At The University of Manchester Library, we’re passionate about supporting and facilitating Open Access (OA) research and helping our Postgraduate research (PGR) students to thrive. These concerns form two key elements of our new Library Strategy to support the University in producing world class research. Last year I worked with colleagues across the University to target these important areas simultaneously, by introducing an Open Access policy for postgraduate research theses. One year and 999 thesis submissions later, 88% of final theses have been approved to be immediately OA or OA within 12 months of submission. The success of the policy so far suggests an appetite for OA amongst PGR students and their supervisors at Manchester.
Motivations for an Open Access policy for theses
Manchester is committed to ensuring as wide an audience as possible can read the outputs of its research. In 2016, following the launch of Research England (previously HEFCE)’s OA policy, we introduced our long-planned institutional policy, requiring all staff to make their published papers OA. The University recognises postgraduate theses as valuable research outputs, and Manchester Doctoral College champions the importance of treating PGR students as academic staff wherever possible. We were keen to bring PGRs and theses in line with Manchester’s other academics and research outputs, to ensure everyone can benefit from this important work, complementing ongoing work by the Library’s Content, Collections and Discovery team to digitise older, paper-based theses.
We’ve supported electronic submission of PhD theses since 2010, and around 1,000 PGRs use our bespoke eThesis submission system developed by the Library each year. Having expert developers in-house who built and maintain this system allows us to offer a consistently high level of support, as well as being able to adapt the system to support the OA policy without having to submit costly work requests to external developers.
PGRs are supported by a range of University departments, from administrators in Faculties, to development officers tasked with training, and senior leaders responsible for graduate education, so it was important to consult with key stakeholders throughout the project. The outcome was a refreshed submission form, enhanced submission management system, and brand new supervisor approval portal which have all proven straightforward for students, supervisors and administrators to use. We’ve also improved our eThesis Support Service webpages, with dedicated pages for different stakeholders offering a more personalised user experience, and developed robust guidance materials and well-received student and supervisor training.
Access decisions: a clear preference for Open Access
Our PGRS can choose from two access levels within the terms of the policy: immediate OA or OA with a 12 month embargo, or they can request an exception to the thesis OA policy. If they request an exception, they select from five formally agreed reasons, related to sponsorship or sensitive content, plus a free text ‘Other’ box. They can then select an exceptional access level: a 2 year or 5 year embargo, or indefinite closed access.
To ensure that appropriate access levels are applied to theses, we added a supervisor approval step to the thesis submission process. Supervisors access a dedicated portal to either approve or override their student’s access level selection, based on their understanding of the policy and the specific requirements of the student’s thesis. The final thesis is made available via the University’s Research Explorer according to the supervisor’s approved access level.
Since we launched the policy in June 2017, 999 students have completed eThesis submission, and 877 (88%) of these have selected an access level in line with the policy: either immediate OA or a 12 month embargo. This suggests that the majority of students feel it’s appropriate to make their thesis open within 12 months of submission, and are therefore able to comply with the policy. Although the data suggest an overall increase in OA for Manchester theses, introducing the option of a 12 month embargo means that a higher proportion of our theses are only becoming OA after a delay. Prior to the policy, approximately 60% of theses were made immediately OA, compared to around 52% now. Although we’d like to see the selection of immediate OA increase, on the whole I feel this dip is a reasonable trade-off for improved thesis access long-term.
Most supervisors have endorsed their student’s preferred access level, approving the selection in 71% of cases (708 submissions), and only overriding 35 selections (3.5%). Where students requested exceptions to the policy, the most common reason was that the thesis contained data likely to be included in future research by supervisor or collaborators (39 cases, 4% of all submissions). We deliberately omitted publishing plans from the agreed reasons for requesting an exception, as we wanted to avoid prejudicing students against making their work open within 12 months for this reason. As most academic publishers don’t consider a thesis to be a prior publication, we opted to handle this issue by exception, providing guidance on our support website, and less than 2% of submitting students opted for a longer embargo for this reason.
One year on: embedding Open Access into the thesis submission process
A year on from launch, both the policy and revised submission process are well-established. The system architecture has worked consistently and effectively, including during our peak submission period in late September – its first major test – when 314 submissions took place in one week. We’ve only had a small number of enquiries from students and supervisors concerned about access levels, and responses are generally favourable once the policy’s motivations and requirements are explained.
Some follow-up work was required to address a handful of issues including handling redacted theses; improving back-end functionality to aid monitoring of access levels; and enhancements to how theses are displayed in our Research Explorer. Aside from these issues, we’ve succeeded in embedding OA considerations into the PhD submission process, and we’ll continue to explore ways in which we can support PGRs on their academic journeys, and open up Manchester’s research to the world.