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Thesis Thursday 2018 : a wider notion of research

As part of #ThesisThursday in Open Access Week we are pleased to host a fascinating guest post from our colleagues in the Library E-theses team:

Why do we make research theses available in the St Andrews Research Repository?
It’s a question that we are asked from time to time by both research students and academic researchers in our own institution.  Our answer is invariably that the institution should make its research available online to as wide an audience as possible.   Researchers expect to discover material online and they expect to read it online.  We have a policy to collect electronic research theses and make them available open access where possible, (unless subject to embargo), to promote and showcase University research, and to make it as accessible as possible to a global audience.  This is the core of our reasoning as to why we resource and manage the service.

But are ‘researchers’, in the purest sense of the word, our only consumers?  Or does the audience for our thesis content stretch out beyond the academic community and into social and personal uses that up until now we had not really considered.
In 2018 there have been two major themes in the development of our e-theses services.  Both have been aimed to support academic research.

One theme has been collaborative work with our colleagues in Research Data Management to promote the deposit of underpinning research data for theses, and to ensure that they are well managed and discoverable alongside the full texts of theses. We want to encourage thesis authors to provide as complete a record of their research work as possible and to include content in addition to just the full text of the thesis itself.  All the outputs are then retained for preservation in the St Andrews Research Repository and in Pure, (the University’s Research information System), for reuse by other researchers. For example, below is a thesis whose full text is available in the St Andrews Research Repository, (http://hdl.handle.net/10023/14843), and whose underpinning data is available in Pure, (http://doi.org/10.17630/38f4d940-d16d-4250-a845-c0f43d524a2f), and all of which is now linked together.

Bayesian analysis for quantification of individual rat and human behavioural patterns during attentional set-shifting tasks / Jiachao Wang

Description of related resources
Bayesian analysis for quantification of individual rat and human behavioural patterns during attentional set-shifting tasks (thesis data) Wang, J., University of St Andrews, 3 July 2018 DOI: 10.17630/38f4d940-d16d-4250-a845-c0f43d524a2f

The other major theme has been the mass digitisation of older theses.  In 2018 we completed the bulk of the digitisation of St Andrews research theses submitted from 1919 to 2006.  We have already loaded 2000 of these theses, bringing our current thesis total of theses in the repository to 4874.   By December 2018 another 1250 digitised theses will have been loaded into the repository, producing a rich, and almost complete, corpus of St Andrews research across all disciplines since the early 20th century.  For example, the earliest thesis was Dr Ettie Steele’s thesis on ‘The structure of mannitol’ submitted in 1919, (http://hdl.handle.net/10023/13088), and during the course of this summer we had several requests from researchers, including a request from the University of Li├Ęge in Belgium for another digitised thesis, ‘Scottish royal marriages and marriage alliances from David I to Alexander III’, by Malcolm R. Pressgrove submitted in 1979 http://hdl.handle.net/10023/13444.

The aim of the digitisation was to free up much needed physical space through the destructive scanning of second print copies of theses, (while still retaining an archival print copy as well as the newly digitised electronic version).  But it was also very much intended to promote the corpus of our research over time and to meet researcher needs to access earlier material.

So far usage statistics show significant use of both current and earlier theses and figures are increasing.  Three quarters of the top 100 most downloaded items from the repository are theses, and of the recently digitised theses, Dr Mary Rigby’s 1989 work on ‘The poetry of Pierre Seghers’, (http://hdl.handle.net/10023/13447), is particularly popular with 149 downloads currently since it was uploaded in June.

Both of these themes fit in with the standard rationale of promoting our research and making the research content accessible.  

However we have reflected more and more just recently about how the ‘research thesis’ and its very existence can impact upon a wider range of users.

Each month when we review our EThOS statistics and see the home countries of the users of our material and their occupations, (when they provide them), we are pleased to see that our research is reaching much further than just those Higher Education institutions that we tend to think of as our primary customers and peers.

For example, only last month our theses were downloaded from EThOS by editors in India, computer professionals in Malaysia, engineers in Greece, as well as by teachers and archivists.

Which brings us to an enquiry we received recently that wasn’t just about reading the research or building upon it, but was about who did it and when, and was really a lot more about personal questions about a thesis author and their academic career here at the University.

The story goes something like this…

Bruce Hendry, Emeritus Professor, King's College London wrote an email enquiry asking to find archival material about his father, James Allan Hendry, (1914-1997), who studied at St Andrews from 1931 to 1938, (1931-35 Honours BSc in Chemistry and German, and 1935-38 PhD in Organic Chemistry).  Bruce went on to describe how he was planning to write a biography of his father, who went on to a career in research chemistry and was involved in the discovery of important new treatments for malaria.  He specifically commented, “I am interested in records of life at St Andrew's in the 1930s”, and, “I am interested in finding any records relating to his time at St Andrews including perhaps his PhD thesis.”

We were delighted to discover that James Allan Hendry’s thesis (http://hdl.handle.net/10023/16089) produced in 1940 was in a batch of our most recently digitised older theses, and this made it very easy for us to provide more information and make the full text of the thesis available.   What was even more rewarding was that this particular thesis provided some personal commentary in the acknowledgements section about the researchers that James Allan Hendry had collaborated with, together with some description of his research career to date, including his time at the University of Jena in 1938.  He described his sadness at the death of his supervisor, Dr Wilhelm Schneider from Jena, his indebtedness to Professor John Read in St Andrews, and told how the outbreak of war in 1939 meant that he then had to return to St Andrews to continue his research work.

What was particularly exciting was the discovery on the last page of the thesis of a personal photograph of the author and his wife, dated Christmas 1940. 


This was a unique find and elicited the following response from Bruce Hendry:

Many thanks indeed for the prompt scan of my father's thesis. It is a wonderful document for my research and the photograph at the end is an amazing bonus, not previously known to me. I would add to my thanks, congratulations on the technical quality of the reproduction.
I recently checked with my university and my PhD thesis still sits in the dusty stacks of the library basement. So credit to St Andrews.
For us this was a very rewarding story about the unexpected benefits of thesis digitisation, and gave us a whole different perspective on why we make this material available.  It also gave a hint as to how many more possible uses and users of our theses there are in the world than we have previously imagined.  That is, truly a wider notion of research.

David Collins and Janet Aucock
E-theses team. University Library

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