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.
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.
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.’
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.