoint, if the thesis could be presented in some other electronic form, such as CD-Rom or floppy disk. Before that could happen, all the parties involved would have to agree on a format which is compatible with the equipment used by the Library for making such electronic records accessible to its readers.

11 February 1997

Michael Shanks writes back to Mr Jenkins asking about "the most suitable format [of the CD-Rom] for the library."

21 February 1997

Gwyn Jenkins replies suggesting PDF format for the CD-Rom.


After discussing Mr Jenkins' proposal with me, Michael Shanks writes again to Mr Jenkins:
Considering your comments earlier this year on the 15th January and 21st February I suggest the following: the thesis is submitted on CD-Rom in HTML format but with browser software also included, which will allow the CD to be read by any machine equipped with a CD drive. This is a neater solution than that which was suggested on the 21st February, i.e. PDF format for Adobe Acrobat. I am convinced that this will indeed ensure the thesis is as accessible as a standard hard copy.

22 September 1997

Gwyn Jenkins is prepared to be more flexible regarding the format and accepts Dr Shank's latest proposal. He adds though: "However, if we do experience any problems in using the CD-Rom we will need to discuss the matter further."

2 May 1998

My thesis is submitted to the University of Wales on CD-Rom.

19 June 1998

I pass in my viva.

9 July 1998

I receive my degree.

15 October 1998

In connection with the preparation of this article, Gwyn Jenkins sends me a statement to be included here:
Whereas the National Library of Wales had no objection in principle to receiving a thesis on CD, it has a responsibility to ensure that all University of Wales theses are preserved and made available to readers. It was for this reason that assurances were sought that this would indeed be the case in the submission of Cornelius Holtorf's PhD thesis in electronic form. When the CD was received by the National Library it was discovered that it could not be 'read by any machine equipped with a CD drive', as promised in Dr Shanks's letter [from 8_September_1997]. Clearly the thesis could not be considered 'as accessible as a standard hard copy'. Dr Holtorf has offered to send a CD in another format and we can but hope that this will comply with our requirements.
The important lesson to be learnt from this episode is that the University of Wales needs to amend its regulations for the submission of theses in electronic form and ensure that appropriate standards are set and complied with. I shall be writing to the University of Wales Registry to this effect.

19 October 1998

I had already promised to send to the National Library of Wales a new CD containing my thesis, this time formatted for PC instead of Macintosh, and now reply to Mr. Jenkins:
You are absolutely right that the UoW (as other Universities) needs proper regulations to deal with electronic theses. The question whether the CD is readable for PC or Macintosh (or who knows what other formats there might be) is only a minor one, compared with software imcompatibilities. While we had promised to include a browser software on the CD, and this is indeed the case on the CD you have, you will find that more than likely it won't work, and cannot work. This is because users need specific versions of most softwares (including Netscape) which are appropriate to the overall specifications of their computer and to other software (such as Windows) which they already use. It is practically impossible to include every single version of a browser like Netscape on a CD. But there are also legal problems in reproducing copyright-protected software on a product such as a CD (even if not intended to be commercial). All these are reasons why I was never happy about the CD solution and would have much preferred a solution on the World Wide Web where Netscape is a standard software and available as freeware. To be perfectly honest with you, I do not expect that my CD (in whatever format) will still be readable in, say, 20 years time. It's hard enough now! Both hardware and software standards change much too quickly these days and it is perfectly impossible for any one library to keep up with all this.
What this means for future candidates I do not know, although I hope that they will be allowed to explore the new medium further. For the library, I still think that the maintenance of a web-server for electronic theses such as mine is not only the cheapest (in the long-term) but also the most durable form of preservation. Standards for this are very easy to maintain by authors, and quickly to control by the library. Moreover, the need for Interlibrary Loans would cease to exist, and the University could pride itself in making its innovative theses instantly available for the scientific community worldwide. Especially a somewhat marginal academic location like West Wales could greatly enhance its international profile.
I would be willing to take part in any consultation process with the relevant bodies in the University of Wales, if this could be of any value to you.


David Austin too sends me a statement about his experiences in retrospective:
There was one meeting for example of the University Subject Panel of the University of Wales when I was closely questioned by a very sceptical, but friendly committee. Their concerns were about the survivability of the new technology, given very real disasters when whole sets of data were lost or became irretrievable. This was compounded by their traditional intimacy with the book as the basic technology of knowledge and information transfer. They were not persuaded that the new technologies were as yet in a position to replace the book and its capacity to be archived in an accessible form and to survive because of its plurality of deposition in the world's libraries. I think they were never convinced of that, and it is my impression that the permission was given as if to a child with a new toy who would one day grow up and learn to live in the real world. Permisssion was an indulgence, but with safeguards built in. I also feel that they were not convinced by the rhetoric of the new technologists and I suspect that they felt it all to be a false dawn and that they had all been there before! So my own conclusion about the whole process is that important concessions were won, but that it may be a Pyrrhic victory with all the real battles still to come. The panel simply had no comprehension about the Internet and misunderstood fundamentally the issues concerning mutability of text, authenticity, and the time-specific location of knowledge-laden artefacts.

I sent a new CD (PC compatible) to the National Library in November 1998, but no doubt the administrative story will continue...


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