As I mentioned last week, EThOS is now open to the public. This is the British Library’s new online service for delivering copies of UK PhD theses, replacing the old British Thesis Service which used to supply copies on paper or microfilm. Although the site is officially in beta most features seem to be fully working. Right now there’s only a basic search (you can’t limit your search to specific fields) but it accepts wildcards and should be enough to find what you want if you know what you’re looking for. Searches can be limited to theses which are available for immediate download.
Theses are being digitized on demand. If someone has already requested and received a copy of a thesis then it will be available immediately for anyone else who wants it. There is no charge for downloading a thesis which has already been digitized, but you have to pay the cost of printing and binding if you prefer a hard copy. The publicity last year suggested that the first person to request a thesis would have to pay the costs of digitization, but now it looks like this will rarely happen because many university libraries have agreed to pay for digitization of their own theses as part of their commitment to open access. Once a new thesis has been requested digitization is promised in 10 working days although a notice on the site says there might be delays because of heavy demand. I ordered an undigitized thesis today (D. E. Lewis on the parliamentarian ordnance office – something I would have read during my PhD if I’d known about it), so we’ll see how long it takes.
Searching for “english civil war” limited to theses already available I got a couple of hits (there are lots more for “first world war”) and downloaded David Evans’s thesis on Edward Massey. I found it slightly annoying that I had to go through a checkout process even though the download was free, but it’s still an awful lot more convenient than paying around £50 and waiting several weeks the last time I ordered a thesis. The digital file is a PDF but it comes inside a zip file. That seemed slightly pointless as it didn’t make the download significantly smaller (12MB zipped, 14MB unzipped) and means that you can’t view the thesis straight away in your browser. It might make sense if multiple orders were combined in the same zip file, but even if you have more than one thesis in your basket you still have to download and unzip each one separately.
It looks like most UK universities are participating in the scheme, but significantly Oxford and Cambridge aren’t. Although their theses show up in the search results they can’t be ordered through the site. This might just result in fewer people bothering to read and cite theses from the big two, so it could be their loss as much as anyone else’s.
Overall I’m really impressed with this site. There are some minor things that could be improved, and it crashes occasionally, but it’s obviously going to be a very useful resource. I’m particularly pleased that in most cases users won’t have to pay for theses. I hope this will encourage people to be more adventurous about which theses they consult.