Creative writing theses: guidelines on discoverability and open access

On 5th May 2016, the Project attended a meeting at the British Library to discuss the issue of discoverability of creative writing theses. The meeting was organised by Dr Susan L. Greenberg (Senior Lecturer in the University of Roehampton’s Department of English and Creative Writing). She acted on behalf of the National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE) whose remit includes supporting the work of creative writing academics in the UK. The meeting brought together leading academics in the field of creative writing, as well as library staff from the British Library and university libraries. Discussions expanded well beyond the initial topic of discoverability, touching upon a wide range of issues. This blog post is a summary of the discussions that took place, and includes some important advice for those submitting creative writing PhD theses.

Discoverability

The initial topic of conversation was discoverability. A core concern is that it is difficult for researchers to find creative writing theses, particularly without an author name, and it is also difficult to advise students on how to find them. Dr Greenberg outlined this in an earlier blog post, but the conversation at the British Library meeting extended the scope of debate. The following issues may hamper the discoverability of creative writing theses:

  • The title of the thesis is often metaphorical, and may not be explicit.
  • Often there are no abstracts.
  • Accompanying metadata is often unclear, or even missing altogether.
  • The thesis can be in two parts – creative work and critical analysis – but this is not always the case. How are the different parts catalogued and searched for?
  • At an institutional level, the forms that must be filled in by PhD students are designed for other disciplines, and may not contain the fields required to make creative writing theses discoverable.
  • Creative theses that incorporate a media element cannot currently be deposited in EThOS.
  • International barriers exist: for example, a UK researcher faces difficulties finding and accessing theses from Australia.
  • There is a lack of consensus across institutions about terminology: creative writing PhDs are catalogued and described on EThOS in different ways, for instance:
    • PhD in Creative Writing
    • PhD in English Literature
    • PhD in English with Creative Writing
    • PhD in Critical and Creative Writing

EThOS does not have an option to catalogue a thesis under ‘creative writing’, so it must be included in the abstract/keywords if it is to appear.

In the meeting it became clear that there are numerous reasons for the difficulties outlined above, including a lack of clarity about who is responsible for training students in the use of electronic repositories. Should this be the role of specialist subject supervisors, graduate schools, or research training departments? As increasing technical demands are made on researchers, it is an issue that must be resolved.

Although the day was ostensibly about discoverability, it soon emerged that there were several other interconnected issues around creative writing theses in current and emerging academic and publishing contexts, which are described in the rest of this post.

Open Access mandates and institutional repositories

The major issues seemed to hinge on Open Access. UK university institutions now mandate their researchers to deposit their work in Open Access repositories, which has specific implications for creative writing researchers, as outlined below.

Intellectual Property

When EThOS was established, research by Charles Oppenheim on Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) concluded that publishing theses in repositories posed a very low risk to the rights of authors. But this is not the case for creative writing theses. While academic publishers are by and large prepared to publish a thesis available on a repository as long as it has been substantially revised, trade publishers may refuse publication of a creative writing theses in a similar position. Greenberg summarised the issue: ‘Having a pre-existing version anywhere, on any conditions, seems to be anathema.’

Version control

Creative writing theses that are later developed by publishers may be amended, ranging from the correction of minor typos to the incorporation of major plot changes. As one writer-academic stated at the meeting: ‘I’d much rather people accessed the revised, published version than the legally available version in a repository.’

Piracy

There is a major issue with piracy; one academic reported the example of a novel that became available as a free Torrent download within weeks of publication.

Embargoes

Researchers have the option to place their thesis under embargo for a fixed period – usually three to five years. This action can help with some of the issues discussed above, but prompts questions of its own. The first concerns knowledge: do all PhD students know that this option is open to them? If not, whose responsibility is it to make them aware? The second is the fixed-term nature of the embargo: can “never” be an option? And whose responsibility is it to renew embargoes once they expire, the library or the author? Libraries will probably not have current contact details for authors after 5 years, and the authors may forget.

From the non-author point of view, embargoes can have an adverse effect on the dissemination of research, impacting for example on individual scholars who would like to access the thesis to inform their own work. How is this overcome?

Policies on embargoes currently operate on a university-by-university level: perhaps national guidance on policy for creative writing theses is required.

Ethics

Creative writing theses that involve nonfiction accounts of living subjects raise specific issues. One participant described the case of a PhD supervisee writing a memoir which included anecdotes gathered from family funerals and other events. In the social sciences, the default assumption is that all identities are anonymised before thesis submission, but in the case of creative nonfiction (as with journalism) full anonymity is not always possible or desirable. This can create difficulties with ethics committees, because the projects do not fit into standard models built with other disciplines in mind. A different form and different process is required, but how will this be brought about?

Clearly, there are many complex issues and questions to be addressed:

  • Who should be the gatekeepers for creative writing theses: libraries and institutional repositories, or the authors?
  • How should this gatekeeping be managed so that creative writing theses are available for research, but not so publicly available that they hinder trade publication?
  • How are creative writing PhD students being trained in writing abstracts and metadata; using repositories; copyright? Who should deliver and teach this training?

All of the issues boil down to the fact that creative writing is a very distinct discipline with unique requirements. As Greenberg stated: ‘Creative writing as a relatively new discipline has had to constantly negotiate its way through the academic system in order to be recognised.’ These issues are highlighted anew by the mandate to move towards Open Access. Creative writing academics present at the meeting agree that now is the time to address them.

Practical Guidance for Creative Writing PhD Theses

One immediate practical outcome of the meeting is the launch of a new one-page document, backed by NAWE and the British Library, which gives staff and students advice on how to submit the electronic copy of their PhD thesis. The document has a Creative Commons license, allowing universities and other organisations to share it freely. You can download the document using the link below and share it freely.

NAWE-BL-General-Guidelines (pdf)

The Project would like to extend its thanks to all attendees of the meeting, in particular Dr Susan Greenberg for organising it, and Dr Ros Barber for creating the initial draft of the guidelines document.

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Life and times of an independent researcher: Publish or be damned?

This guest post is written by Catherine White, an independent researcher currently writing a biography on May Morris – the daughter of William Morris, Pre-Raphaelite, Socialist, and leader of the Arts & Crafts Movement. Catherine met the Project’s Research Associate, Rebecca Lyons, at the recent two-day conference on May Morris, co-organised by the V&A’s Clothworkers’ Centre, The William Morris Society, and the William Morris Gallery. Catherine’s experience of writing a distinctly interdisciplinary crossover book (i.e. one with appeal to both academia and the general public, and which crosses several areas of interest) and searching for a publisher whilst both an independent researcher and a new mother touches upon several key areas of the Project. Here she openly shares that experience.

May Morris

Image of May Morris from the George Grantham Bain collection at the Library of Congress.

In 2011, I saw a reference to May Morris. I had studied the Pre-Raphaelites and their circle for my Art History degree but had never come across her before. I subsequently found out she was a designer, embroiderer, jewellery-maker, writer, Socialist, part of the Arts & Crafts movement, and the daughter of William Morris. I was hooked. There has never been a sole biography of May, and so I decided that I would write one. Just after this, by sheer coincidence, I was introduced to a lady whose great aunt had worked for May Morris. She has generously allowed me to research her family archive, which contains an unpublished memoir and letters – and the rest is (art) history.

At the time I had a young daughter at home, and I took the chance to read as much as I could, whenever I could, to prepare for writing the book. Thanks to the wonder of the internet, any second-hand book I wanted to order could be delivered to my door. For those that were outrageously priced, I discovered that I could order in books from the British Library to my local library. Once my daughter started preschool, I used the two mornings a week to write. It was occasionally frustrating to have to leave a section mid-sentence, but it was mainly beneficial to have thinking time between each instalment. I recently came across a book called The Ladybird book of The Mid-life Crisis (Michael Joseph 2015), which had an illustration with the text caption of ‘Gwen has a 2:1 in Ancient History. She always planned to write a series of novels about Boadicea. Gwen is covered in apple sauce and has spent the afternoon clapping.’ Luckily it proved possible to combine the two (apple sauce and the book). It doesn’t seem to have done my daughter any harm, except that she has grown up sure that May Morris must be part of our family somehow.

In 2013, I approached my first publisher. Whilst knowing this would not be easy, I was fairly hopeful that the book was an attractive proposition because it was intended for a general rather than a specific audience. Although it is footnoted, and has unpublished information of interest to the academic community, May’s life has an appeal for a much wider audience, including those interested in the Pre-Raphaelites, the Arts & Crafts Movement, or social and political history, including the changing role of women – plus did I mention that May had a significant liaison with George Bernard Shaw? Yet this concept has actually brought its own challenges because it does not fit in a traditional publishing box. Publishers have expressed an interest in the proposal, but so far say that it doesn’t quite fit with their catalogue. It appears that academic publishers are more interested in a sole subject book, but this is not a purely academic book. I want this book to be accessible because it has such a great story to tell. An academic price tag of perhaps £50 or more would take it out of the reach of my core audience; those having heard of May Morris, or visiting an historic house associated with her, are unlikely to make such a purchase on a whim. General interest publishers could make this book affordable, but seem more wary of investing in a book on the single subject of May.

My other problem is that this book has to be illustrated. May Morris was responsible for making exquisite textiles and jewellery, and these have to be included, and in colour – which doubles the cost of production. This cost also means that self-publishing isn’t viable, nor was the offer from a publisher (my favourite rejection to date) who said they would publish it if I found £10,000 or a gallery willing to purchase 1000 copies of my book!

So where does this leave me? I am continuing to write the book, of course, and continuing to submit it to publishers. Finding a publisher has never been easy, and even May Morris despaired of finding one for her final book, which was eventually produced in 1936, just two years before her death. Overall, so far, I do not feel my book has suffered from not having a confirmed publisher; it has meant it could evolve at its own pace without the pressure of a deadline. There is a tipping point on the horizon though, which is a major May Morris exhibition planned by the William Morris Gallery in the autumn of 2017. Confirming a publisher now would enable me to prioritise my writing and aim for completion in time for the exhibition, but without one, I need to continue to combine writing with other work. But watch this (hopefully book-shaped) space!

Away with the monotonous monograph

I was fortunate to attend a terrific session at this year’s London Book Fair, organised by the brilliant project, The Academic Book of the Future. It was about the appeal of the crossover book: the holy grail of scholarly publishing that, like base metal turned into gold, somehow goes mass market and sells by the million.

But it got me thinking. The thrust of the discussion seemed to be about the challenge of commissioning: how to find the perfect topical book that goes viral. That’s great, but lots of authors research in areas that don’t tick those boxes, and precious few are in a position to abandon their research area just to work on something more media-friendly. I wonder if a different kind of crossover book lies just a little more within the grasp of the author.

Here’s the thing. Publishers define the success of a crossover book – no, in fact, they define a crossover book per se – by commercial return. A book has become a crossover book if it crosses the revenue divide between short-run university library market and Waterstones-at-Christmas mass market.

But I wonder if that distinction misses the point. Academic success isn’t measured by sales, but by that frightening concept, ‘impact’. You need to advance the conversation, cross disciplines, move on the lumbering caravan of debate, change the world. No pressure then.

I can’t helping thinking that a crossover book is more than just a bestseller (although let’s not pretend we don’t all want one or two of those). Surely the challenge lies less with our material and more with the way we communicate. I don’t buy this idea that only a handful of subjects are of wider interest. Readers are intelligent. They don’t need a Leverhulme Fellowship to follow your ideas… but they might need one to follow your writing style. I believe that if you can communicate better, you can cross over.

A monotonous book, written with heavy prose and a healthy dose of navel-gazing, a book that doesn’t give a damn about its audience and simply says ‘my ideas are good enough; I don’t need to explain them to you’, isn’t just failing to cross over. It’s failing full stop. In fact, some of the definitions of an academic book flying around at London Book Fair are enough to make us all pack up and go home: ‘when the author doesn’t care if the book is read or not’; ‘heavy, thick, annoying, dull, expensive’; ‘monotonous’.

But…

If you can write beautifully, clearly, passionately; if by your very words you can spin a story and engage an audience; if the prose is not scabrous but seductive (well, OK: let’s stick with ‘relatively jargon-free’); if you can make people sit up and say ‘my word, the Battle of Bramham Moor was about real people with real lives doing real things, not just three men and a horse having a barney in the fog’; well, then you’ve written a crossover book and hang the sales. Because you’ve reached out beyond your peer group. That may not be how publishers define crossover, but it surely improves the image of traditional academic writing.

So let’s write with a wider audience in mind. Not because it’s easy. But because the buck stops with us, the authors. Because revelling in obscurity is downright silly. And because it’s our research. Ours. Let’s write it as gloriously as we know how.

 

Martyn Lawrence

@martynlawrence

https://uk.linkedin.com/in/martynlawrence

Martyn Lawrence is Publisher at Emerald Group Publishing, with almost ten years experience of journals and serials acquisition. He holds a PhD from the University of York, and sits on taskforces that monitor open access, bibliometrics and the wider impact of scholarly research. A frequent contributor to international publishing workshops, he is a member of the ALPSP Government Affairs committee and incoming Publishing Manager at the Royal Armouries, Leeds.