Jesse Stommel

Executive Director, Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at University of Mary Washington

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Who Controls Your Dissertation?

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Image: Creative Commons licensed image by flickr user sunlight cardigan

“The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition.” ~Walter Benjamin, from “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

In February 2012, I discovered that ProQuest was marketing my dissertation online through Amazon. At the time, I made little note of it, aside from a few passing grumbles. I didn’t suspect my dissertation was going to see wild sales, nor did I have particular qualms about it being made available.

In fact, in 2010, when my university required me to submit my dissertation to ProQuest, I had even authorized the company to publish and sell my dissertation through its website. At the time, I did not expect that ProQuest would market my work for sale at the biggest book store in the world, but I was not all that surprised to see that happen. I attribute my lack of reaction to the bystander effect. I figured someone else would be on the case -- that ProQuest had snuck something through in the fine print of our contracts and would be called out by someone more important than me.

I barely gave it another thought until two years later, in 2014, when I came across a discussion about the same thing on Facebook among a group of recent graduate students. I was ultimately less concerned about my own dissertation and more concerned about colleagues who felt they’d had their work published on Amazon against their express wishes. Almost immediately, I tweeted: “Dear @ProQuest, what would a person need to do to get their dissertation removed from @amazon? Also, who's collecting profits on those?” The ensuing conversation lasted several days and spanned Twitter, Facebook, email, and the comment threads of news stories about the problem.

My disagreement with this practice: Many recent graduate students were unaware that ProQuest could (or would) sell their dissertations on Amazon. A dissertation is most often a work in progress, which means graduate students need to be able to make critical choices about when and how the work is disseminated. For example, they might be revising the work into a book manuscript that a publisher could reject if the dissertation is already public.

ProQuest responded to my question with a link to its FAQ page that included this very brief explanation: “ProQuest no longer provides graduate works to third-party retailers for distribution. Our reseller program with Amazon is being discontinued, with all existing agreements ending in 2014.” The lines had been added to its site, over the summer of 2014, with little fanfare. I thanked the company for the update but continued to push the bigger issue I had also raised.

Dear @proquest, I don't want my dissertation in the @turnitin database. Make this about agency in what happens to our work, not profit.

— Jesse Stommel (@Jessifer) November 9, 2014

To which, ProQuest responded, “Turnitin is a plagiarism detection service to protect scholarly work.” We do not protect scholarly work by creating a culture of suspicion about student writing. We do not protect scholarly work by turning originality into an algorithm. And we do not protect scholarly work by requiring students to upload and thus license their intellectual property to a corporation that profits off the database it builds from that work. That is Turnitin’s business model.

It is one thing to knowingly choose to license your work. (In fact, I’m releasing my dissertation freely with a Creative Commons license as of this post.) I’m also not opposed to people choosing to sell their dissertations. But those are careful decisions that authors should be able to make on their own about their work. When an author is a student, the issue of agency becomes all the more critical.

The rampant abuse of intellectual property by corporations should not be supported (or demanded) by instructors, departments, and educational institutions that ought to be protecting and advocating on behalf of graduate students and their work. In an interview published at Hybrid Pedagogy in the midst of my conversation with ProQuest, I remarked, “Students shouldn’t be required by supposedly nonprofit educational institutions to publish their theses or dissertations on corporate platforms like ProQuest. They shouldn’t be forced to upload their intellectual property to profit-driven and often predatory sites like Turnitin. Students need to be … allowed to make critical decisions about what happens to their work and where it will live.” When students are required to upload their dissertations or theses to platforms like ProQuest and Turnitin (which many institutions mandate for graduation), the work becomes a mere exercise, not something they can take full ownership of -- literally or figuratively. That is not “protecting scholarly work,” by any measure I can muster.

For me, student agency is at the heart of both issues. But I'm bothered more by ProQuest’s continuing partnership with Turnitin than I was by its former deal with Amazon.

In “Arguing Against Turnitin,” Rebecca Moore Howard writes that the Turnitin platform “keeps both instructors and students focused on the avoidance of plagiarism rather than on the larger and more compelling questions of responsible and authentic engagement with sources.” Students, dissertators, anyone uploading their work to Turnitin is turned from a learner into a potential plagiarizer, and the teaching moment (about attribution, citation, and scholarly generosity) is given away to an algorithm.

In a 2012 press release, Turnitin announced that it had already added “more than 300,000 dissertations and theses from 2008 to the present to the Turnitin comparison database.” As of this writing, I still have not received a sufficient answer about how to have my work removed from its database. Turnitin never responded to my messages. ProQuest was incredibly responsive throughout our interactions, but ultimately passed the onus onto Turnitin. I did, however, get this ominous line in a message from ProQuest’s director of scholarly communication and dissertations publishing: “Regarding the turnitin.com relationship, we have been working with turnitin.com since 2012 and adding dissertations on a regular basis.” It seems that 300,000 dissertations and theses is only the start.

@krisshaffer @jessifer this is important. I've long thought - sadly - that it would be professors' complaints that stop @turnitin 's IP grab

— Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) November 11, 2014

The deeper problem is that, while a flurry of professors tweeting at ProQuest might get a response, these corporations rarely listen to (or take seriously) the concerns (or rights) of students. For example, an article from the Turnitin Help Center provides these instructions for students wishing to delete their work from the database: “Please contact your instructor regarding paper deletion. The instructor will then need to contact the school's Turnitin Administrator.”

I find myself needing to repeat this, because it is so absurd: Students must get their teachers to request that the students’ own intellectual property be removed from the database.

And here is the license being granted to Turnitin, according to its usage policy: “non-exclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, world-wide, irrevocable license to reproduce, transmit, display, disclose, and otherwise use your Communications on the Site or elsewhere for our business purposes. We are free to use any ideas, concepts, techniques, know-how in your Communications for any purpose, including, but not limited to, the development and use of products and services based on the Communications.” What I see there is a blur of words and phrases separated by commas, of which “royalty-free, perpetual, world-wide, irrevocable” are but a scary few. The rat-a-tat-tat of nouns, verbs, and adjectives is so bewildering that almost anyone would blindly click “agree” just to avoid the deluge of legal gobbledygook. But these words are serious and their ramifications pedagogical.

The fundamental issue here is not plagiarism, not credentialing, not protecting scholarly work, but control. And, ultimately, a dissertation should be about education, not a bureaucratic institutional hoop. It should be an opportunity for learning not a mere measure of it. And this learning must put the learner first. Corporate interest should not be allowed to pry this object from its shell.

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