ProQuest, Dissertations, and Creative Commons Licensing: An Open Letter

I finally deposited my dissertation today, after the usual rounds of insanely nitpicky formatting revisions and some not-so-usual delays due to months of being utterly heads-down on grantwriting, an intervening summer, and the doctoral studies office’s reader being out for personal reasons. Depositing is not so simple as it seems. Among other things, at Teachers College you have to pay to get it printed, and then pay to get it in to ProQuest, the database of dissertations.

If you’re at all into Creative Commons licensing, the latter is exceedingly problematic. I’ve just written a letter to our vice provost’s office, trying to explain why. Here it is:

[To whom it may concern:]

Matt [a colleague] and I both deposited our dissertations today, and were chagrined at the fees we were obliged to pay for publishing on ProQuest. The documentation we received from Russell [in the Office of Doctoral Studies] indicated that if we wanted to publish “traditionally,” we would need to pay $65 to ProQuest (and that publishing is mandatory for doctoral students) and $95 to Teachers College. If we wanted instead to publish “open access,” it would cost us *more* — $160 to ProQuest and $95 again to Teachers College.

This is problematic in a number of ways:

First, as of August 31, ProQuest has decided not to charge a fee for dissertations uploaded digitally. Matt and I would gladly have taken this route; we have no desire to kill extra trees, nor are we eager to part with our money. However, we were told that TC is not yet digitally uploading. The paperwork we received from the Office of Doctoral Studies did not reflect this change in ProQuest policy.

I, for one, object to being asked to pay for a system TC has not yet upgraded. I would like the $65 I paid for ProQuest processing refunded. I am more than happy to do the work it takes to get my dissertation uploaded digitally instead of handled in print.

Secondly, ProQuest’s passing on of the cost of “open access” to students is outright offensive. They are essentially charging more for a service which we see as of dubious merit. Sharing is not something we need ProQuest’s help with. We are going to share our work on the Internet anyway, so in this case ProQuest is not offering a more valuable service. If anything, “traditional publishing” in this case is more likely to help us recoup some of the ProQuest fee as there is some scant possibility that we will receive royalties; the “open access” license asks us to waive that possibility. Both Matt and I, against our better judgments, went with “traditional publishing.”

Not only is their pricing model nonsensical, it also serves as a disincentive for students less-versed with copyright to release their work under sharing-friendly licenses. We believe this is a disincentive to the openness which is academia’s great strength.

Both Matt and I forewent traditional copyright on our dissertations in favor, instead, of using Creative Commons licenses. We believe that our work is more likely to reach a wider range of people if the license on our work leaves people free to copy and share it. Like I said, we do not need ProQuest’s assistance to release our work this way; we have websites, and with enough links inward to them Google will begin to give a higher rank to our own copies of our dissertations online than it will to ProQuest’s copies, rendering ProQuest obsolete. The benefits of ProQuest royalties, meanwhile, are likely to be trivial. By contrast, the benefit of our work being easier to find could improve our hiring prospects in the future. Other students elsewhere are beginning to raise similar concerns.

Paying for ProQuest, in this light, seems unnecessary and even coercive. I am reminded that in popular publishing, the books an author must *pay* to publish are considered to be of *lower,* not
higher, quality.

Other aspects of the process of becoming an EdD in the information age have also proven problematic. The Office of Doctoral Studies was unfamiliar with the Creative Commons licenses our dissertations bore, and struggled to make sense of them. We are certainly not the first doctoral students in the nation to be using these licenses, and we do not expect to be the last, particularly among Communications, Computing, and Technology students. It would be great if ODS could research these licenses and be able to present future doctoral students with more comprehensive information on the relative merits of copyright and “copyleft.” Matt and I would be happy to help you identify information on this topic — this is what we study! Additionally, for transparency’s sake it would be nice to know where the $95 TC charges, apparently for ProQuest processing, goes.

Columbia’s strength relies on the reputation of its graduates. Many of us feel that our good work will be better known if it is not hidden behind paywalls, and if we have a reputation for sharing knowledge with the general public. We would like to see Teachers College and Columbia use their great reputations to nudge ProQuest towards a more reasonable “open access” policy, and give students more flexibility in distributing their work in the ways they find most beneficial.

and we’d like our $65 back, please.

Gillian “Gus” Andrews, Almost But Not Quite EdD.

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