The issue of plagiarism often arises among the arguments used to express skepticism with regard to putting theses online. In short, many people tend to think that because a digitized thesis is easily copied in part or in whole, it can be easily plagiarized. Consequently -so goes the reasoning - it is better to keep theses offline.
The argument is largely false and can be refuted fairly easily. To begin with, it is easy to recall that the invention of the Philosophical Transactions (1665) by Henry Oldenburg, the Secretary to the Royal Society in London, was motivated by the issue of intellectual property. Oldenburg reasoned that if the research results of Scientist X. were printed in a journal (after being certified as being of good quality and original) and that journal was made widely available through the multiplication of copies, then Scientist. X would have a better chance to lie ownership claims than if he/she held back these results. By apparently giving away the results of his/her work, a scientist ensures his/her intellectual property most effectively. The ability to compare new results to already published work makes plagiarism a very risky business at best.
Theses are not so well protected at present. Widely dispersed across many institutions in many countries (and languages), they are so poorly catalogued on a national or international basis that they often disappear from sight. This means that someone taking the time to read a thesis in a remote university in a country where the cataloguing is poorly organized may well be able simply to use that thesis and make it pass for one's own. Occasionally, such cases emerge in the literature, even in the United States despite the fact that the cataloguing of theses is most advanced in that country.
The paradox of placing theses on line, especially if these theses can be harvested through some technique that involves full text searching can help identify analogous texts rather easily. As a result, far from placing the digitized theses at risk, putting them on line in a manner that optimizes their access, irretrievability and, therefore, visibility, offers a very efficient way to protect intellectual property and prevent plagiarism. In fact, it would probably be relatively easy to design software that could make periodic sweeps through inter-operable theses collections according to ever more sophisticated algorithms in order to ferret out such possible forms of plagiarism. With many languages involved, it is clear that no perfect solution will ever appear; however, those theses available online will be more protected than theses that remain poorly catalogued and are not readily available outside the institution from which they are issued.
In effect, putting theses on-line amounts to rediscovering Oldenburg's wisdom when it comes to scientific intellectual property. It provides what could arguably turn out to be the best deterrent to plagiarism, wherever it may arise. The more theses appear on line, the fewer will be the chances of carrying on successful plagiarism.
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