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Paper is out, digital is in, when it comes to dissertations

Berkeley stands to save a half-million pages of paper a year with move to electronic publishing

| 10 December 2009

A ritual as old as Berkeley itself ends on Friday, Dec. 18, at 4 p.m. For the last time, sleep-deprived graduate students will be lined up outside the Degrees Office on the third floor of Sproul Hall, clutching painstakingly printed copies of their doctoral dissertations, the very last step on the arduous path to a Ph.D.

Laurie Roach with shelves of printed dissertationsGraduate student adviser Laurie Roach, with just some of the dissertations she's inspected and shelved in the Degrees Office stacks. (Dick Corten/UC Berkeley photos)
Starting spring semester, Berkeley dissertations are going all-electronic. Students will no longer have to wait anxiously to have paper copies of their work inspected and, they hope, accepted. Instead, they will be able to publish their work digitally, with just a few keystrokes.

In fact, they'll have to. Barring extraordinary circumstances, paper copies the ones that occupy untold amounts of library shelf space are a thing of the past.

In cutting out paper, Berkeley joins a national trend among universities. Putting the research online will make it far easier to access, from any computer, anywhere.

"No longer does someone have to fly to Berkeley and walk to the door of the library or to go to ProQuest and pay" to see the work, says Jeret Lemontt, Berkeley's assistant director for graduate degrees.

Since Berkeley accepts more doctoral dissertations than any other U.S. campus 800 to 900 every year the campus stands to save more paper than anywhere else.

"We're the most ecological," says Joseph Duggan, associate dean of the Graduate Division and a professor of the graduate school.

Last academic year, Berkeley's total was 856, beating out the University of Texas at Austin at 821, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison at 740, according to the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

At an average of 300 pages each, with two copies required, going electronic will save about a half-million pages of paper a year, according to Lemontt's calculations.

The move also will save staff time, not to mention shelf space at both the graduate Degrees Office and the library.

It will save students money, because the heavy, high-cotton acid-free paper required can set them back $50 or so. And it will save them headaches, too, according to Lemontt.

"Once they print it, it's set in stone. If they mess up a margin, or have page numbers in the wrong place it causes a lot of anxiety and trouble," Lemontt adds. " 'You mean I have to print it out again?'

" 'Yes, you do.' "

In order to earn a Ph.D., graduate students must publish original research hence the printed copies. Up until now, one copy has been bound and stored in the campus library. The other has been published by ProQuest, the Ann Arbor, Mich., company that handles dissertations from hundreds of universities.

For the last few years, Berkeley students have been able to file their ProQuest copy digitally, but Lemontt says few took advantage because they still needed to produce a perfect printed copy for the library.

The move to all-electronic has been in the works for a year or more, according to Lemontt. The Graduate Council signed off on it in October.

In addition to making Berkeley students' research far more widely available, going electronic is "a major step in line with campus 'green' initiatives" and also is in line with Chancellor Robert Birgeneau's directive to streamline business processes, according to an August memo from Graduate Dean Andrew Szeri to council chair Ronald Cohen.

Revisions of the library's procedures made the cataloguing of electronic papers possible.

The final hurdles were concerns that that research published instantly online might be more susceptible to plagiarism, and that some students might want to delay digital publication while they revise their dissertation into a publishable book.

So the new policy provides for a waiting period of two years before the dissertation goes online, unless a student wants immediate publication. The waiting period can also be extended if requested by a student, according to Duggan.

PhD students wait to turn in their printed dissertationsThis was the scene outside in the hallway outside 318 Sproul during the last week of spring '08, as Ph.D. students waited to turn in their dissertations — and get their lollipops.
Berkeley follows UC's San Diego and San Francisco campuses in moving to online publication. A few weeks ago, Stanford announced that its students were starting to publish their dissertations online through Google.

At the Degrees Office, the move brings a sigh of relief to Laurie Roach, who with two fellow student advisers bear the literal brunt of the semester's crushing submission deadline.

Students can submit their dissertations at any time during the semester. But in reality, half of them wait until the last week which means 200 students stretching along the hallway outside 318 Sproul with their boxes of neatly printed paper in any given semester.

Roach has been inspecting the dissertations since 1988 and hefting them up on the shelves, too. Though lines can appear long, she says the wait is usually no longer than a half hour.

"We try to get them in and out," she says. "I don't want to be compared to the DMV."

She's kept the office open late in emergencies as when a grad student called to say she was on her way but wouldn't make it by 4 p.m. Roach waited, and the phone rang again. The same student was calling back to say that while running to the degrees office, she had dropped her copies and the pages had gone flying.

"We were here 'til 7 o'clock," Roach says. "I wouldn't want to deny anyone their degrees."

Going electronic won't let Roach and her colleagues off the hook entirely. They'll still have to vet the papers online. And students will still have to come to the office to deliver various forms. But without the physical inspection of the dissertation, the process promises to be speedier.

One tradition won't disappear with the paper copies: the See's lollipop conferred on each student completing a Ph.D., complete with a custom label: "PhinisheD."