£160 for a copy of a dissertation

November 29, 2021

As I was clearing out some old documents, I stumbled on this form from 2006:

This was back when Paul Upchurch’s dissertation, then only 13 years old, contained much that still unpublished in more formal venues, notably the description of what was then “Pelorosaurusbecklesii. As a fresh young sauropod researcher I was keen to read this and other parts of what was then almost certainly the most important and comprehensive single publication about sauropods.

I remember contacting Paul directly to ask if he could send a copy, but he didn’t have it in electronic form. So I wrote (on his advice, I think) to Cambridge University Library to request a copy from them. The form is what I got back, saying sure I could have a copy — for £160.08 if I wanted a photocopy, or £337.80 for a microfilm. Since inflation in the UK has run at about 2.83% per year since 2006, that price of £160.08 back then is equivalent to about £243 in today’s money.

Needless to say, I didn’t pursue this any further (and to my shame I’m not even sure I bothered replying to say no thanks). To this day, I have never read Paul’s dissertation — though 28 years after it was completed, it’s obviously less relevant now than it was back in the day.

What is the point of this story? What information pertains?

My point isn’t really “Look how exploitative Cambridge University Library’s pricing is” — I have no experience in running a library, and no realistic sense of what it costs in staff time and materials to make a photocopy of a substantial dissertation. Perhaps the price was only covering costs.

The point instead is: look how things have changed. Newly minted Ph.Ds now routinely deposit copies of their dissertations in repositories where they can be freely read by anyone, anywhere. Here is one recent example from my own university: Logan King’s 2021 dissertation, Macroevolutionary and Ontogenetic Trends in the Anatomy and Morphology of the Non-Avian Dinosaur Endocranium.

This is important. I often think about the Library Loon’s 2012 blog-post Framing Incremental Gains. It’s easy, if you’re in open-access advocacy, to feel the burden of how ssslllooowwwlllyyy things seem to change. Sometimes I’ve heard people claim that nothing has changed in the last 30 years. I completely understand the frustration that leads people to say such things. But it’s not true. Things have changed a lot, and are still changing fast. We seem to be past the tipping point where more than half of all newly published papers are open access. There is a lot to celebrate.

Of course that’s not to deny that there’s plenty more work to be done, and plenty of other ways our present scholarly publishing infrastructure desperately needs changing. But in pushing for that, let’s not neglect how much things have improved.

6 Responses to “£160 for a copy of a dissertation”

  1. dale m. Says:

    Things almost always improve incrementally but, we rarely see them go forward in leaps and bounds. There is a terrible lack of inertia that drags things across that type of landscape.

    To give an example drawn from my own experiences (nothing to do with publishing). If one goes back in the literature (1960s), a new process of casting was developed shifting from plaster to resins (needing latex and silicone rubbers and fiberglass matts and cloths). Today, 60 years later, the skill set for molding/ casting has been very finally honed. It takes years of experience. Thus a large sauropod 20 years ago would have cost $80.000. just in materials alone. Entire labs with ventilation systems are needed just to handle the toxic chemicals. So what’s the point you ask ?

    Back in the late 70s, an American preparator and I (working separately), developed a new as yet untried system to get costs down. We both failed. But the idea was intriguing. It was that preparator’s work and Edwin H. Colbert’s encouragement that pushed me out onto a very different path. A path not yet fully explored. Some 25 years later, I gave it another shot and succeeded when I realized that our methodology and type of variant in our materials needed correcting..

    To this day, I don’t know how either one of us possibly missed that. I got together with another preparator here in Canada (both of us now retired), to test this all out. So I built a large ceratopsian with this new system. It worked. But I also had to do away completely with clay. I eliminated both rubbers and resins. We calculated that a large sauropod could easily be built for about $1900. in addition to the fact that we could now produce the same model from scratch as fast as it would take a team to pull a cast of another sauropod. The technique allows us to do that. So every “cast” would be a variant and not an exact duplicate.

    I had to reinvent new sculpting tools as I was sculpting in materials just a little bit more stable than a soap bubble which would eventually harden to almost fiberglass hardness resulting in very high definition. I could only spray on the details. That’s how radically different the new system is. It’s taken me another 20 years in various attempts to raise monies (start-up costs) from the business world (no success).

    Back in the early 60s, I was working on something even more radical. It was how to reduce construction costs of a building by 98%. While that also came about in the 1970s by a group of architects who were snubbed by the construction world, that team finally had to build their own construction company. The demand wasn’t there, so they closed shop (but not B4 I got their system into my library).

    The building construction and interiors I have down pat. In 1983, I concentrated on something even more important. Funding Research. That is my top priority even today where I should be able to swing all this together into one neat little package. None of what I have accomplished has anything whatsoever to do with palaeontology. And it was never the reason I actually got into the field. On this note, I am no different than anyone else. Yet, what I have accomplished has absolutely everything to do with the science.

    One more year. One last attempt to bring this forward. Then I’m done.

  2. Allen Hazen Says:

    University policies differed in the bad old days. When I wrote my Ph.D, back in the mid 1970s, most U.S. universities deposited copies of Ph.D. theses with an outfit called University Mirofilms, which would sell print-on-demand copies for, I think, in the neighbourhood of US$30. (Harvard was an exception: even now, Harvard theses are harder to access than most.) A few years later some graduate student at Oxford wanted to look at my thesis, and the Bodleian bought a copy — one of the about two copies sold to people outside my immediate family!

  3. dimetroblog Says:

    I feel you, Mike. I remember during my Master 1, in the MNHN, where I had to read Vigneaud’s PhD (1995) on the anatomy and taxonomy of thalattosuchians for my memoir. Unfortunately, it had to be on microfilms. I remember spending hours browsing it in the library, taking notes on pages and pages. I was forbidden to copy or print it, since it was a thesis, even though it was already 12 years old at the time. Of course, there was no way to search for specific terms either.

    And I am not even taking into account the thousands of pages I copied, then scanned page by page, then scanned directly into a pdf, then browsed the web looking for the very same papers, wondering why I had to lose a good part of my PhD time to do that since these editors and libraries decided to put these papers online without telling me before.

    What ? Me frustrated ? :-D

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Sounds like your experience was far, far worse than mine, dimetroblog!

  5. leecris12 Says:

    In the U.S., there’s a way around this nonsense by way of Interlibrary Loan. You request the article or dissertation you want to read by way of the library at your institution. Recently, most articles arrive from the holding institution as scanned Adobe .pdf electronic files that your library emails to you. If it’s a book, however, it will be shipped to your library, and they will notify you of the due date when it must be returned to them. They then ship it back to the holding library. Most times, you pay nothing for these services if you are on staff or a student at your institution.

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