ETD Guide/Universities/Policy Initiatives: The Case of France

In France, policies concerning the electronic distribution of theses derive from two different sources:

  • the public power, represented by the Ministry of Higher Education which, through the intermediaries of the Research Division (Direction de la Recherche) and the Library Division (Direction des Bibliothèques), has to date held the responsibility for the description and physical archiving of theses.
  • the university establishments possessing the ability to grant doctorates, be they universities or the major schools.

The regulatory framework was set by decree on 25 September 1985. The decree laid out the procedures for the submission, description and reproduction of theses or other works presented to obtain a doctorate. The current initiatives for the electronic distribution of theses are numerous and extremely varied, as much in their technical details as in their political ones. Over the past several months, there has been a tendency towards the coordination and grouping of initiatives. This has involved the creation of linkages and networks around establishments that have instituted technical archiving and distribution solutions.

The French system is currently structured on three levels:

  • A local level, based on the initiatives of certain producer institutions
  • A regional level, where a number of research institutions have aggregated at a regional or thematic level
  • A national level, based on the creation of a ministerial working group, following a circulated letter written by the Minister in October 2000. This working group must define a new regulatory framework.

The Local Level: the policy for the electronic distribution of theses at the Université Lumière Lyon2

The basic principle of the programme for the electronic distribution of theses, which was developed by the Université Lyon2 in partnership with the Université de Montréal, is to employ standardized formats which provide the conditions for perennial archiving and which permit distribution that guarantees effective and total interoperability. In most cases this involves formatting, so as to structure all the documents. This formatting is performed with computerized tools, and is necessary for widescale distribution over the internet. he Université Lumière Lyon2 changed the conditions for the electronic production, submission and distribution of theses when it introduced its Thesis Charter. This Charter spells out official conditions doctoral students must accept. In return, the students can receive supervision and training in the use of text processing tools within their research group.

This document guarantees the University’s commitment to support young scholars, so that they benefit from the best conditions for creating, archiving and distributing their work when defending their thesis and after.


The Université de Lumière Lyon2’s Thesis Charter is proposed in conformity with the decree of 3 September 1998. Its preamble restates the appendix of this decree (Model Charter) and fills out the text with the following conditions:

1) Every thesis is prepared within a research group linked to a Doctoral School. The doctoral school’s particular role is:

a) to give a student applying for admission to the doctorate all pertinent information on the following two subjects: first, the functioning of doctoral studies, the research supervisors and pertinent teams for his/her project as well as the follow-up he/she can expect; and second, the possibility for student aid, scholarships, bursaries, and partnerships with a company likely to provide him/her with the means to completer his/her project;
b) to approve the agreement between the student and the supervisor for the preparation of a thesis;
c) to coordinate the academic training dispensed in order to obtain the DEA as well as during the years of doctoral studies;
d) to offer doctoral students a larger academic environment than their thesis specialization, for instance by organizing transversal seminars, methodology courses, exchanges with other laboratories (especially European ones), by favoring discussion forums, and by making all useful documents available on a server, etc...;
e) to consult annually with the thesis supervisor about the progress of work and to give an assessment of exemptions from extensions. The thesis supervisor’s follow-up, like that of the doctoral school’s director, can be conducted by e-mail when the student in undertaking activities far from the university;
f) to inform doctoral students about the question of professional insertion throughout their doctoral studies, notably by organizing internships and information sessions with professionals, but also by organizing where possible a course of study involving rotation, with periods in firms, in national education etc.;
g) to track this insertion after the thesis defense or after a post-doctoral period in an external laboratory.

2) A doctoral thesis is a contribution to the knowledge produced within a research team. In order to ensure the best possible distribution of these contributions within the scientific community, the University recommends that doctoral students prepare their thesis using a computer. To this end, it provides training courses for doctoral students to help them with the composition of their thesis: word processing, use of style sheets, software tools necessary for their project, formal structuration etc. The research teams and/or the Research Division at the SIR (Computer Research Support) provide doctoral students with workstations. Except in exceptional cases, they must submit their thesis in computerized form, from which they have produced printed copies. The SCD (Common Documentation Service) ensures the respect for the norms of indexation and more generally for the recommendations of the ABES (Higher Education Bibliographic Agency).

3) A thesis is accessible:

a) at the SCD, under the conditions set out by the decree of 25 September 1985 that applies Law no. 84-52 of 26 January 1984;
b) from the University’s server, once the author and the jury have agreed to its electronic distribution.

The rules of usage concerning the necessity of the jury’s authorization before distribution and the confidentiality clauses that can apply to parts of the thesis, apply to the electronic version in the same manner as they do to the paper version.

4) Doctoral students are represented on the scientific committee of each doctoral school. In the case of conflict between a student and his/her thesis supervisor, the Director of the thesis school plays the role of the first mediator foreseen by the Model Charter. If the conflict persists, the President must ask the Scientific Council to nominate a mediator from outside the doctoral school and/or the Establishment. The mediator reports to the President, who is the arbiter of last instance. In the case of joint supervision, the Director of the doctoral school plays the role of mediator for all conflicts between the student and the French thesis supervisor, or between the two thesis supervisors. If the conflict persists, the Presidents of the two universities will decide in the last instance. When the Director of the doctoral school is also the thesis supervisor, he or she is replaced in the role of mediator by the vice president in charge of research.

5) The doctoral schools have the responsibility for distributing this charter to the DEA and doctoral students under their supervision.

Approved unanimously by the Scientific Council of 7 December 1998

The Edition Electronique de SeNTIERS cell is responsible for the electronic archiving and distribution of theses defended at Lyon 2. In this role, the cell is involved in the legal deposit of the thesis. With time, the legal deposit of paper copies, as in current practice, is likely to fall out of use. This will imply relatively significant changes in the mode of producing documents. As well, in order to allow doctoral students to pursue their work without too many perturbations, two systems for submission coexist at Lyon 2: electronic submission and mixed submission.

Organization of the thesis’ administrative circuit

The establishment of an electronic archiving and distribution system assumes that the administration possesses an electronic version of the research work; this translates into the creation of a mode of thesis submission that includes an electronic submission.

Electronic submission should be organized in an automatic fashion, on a server able to support anywhere between a mailbox-type submission system to a more complete system permitting the recording of the submission, of metadata, etc.

This submission will naturally be integrated within the traditional administrative circuit of the thesis and can take several forms (independently of the software used or the discipline in question):

  • the mixed submission,
  • the electronic submission.

The mixed submission

This form of submission should be seen as a step towards the completely electronic submission, but it is also a satisfactory solution for establishments lacking the infrastructure and personnel needed for electronic submission.

The organization of the system

It is organized in several stages:

1) The student submits paper copies and an electronic copy at the thesis service, and attests to the conformity of the two versions. At this point, he/she authorizes (or refuses) the distribution of this work on the Internet. 2) The electronic publishing service validates the submission. It is a question of verifying the readability of the files, the presence or absence of particular characters, as well as the presence in electronic or paper form of all the non-textual elements (images, sounds,...). 3) After the defense, one of the following cases is likely:

  • the jury authorized distribution of the thesis in its current state. In this case, the doctoral student has one month to make minor corrections (spelling) to the thesis, in the form of erratum. There is no new submission. The thesis is converted into SGML (archiving format) and then into HTML and XML (distribution formats). The thesis is place on the University’s intranet (equivalent to consultation in the library) and, if authorized by the student, on the Internet. The description of the thesis is broadcast.
  • the jury demanded corrections. In this case, a new electronic submission and validation is necessary. Once the president of the jury validates the corrections, the thesis follows the normal treatment process.
  • Non-corrected theses, or those subject to a confidentiality clause, are archived in SGML and are only distributed on the intranet, according to the case. Their description is broadcast, but with mention of their confidentiality.

Electronic submission

This second system removes the risk of non-conformity inherent in the mixed submission. The legal deposit of the thesis thus consists of an electronic submission. The printed copies of the thesis required for the defense and for deposit in the library are printed from the electronic submission.

If this system is more satisfactory, it nevertheless requires a supplementary infrastructure. In order to guarantee that the printed copies are truly drawn from the electronic version submitted, the University must offer the authors the means to effectuate a complete electronic submission and must undertake the task of printing the copies needed for the defense.

This system thus requires the support of many different types of structures. These include the traditional thesis service, a relatively heavy computer infrastructure made available to doctoral students (digitization of illustrations, video acquisition, sound, user assistance) and a copy service capable of providing irregular output on short notice (the frequency of thesis defenses varying in function of the university calendar).

Starting from the files produced by the student, a “single file” printing (PostScript and/or PDF) will be undertaken by the University, under the student’s control (lay-out, rendering of illustrations, etc...).

  • the source files as well as the PostScript file will be engraved and transmitted to the electronic publishing service for archiving while awaiting the defense.
  • Only the PostScript file will be transferred to the copy service’s print station.

The resources necessary for the implementation of a thesis treatment platform in an establishment or group of university establishments

Two functioning architectures can be considered:

  • a client-server system. Here, a server site ensures the management of computing resources while client sites ensure production (from a distance) and distribution (locally). A web interface manages the communication between the different client sites and the server site.

Associations of institutions can develop as a result of geographic or disciplinary proximity, by creating synergies and by combining skills and competencies.

  • an autonomous system. Here, each production site undertakes, in an autonomous manner, the entire operation of processing, archiving and distribution. This would apply to sites possessing the necessary human resources, or treating a volume of documents justifying such a system.

Human resources:

The existing system requires diverse skills, both in computer engineering and in engineering documents, which correspond to different tasks:

  • managing information systems: updating programs, managing both archiving and putting information on-line, user assistance, linking users to the group(s) in charge of developing and updating the system;
  • processing the documents: formatting documents for processing, digitizing illustrations, sounds, video, etc., verification of the processing and capture of metadata.

The presence of the two types of human resources is not necessary in each production center.

  • processing the documents: 1 full time equivalent d’IE (?) for an annual volume of 100 theses per year.
  • information management: Needs vary depending on whether the local configuration or the client-server configuration is used.

Training in the use and administration of the software platform for processing theses

The training activities are targeted at two types of agents with specific skills:

  • recognized computer skills allowing the agents in question to act on several levels. At the local level, in order to assist those using the software platform, these skills are the maintenance and adaptation of the software platform. They must also be given skills at the network level, where they will serve as relays between users and the group piloting the evolution of the platform, as well as participate in the activities of this piloting group (computing decisions and developments).
  • electronic publishing skills: electronic submission of theses; training doctoral students in the use of generic document forms; preparation and formatting of documents according to the rules determined by the chosen software platform. This is a new domain, and defining its profile with exiting qualifications is a delicate process: mastery of electronic document production tools, knowledge of the different types of academic production, and pedagogical ability to transfer this knowledge to a public composed of doctoral students and researchers.

The role of Doctoral Schools and the training of doctoral students

The implementation of these new processes requires the participation of the principal actors involved doctoral students and their supervisors. The training of authors, thesis supervisors, and research structures must occur within the Doctoral schools. These school constitute the ideal frame of reference for several reasons:

  • the training provided to the student will be adapted to their discipline and thus to the specific computing tools that they may have need to use;
  • the supervisors will be implicated in the process;
  • the sharing of this knowledge between the different actors of a Doctoral school will provide a supplementary factor of internal cohesion.

With time, the Doctoral Schools should become support centers for the use of the new tools of scientific production and publication. In the course of thesis writing, doctoral students will receive the tools and the help required to write their document in an effective manner, and will acquire all the skills needed for its processing.

Tools such as generic document forms and technical specifications will be provided by the Ministry. The Doctoral Schools will be charged with adapting them to the particular practices of a discipline or of the establishment (in the case of the style sheet). A generic training program in using generic document forms will be available and adaptable according to local needs. In light of past experience, six hours of training per doctoral student seems sufficient for training students in the advanced use of text processing. One might expect that, within several years, students will be trained in text processing before starting the doctorate and that training costs during the doctorate will be increasingly minimal.

A permanent link should be established between the electronic production and distribution services and the Doctoral Schools so as to create synergies between the users and the electronic publishing specialists. This relationship should be based on permanent cooperation, and initiated in the training sessions through a presentation of the service and of its results.

Regional and Disciplinary Policies:

The implementation and publication of the Université Lumière Lyon2’s policy, and the computerized means of processing that the University established, have allowed for the creation and structuration of a network of university and scientific establishments. The universities of the Rhône-Alpes region, united within the context of a University Conference, have decided to implement the principle recommendations enunciated by the Université Lyon2. Subsequently, at the level of the French territory, as well around its borders, one notes a tendency to regroup, on the one hand universities (Lyon, Marne la Vallée, Paris-Sud, Grenoble, Genève), and on the other hand scientific establishments (CNRS, Inra, Inserm). One equally finds disciplinary groups like the “Mathdoc” network which unites the mathematical laboratories, and which is in turn linked to a European network. This network’s work involves collecting the metadata produced by each researcher which are necessary for the description and announcement of theses. These metadata are then archived and made accessible either on the site of the laboratory or on the researcher’s own site. The approach is less institutional, and thus less enduring, in the sense that its conservation is left to the appraisal of the researchers and of the laboratories.

Not all of these institutions have adopted the Lyon2 model (RTF=>SGML/XML). Some have preferred the generic document form produced by Adobe, while others produce documents using Latex and distribute them in “postscript” format. Nevertheless, reflection about these choices is carried out in public, thanks notably to the work undertaken by the Ministerial group.

French Public Policy: The Minister’s circular

To conclude the work led by a reflection group, the Minister responsible for Higher Education released a circular in October 2000 which defined the major axes of the futre policy concerning the electronic archiving and distribution of theses.

Electronic Distribution of Theses

Text addressed to University presidents, and to presidents or directors of institutions of higher education

Theses defended in universities and other institutions of higher education constitute documents of the highest value. Looking after their promotion serves both the interests of the young doctors and the institutions, as well as the end of increasing the international visibility of French research.

The deep transformations which have for some time characterized information technology have clearly rendered the existing system for valorizing theses (defined by the decree of 25 September 1985 dealing with the submission, description, reproduction and distribution of theses) obsolete.

It is on the basis of this observation and in recognition that:

  • theses are henceforth produced “naturally” in computerized form,
  • the equipment and networks in institutions of higher education have been greatly developed,
  • the majority of universities are currently positioning themselves as producers and distributors of electronic information,

that a group associating the services of the Ministry of National Education and the Ministry of Research, the conference of university presidents, the association of university library directors, and numerous experts having undertaken experiments in this domain, submitted a report to me on the electronic distribution of theses. This report, whose principal conclusions I have validated, can be consulted on the Ministry’s server at the following address:

The proposed new system foresees the distribution of theses on the Internet once a certain number of conditions are met:

  • authorization of the head of the institution, following the advice of the jury and the authorization of the author, while respecting intellectual property regulations,
  • respect by the doctoral student of minimum technical specifications,
  • conversion of the thesis, using automated assembly lines, into adequate archiving and distribution formats for storage and for placing on-line.

The intervention of numerous actors above and beyond the doctoral student will be required:

  • that of the establishment where the thesis is defended, by way of:
    • the doctoral schools, who are responsible for providing the student with training and technical assistance,
    • the common documentation services, responsible for describing the thesis and providing the document’s electronic address in collective and local catalogues,
    • the service charged with converting and putting theses on-line, using the software provided to them.
  • that of the state or of a national operator, by means of
    • elaborating technical specifications and training supports,
    • guaranteeing or providing processing chains,
    • providing secure archiving.

On these bases, in agreement with the Minister of Research, and after consultation with the CPU, I have decided:

  • to put a project group in place,
  • to elaborate a new decree concerning the submission, description, archiving and distribution of theses,
  • to organize training activities for the institutions, or the groups of institutions, who wish to rapidly enter into this new system,
  • to put into place the collective functions necessary to give overall coherence to the process, taking into account the acquired skills of the National Thesis Reproduction Workshops [atelier nationaux de reproduction des thèses] (ANRT), the Higher Education Bibliographic Workshop [atelier bibliographique de l’enseignement supérieur] (ABES), and the National Computing Centre for Higher Education [centre informatique national de l’enseignement supérieur] (CINES).

This new scheme will obviously take time to put into place, progressing as the institutions introduce adequate assembly lines. It goes without saying that the old system defined by the decree of 1985 will continue to apply to the theses defended in institutions which have not yet taken the corresponding measures.

The Minister of National Education


A certain number of principles underpin this political interest in the electronic distribution of theses:

  • To increase the visibility and to valorize French scientific production at the international level
  • To favor a new approach to the thesis so that it is considered as a dynamic database rather than a static body of knowledge. The electronic version of the thesis becomes a genuine work instrument which meets the demands of users, starting from the user’s own agenda of research and investigation.
  • To develop training for student-researchers in the use of information technology and electronic publishing. Student-researcher will find themselves in the role of scientific information producers since they will be able to master these mechanisms and thus increase their autonomy. They will personally acquire the status of being information producers and distributors.
  • This should gather together the elements permitting scientists to produce, archive and distribute all their research work by themselves. Let us remember that France’s approach to the electronic distribution of theses is integrated into a vaster francophone project of putting the results of public research online.

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