Tag Archives: theses

Choosing from a cornucopia: a digitisation project

As part of Open Access Week 2016, the Office of Scholarly Communication is publishing a series of blog posts on open access and open research. In this post Drs Danny Kingsley and Matthias Ammon describe the process of choosing theses to digitise.

For decades microfilm was the way documents were photographed and stored. The British Library holds a collection of 14,000 Cambridge PhD theses on microfilm. These date back to the 1960s and go through to 2008 when digitisation took over from microfilm. In 2016 the Office of Scholarly Communication (OSC) was contacted by the British Library with an offer of low cost digitisation of these theses.

Clearly being able to upload these theses to University’s repository, Apollo would make the works more visible. It would also be a major improvement on having to request the works be digitised from paper, because the cost was significantly lower. Even though we did not have permission from the authors to make the work openly available, they would be requestable. The OSC decided to invest £20,000, which would pay for 10% of the theses, a total of 1,400.

There were two primary criteria that we were considering in choosing which theses to upload – the quality of the finished product and the likelihood of the theses being requested.

Quality of digitisation

Before word processing, theses were typewritten. The typeprint in the originals is not always clear and even. In addition, images were glued into the works and those images themselves were not always originals, so the quality of a copy is poor.

We needed to look at whether these types of issues affected the quality and readability of a thesis digitised from microfilm. In addition, one advantage of having a digitised thesis is the ability to run Optical Character Recognition (OCR) over it so the work becomes searchable. However OCR does not work on handwriting or if the type is uneven.

To test this, the OSC decided to ask the British Library to digitise a few samples from older theses and from theses that contained unusual characters or maps to ascertain the quality of the digitisation. Louise Clarke, the Superintendent in the Manuscripts Reading Room considered the British Library list and found some examples of theses that that had not been digitised at our end. She identified some sample pages to be scanned that might prove to be challenging.

When the scans arrived, Sarah Middle, our repository manager assessed the visual quality and tried to run OCR over the scans to test for accuracy.

  • The scan of 1997 thesis that contained photos, diagrams and equations, had fuzzy text at the edges but was generally legible and the OCR samples were accurate. However the photos looked very dark.
  • The 1968 thesis that contained typed Greek characters had a poorer scan quality. It was ‘shadowy’ and some of the letters in the English text blur together. This meant OCR was almost pointless in some places as the accuracy is so low. In addition OCR did not pick up all the Greek characters, although we were not sure this would be better if the scan was done in-house from the original.
  • A 1977 thesis that included handwritten Hebrew characters had much better visual quality than the 1968 thesis but OCR didn’t pick up the handwritten Hebrew at all and while the accuracy of OCR on the English text was much higher than the 1968 thesis it was not as good as the 1997 thesis.
  • The final thesis was a 1989 thesis that contained images of handwriting and equations in the text. This handwriting had been rendered as an image so OCR was not applied. Given that in this particular work the handwriting was there for illustrative purposes so this was not in itself an issue. Something that was odd was the OCR on the text seemed to include a lot of Greek characters, even though there were none in the sample. We hypothesised that possibly because some of the equations contained Greek characters this might have confused the language settings. The mathematical formulae rendered about as well as expected from OCR.

We then went back to Louise Clarke and asked her to scan the pages from the original as a comparison. Even allowing for the fact that a professional scan by the Digital Content Unit would have been of higher quality, it did help the assessment. We found that the photo was lighter (and therefore clearer) in the digital scan from the original, but the text from the scanned microfilm was much clearer than a 200dpi scan from the original.

This process led to the conclusion that we would have the best results if we focused on more recent theses.

Which subjects?

We decided to take advantage of some information already in house on which theses were likely to be more read. Until recently, Cambridge PhD students only had to provide a hardbound copy of their thesis for graduation. While in the past few years, some PhD students have uploaded their theses to the repository to make them open access, the majority are not available in this format.

If a researcher wanted to look at a Cambridge PhD they either had to come to the University Library and read the work in the Manuscripts Reading Room, or order a digital copy. The Digital Content Unit in the Library manages these requests for digitisation. Indeed last year during Open Access Week we blogged about the project to upload the collection of scanned theses into the repository and the attempt to find the authors for permission to make them open access.

What this gave us, however, was an indication of the theses that people wanted to read. We were particularly interested to know if there was a pattern in terms of the subjects that were being requested for digitisation.

Our repository manager went through the list of all theses that had been requested and found 452 distinct classmarks in the correct format, which seemed like a good sample size. Our initial plan was to see if the classmarks (which are codes used to identify the subject of a book or manuscript) provided for each thesis could be compared to the catalogue to retrieve department information/subject headings, which we could in turn use as a basis to select the theses.

Unfortunately our technical team was tied up at the time with the implementation of a new library management system so we had to revert to a manual process.  This  meant looking the thesis up manually in the catalogue and noting the department. In the end Louise Clarke checked 200 of the theses requested between July 2015 and July 2016  to establish which departments the theses belonged to.

Based on these statistics History was a clear outlier as by far the most requested subject. Also popular, but to a less statistically significant level, were subjects such as Engineering, Social Anthropology, Chemistry and Divinity. It should be noted that Engineering produces by far the largest number of theses overall, so the inclusion of Engineering theses in this list would be expected.

So far, so good. We knew the subjects that we should focus on, and that we should aim to digitise more recent theses that had been created with word processing. Now for the grunt work of choosing the 10%.

Choosing the 10%

Obviously the first thing we needed to do was exclude all of the theses we held open access in the repository and any that we had digitised ourselves from the original from the list of 14,000 microfilmed theses.

The British Library holdings contained Dewey numbers. While Dewey numbers are only an approximation of departmental divisions within the University, it was still a mechanism to identify the subjects. Our repository manager Sarah Middle collated the Dewey numbers for the British Library holdings and the project manager Matthias Ammon performed a rough sorting of theses according to the main Dewey number headings.

We decided to include all of the History theses going back to 1980. These corresponded to Dewey classes 90x, 92x, 93x, 94x, 95x, 96x, 97x, 98x and 99x) going back to 1980. There were a total of 756 theses, just over half of the total list.

In the end, the rest up to 1400 was filled up with subjects that appeared to be popular based on the sample analysis and roughly adjusted for the total number of theses produced in each subject in the University, with more recent cut-off points for the science subjects. While Classics was a popularly requested subject, the number of items available in the British Library’s microfilm holdings in the corresponding Dewey classes (84x and 88x) was small.

The decision was taken to include:

  • Chemistry back to 1990 (a total of 181)
  • Engineering back to 1995 (a total of 140)
  • Sociology and Anthropology, covering several departments of the University (a total of 216)
  • Philosophy (63)
  • Religion (30)
  • Classics (14)

While there was a certain element of arbitrariness in the process, this was considered a starting point. We are hopeful the remainder of the theses held on microfilm by the British Library will be digitised in due course.

Making the theses available

The British Library subsequently scanned our selection and provided us with the files on an external drive earlier this year. We were able to extract the metadata from EThOS to allow for a bulk upload of the works. However, this project has made us assess the way we were managing access to theses in the Library. This policy thinking has now been completed and we are developing an online request system for these restricted theses. The whole set of 1,400 theses should be available in the repository for request during November.

The Office of Scholarly Communication is grateful for the support of the Arcadia fund, a charitable foundation of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin for this project.

Published 25 October 2017
Written by Dr Danny Kingsley and Dr Matthias Ammon
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Who is requesting what through Cambridge’s Request a Copy service?

In October last year we reported on the first four months of our Request a Copy service. Now, 15 months in, we have had over 3000 requests and this provides us with a rich source of information to mine about the users of our repository.  The dataset underpinning the findings described here is available in the repository.

What are people requesting?

We have had 3240 requests through the system since its inception in June 2016. Of those the vast majority have been for articles 1878 (58%) and theses 1276 (39%). The remaining requests are for book chapters, conference objects, datasets, images and manuscripts. It should be noted that most datasets are available open access which means there is little need for them to be requested.

Of the 23 requests for book chapters, it is perhaps not surprising that the greatest number  – 9 (39%) came for chapters held in the collections from the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. It is however possibly interesting that the second highest number – 7 (30%) came for chapters held in the School of Technology.

The School of Technology is home to the Department of Engineering which is the University’s largest department. To that end it is perhaps not surprising that the greatest number of articles requested were from Engineering with 311 of the 1878 requests (17%) from here. The areas with next most requested number of articles were, in order, the Department for Public Health and Primary Care, the Department of Psychiatry, the Faculty of Law and the Judge Business School.

What’s hot?

Over this period we have seen a proportional increase in the number of requests for theses compared to articles. When the service started the requests for articles were 71% versus 29% for theses. However more recently, theses have overtaken request for articles to a ratio of 54% to 46%.

The most requested thesis, by a considerable amount, over this period was for Professor Stephen Hawking’s thesis with double the number of requests of the following ten most requested theses. The remaining top 10 requested theses are heavily engineering focused, with a nod to history and social research. These theses were:

The top 10 requested articles have a distinctly health and behavioural focus, with the exception of one legal paper authored by Cambridge University’s Pro Vice Chancellor for Education, Professor Graham Virgo.

When are people requesting?

Looking at the day of the week people are requesting items, there is a distinct preference for early in the week. This reflects the observations we have made about the use of our helpdesk and deposits to our service – both of which are heaviest on Tuesdays.

When in the publication cycle are the requests happening?

In our October 2016 blog we noted that of the articles requested in the four months from when the service started in June 2016 to the end of September 2016, 45% were yet to be published, and 55% were published but not yet available to those without a subscription to the journal.  The method we used for working this out involved identifying those articles which had been requested and determining if the publication date was after the request.

Now, 15 months after the service began it is slightly more difficult to establish this number. We can identify items that were deposited on acceptance because we place these items on a very long embargo (until 2100) until we can establish the publication date and set the embargo period. So in theory we could compare the number of articles with this embargo period against those that have a different date.

However articles that would provide a false positive (that appear to have been requested before publication) would be ones which had been published but we had not yet identified this – to give an indication of how big an issue this is for us, as of the end of last week there were 1768 articles in our ‘to be checked’ pile. We would also have articles that would provide a false negative (that appear to have been requested after publication) because they had been published between the request and the time of the report and the embargo had been changed as a result. That said, after some analysis of the requests for articles and conference proceedings, 19% are before publication. This is a slightly fuzzy number but does give an indication. 

How many requests are fulfilled?

The vast majority of the decisions recorded (35% of the total requests for articles, but 92% of the instances where we had a decision) indicate that the requestor shared their article with the requestor. The small number (3%) of  ‘no’ recordings we have indicate the request was actively rejected.

We do not have a decision recorded from the author in 62% of the requests. We suspect that in the majority of these the request simply expires from the author not doing anything. In some cases the author may have been in direct correspondence with the requestor. We note that the email that is sent to authors does look like spam. In our review of this service we need to address this issue.

Next steps

As we explained in October, the process for managing the requests is still manual. As the volume of requests is increasing the time taken is becoming problematic. We estimate it is the equivalent of 1 person day per week. We are scoping the technical requirements for automating these processes. A new requirement at Cambridge for the deposit of digital theses means there will be three different processes because requests for these theses will be sent to the author for their decision. These authors will, in most cases, no longer be affiliated with Cambridge. Requests for digitised theses where we do not have the author’s permission are processed within the Library and requests for articles are sent to the Cambridge authors.

Given the challenges with identifying when in the publication process the request has been made, we need to look at automating the system in a manner that allows us to clearly extract this information. The percentage of requests that occur before publication is a telling number because it indicates the value or otherwise of having a policy of collecting articles at the acceptance point rather than at publication.

Published 12 September 2017
Written by Dr Danny Kingsley
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Theses – releasing an untapped resource

As part of Open Access Week 2016, the Office of Scholarly Communication is publishing a series of blog posts on open access and open research. In this post Dr Matthias Ammon looks at theses and their use.

It may sound obvious, but PhD theses are a huge reservoir of original research content, given that each thesis represents at least three or four years’ focussed engagement with a specialised research topic. Traditionally, however, the results of this work have not been easily accessible.

A print copy of the approved thesis would be deposited in the library of the university where the PhD was undertaken so that access was mainly restricted to other members of that university. Interested readers have to travel to visit the library or rely on frequently costly interlibrary loans. While some of the research contained in theses would be published in articles or monographs, this still means that an enormous amount of research was and is effectively locked away.

Increasing access

With the changes in technology in recent decades allied with the rise of Open Access and institutional repositories, the accessibility of PhD theses in general has improved. In Australia, the Australian Digital Theses program began in 1998, expanding to the Australasian Digital Theses program in 2005. This used VT-ETD software to host digital theses at individual institutions which were collated to one search engine. The ADT website, a central metadata repository, was hosted at the University of New South Wales. This was decommissioned in 2011 as theses were migrated to their various institutional repositories. All Australian theses are now findable in Trove, the National Library of Australia’s Trove service. There are 334, 000 theses listed in Trove of which over 119,000 are available online.

A significant number of UK universities now require the deposit of a digital copy of a thesis in the university’s repository as a condition for awarding the PhD degree. Usually this entails making the thesis openly available although embargoes may be placed for reasons of confidentiality or commercial concerns. In addition, PhD students funded by any of the UK research councils under the RCUK Training Grant are required to make their theses available Open Access.

Although it is not yet mandatory at the University of Cambridge for PhD students to provide a digital copy of their thesis, students can voluntarily upload their approved dissertations to the institutional repository, Apollo. Approximately one in 10 PhD students do so. In the next couple of weeks, the Office of Scholarly Communication is embarking on a pilot for the systematic submission of digital theses with selected departments.

Finding theses

There are national and international repositories that aggregate access to PhD theses, such as the British Library’s EThOS (for the UK) or DART-Europe (for European universities), making it easier for interested researchers to find relevant material without having to trawl through individual repositories.

Open Access Theses and Dissertations aims to be the best possible resource for finding open access graduate theses and dissertations published around the world. Metadata (information about the theses) comes from over 1100 colleges, universities, and research institutions. OATD currently indexes 3,422,634 theses and dissertations.

NDLTD, the Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations provides information and a search engine for electronic theses and dissertations (ETDs), whether they are open access or not. The service also provides ‘Guidance Briefs’ on topics such as Copyright and Preserving and Curating ETD Research Data and Complex Digital Objects.

Proquest Theses and Dissertations (PQDT) is a database of dissertations and theses published digitally or in print. Note these are made available for a fee that does not benefit the author. [In September 2017 ProQuest contacted us to say they do pay royalties. Their policy is here.] In addition access to PQDT may be limited depending on local library licensing arrangements.

Looking to the past

So while it is looking likely that most future PhD theses will be available online (either freely or requestable), what about the vast number of PhD theses written up to this point? For context, Cambridge alone holds over 40,000 printed theses, with approximately 1100 being added every year. Approximately 2,000 of these have been digitised at the request of individuals wishing to have access to the theses.

Last year we ran an ‘Unlocking Theses’ project to increase the number of Open Access theses in the repository, which stood at about 600 at the beginning of 2015. The Library also held over 1200 scanned theses on an internal server. The Unlocking Theses project added all of these scanned theses held by the Library into the University repository. The Development and Alumni Office were able to provide contact details for just over 600 of these authors. The majority of these authors have now been contacted and we have had a 35% positive response rate from them.

As of today we hold 2257 theses in the repository of which half are Open Access. The remaining theses are currently held in a Restricted Theses Collection but the biographical information about these theses is searchable. Approximately one third of requests we have from our Request a Copy service is for these theses. In addition some authors have found their restricted thesis online and requested we open access to it.

Cambridge is currently working with the British Library to digitise some of the 14,000 Cambridge theses they hold on microfilm. Our finances do not stretch to the whole corpus, so we have decided to digitise ten percent. This has meant a process to determine which theses we choose to have digitised. Considerations have included the quality of digitisation from microfilm for typeset versus typewritten theses (and indeed whether the thesis is printed single or double sided because of shadowing). We have also chosen theses on the basis of those disciplines are highly requested from our Digital Content Unit. This has proved to be challenging, not least because of the difficulty of determining disciplines of theses from our library catalogue.

We are hoping to upload these theses to the repository towards the end of the year, and with the addition of several hundred theses that have been digitised this year from the Digital Content Unit will double the number of theses we hold in the repository.


There are several issues that need to be considered before theses can be made available openly. The first concerns third party copyright, that is to say the inclusion of quotations, images, photographs or other material that does not represent original work on behalf of the thesis author but has been taken from previously published work. There is generally no problem with including such material in the copy of the thesis submitted for examination and the print version deposited in the University library, but making the thesis freely available online constitutes a change of use and requires separate permissions. This is a problem that applies to both current and older theses and requires checks on behalf of the author and possibly the library.

Another issue related to copyright is the author’s permission to make the thesis available which is necessary because the author retains the copyright for his work. For current theses, this permission can be incorporated into the submission process, either as part of the requirement for the PhD or by the author signing an agreement when the thesis is voluntarily uploaded.

However, it is not so easy to obtain permission for retrospective digitisation as we discovered during our Unlocking Theses project. The contact details of alumni are not always known and in cases where the original author is deceased it may be challenging to establish the copyright holder, making it difficult to obtain an explicit ‘opt-in’ permission. Finally, there are financial considerations as the digitisation of large number of theses requires a significant outlay for staff, equipment and administrative costs.

Big projects

In recent years, a number of universities have undertaken large-scale digitisation projects of their holdings of PhD theses and have dealt with the permission issue in different ways.

The experience of these UK universities also appears to indicate that alumni are for the most part happy to see their theses made openly available. If more institutions follow suit and dedicate funding to opening up the research undertaken by generations of students this large reservoir of research will no longer remain untapped.

There are other challenges related to digital theses that still remain to be solved, such as the problem of linking theses to their associated data and the question of persistent identifiers to seamlessly integrate the output of both individual researchers and institutions. In the future, consideration should be given to non-text or multimedia PhDs, as was debated at a recent panel discussion at the British Library.

For now though, opening up access to decades’ or even centuries’ worth of scholarship sitting on university library shelves in the form of physical copies of PhD theses sounds like a good start.

Published 26 October 2016
Written by Dr Matthias Ammon and Dr Danny Kingsley
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