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Should You Make Your Thesis More Widely Available Online? Part 2: Fear of Idea Theft
bright-idea

Following my first post that introduced my musings on the debate about making a PhD thesis or dissertation available online, this blog explores the issue of fear in relation to the theft of your ideas. This is an issue that is fairly central in Alex Galarza’s article for @GradHacker. The student in question feared that their ideas may be more susceptible to being stolen if they were to be made available online; a reasonable assumption given that, if the intention to put your thesis online is to make it more widely accessible, then the more likely it is that the ideas can be accessed and potentially lifted.

For me, this fear is not altogether unfounded and essentially boils down to a lack of knowledge about how online material is managed and regulated. In university teaching in the UK at least, students are taught about plagiarism, or the use of someone else’s work without acknowledgement, and are warned of the need to avoid doing it. Not only is it considered bad academic practice, but a plagiarised essay or piece of coursework is more likely to be of poor standard. As academics this becomes deeply ingrained in everyday working and writing practices, and is currently regulated through the processes of peer review and assessment. How this may be regulated online however, is less clear and the boundaries of citing and discussing the work of others is increasingly blurred.  Similarly if the aim of publishing online is to reach broader audiences, there is potential that those audiences are unfamiliar with referencing practices or maybe unwilling to use them.

A research paper about electronic theses by Copeland et al (2005, pg 195) suggests however that ‘it is easier to detect instances where this activity [plagiarism] has taken place when the material is published on the web. Electronic detection software is available’. My university in the UK uses Turn-It in for student essays for this purpose.

While this is comforting to know to some extent, an important thing to do before making your thesis available online is to check the copyright regulations of the archive you post to and to ensure that you own those rights as primary researcher. This should discourage any potential theft, protect your property rights and discourage the potential for idea theft by others. Where you make the thesis available online is also a consideration. The chances of having your ideas stolen and reproduced online or elsewhere are much less likely if you post to a university online archive than a personal blog for example because these are better regulated. It is also recommended that you seek advice from your PhD supervisor before posting online to check if there are any issues with copyright that you hadn’t thought of (especially important if the work is funded). You could also protect your work using a Creative Commons license. These allow ‘everyone from individual creators to large companies and institutions a simple, standardized way to grant copyright permissions to their creative work’ (Creative Commons website).

Fear of theft of your work when making it more readily available online is reasonable, and was something that led me to research and produce this series of blog posts. However there are frameworks and laws in place that are designed to protect your ideas and your intellectual property, as well as new technologies that are detecting plagiarism online. Make sure you are aware of these before you make your research outputs available online however. If you want to disseminate your work more widely to broaden its impacts, you should be able to, and it is important that academic work is accountable but also used in appropriate ways.

A recent hashtag on Twitter that has been used in relation to these ideas (and also Will’s post) is #notopenenough (thanks @ThomsonPat). Publishing online is becoming more popular, and hopefully fear of theft won’t stand in your way in your quest to make your research more widely known.

Join the conversation at #onlinethesis.

Reference

Copeland, Susan,  Penman, Andrew and  Mime Richard (2005) “Electronic Theses: The Turning Point.” Program: Electronic Library & Information Systems 39, no. 3 : 185-197.


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