Five dozen doctoral students chose bits and bytes over ink and paper

The Stanford electronic dissertation program, launched last November, offers doctoral students the option of submitting their dissertations electronically. 

L.A. Cicero Hrefna Gunnarsdottir

Hrefna Gunnarsdottir

When Hrefna Gunnarsdottir considered the two ways she could file her dissertation about the terrain on Mars – lug four unbound copies to the Registrar's Office or press the "submit" button on her computer – the decision was an easy one. 

"Over the years, I've watched countless students spend days trying to find the best color printer, fixing images so that they print correctly and waiting long into the night so that they can print uninterrupted from shared printers," said Gunnarsdottir, who recently earned a doctorate in electrical engineering at Stanford. 

"I also knew that there was significant cost involved in buying the proper archival-quality paper, and that there were considerable filing charges. I was therefore very happy to be free of the hassle of printing and the expense of filing paper copies." 

Gunnarsdottir was one of 60 doctoral students who filed their dissertations electronically, under a new Stanford program announced late last year. One graduate student, who earned an Engineer degree last quarter, also took advantage of the new program and filed his thesis electronically. An Engineer degree prepares students for a career in industry. 

All told, 114 doctoral students filed dissertations during autumn quarter. 

Pent-up demand for digital 

Reid Kallman, assistant university registrar, said the Registrar's Office was "pleasantly surprised" that more than 50 percent of last quarter's graduating doctoral students took advantage of the new program, especially on such short notice. 

The program, which was developed by the Registrar's Office, Stanford University Libraries & Academic Information Resources, and Administrative Systems, "went live" on the registrar's website on Nov. 9. The dissertation submission deadline for autumn quarter was Dec. 4, less than a month later.

Still, Kallman knew from experience that most graduate students submit their dissertations during the last two weeks before the deadline. He also knew there was pent-up demand for electronic filing, because students had asked about the possibility in recent years. 

"We expect a larger percentage of PhD students to file electronically during winter quarter, because the option will be open to them the entire time," Kallman said. "As students begin filing electronically and talking about the new option in their departments, we're hopeful other students will submit electronically too." 

The deadline for submitting dissertations – electronic and print versions – this quarter is March 12. 

Digital pioneers from many fields of study 

The doctoral students who chose the digital route last quarter came from five of Stanford's seven schools: Earth Sciences (1), Education (2), Medicine (7), Humanities and Sciences (15) and Engineering (35). 

Gunnarsdottir's 160-page dissertation, "Modeling the Martian Surface Using Bistatic Radar at High Incidence Angles," honed an existing method for evaluating the roughness of the planet's terrain – one of many factors NASA uses to select landing sites for spacecraft. 

She used "The Dish," the 150-foot diameter radio telescope located in the Stanford foothills, to beam a signal to Mars. Then she analyzed the surface echo detected by the orbiting 2001 Mars Odyssey, the NASA spacecraft carrying science experiments designed to improve understanding of the planet's climate and geologic history. 

"Our results were incorporated into the landing site selection of the 2007 Mars Phoenix Lander," said Gunnarsdottir, who earned a bachelor's degree in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Iceland in 1999, and a master's degree in electrical engineering at Stanford in 2002. 

The first group of e-dissertations filed at Stanford also included the following works: 

  • "When the 'Other' is Ourselves: Imperial Legacies, Tourist Imaginaries and the Representation of Difference in Chicano/a Travel Writing and Cultural Production," by Vida Mia Garcia, modern thought and literature.
  • "Novel Targets Within the Hepatitis C Virus Nonstructural Protein NS4B and Their Inhibition Using Distinct Classes of Small Molecules," by Paul D. Bryson, microbiology and immunology.
  • "Anger in the Workplace: Effects of Gender and Frequency in Context on Social and Job-Related Outcomes," by Kristen B. Backor, sociology.
  • "A Hybrid Model for Timbre Perception: Quantitative Representations of Sound Color and Density," by Hiroko Terasawa, computer-based music theory and acoustics.
  • "State, Market and Bureau-Contracting in Reform China," by Yuen Yuen Ang, political science. 

What happens next? 

The digital dissertations will be stored in the Stanford Digital Repository, which provides digital preservation services for scholarly resources, helping to ensure their integrity, authenticity and usability over time. 

Stanford Libraries is expected to post the dissertations on its website this quarter. 

They will be available as PDF files to the Stanford community through Socrates, the university's online library catalog, and available to the world through Google, which will serve as a third-party distributor. 

Stanford Libraries also will print one hard copy of each electronic dissertation for the Stanford University Archives

For those who filed dissertations in print, the Registrar's Office will send copies of their dissertations to Stanford Libraries, University Archives, the doctoral student's department and ProQuest, a Michigan company that publishes more than 60,000 graduate works every year and lists them in Dissertation Abstracts Online.

While students who submitted their work on paper pay $126 to $221 in fees to the Registrar's Office, there is no charge for those who filed electronically. 

Assistant University Librarian Mimi Calter said the library is currently processing the five dozen electronic dissertations and the lone electronic Engineer thesis that were submitted last quarter. 

"We need to ensure that all user restrictions are properly vetted, and we are deliberately taking time to review that before posting," she said. 

Under Stanford's new program, doctoral students may limit the amount of text that will be visible via Google, and may select and apply a license from Creative Commons, a nonprofit company that provides free licenses for creative works. Like the doctoral students who chose print, those who filed their dissertations electronically may also delay the release of their work. 

Most of the Stanford graduate students who uploaded their dissertations – 47 out of 60 – chose to display their dissertations in their entirety. 

Most of the students – 52 out of 60 – selected the "attribution non-commercial" license from Creative Commons. 

"This license lets other remix, tweak and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don't have to license their derivative works on the same terms," the company said on its website. 

More than half of the doctoral students – 36 out of 60 – chose to release their dissertation immediately. Ten of them chose to delay the release for six months; nine chose a one-year embargo; five chose a two-year delay. 

Gunnarsdottir, who chose to release her dissertation immediately and in its entirety, said she had mixed feelings about her work becoming instantly available around the world via Google. 

"I'm somewhat excited, but also nervous that it will be out there for the whole world to see," she said.