Spectrum Logo
A non-profit publication of the Office of the University Relations of Virginia Tech,
including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

University to create electronic thesis standard

by Susan Trulove

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 20 - February 8, 1996

The Southeastern Universities Research Association, Inc. (SURA) has funded Virginia Tech's electronic thesis and dissertation project so that the university can develop and disseminate a standard method for making graduate students' final work available online.

Principal investigators on the one-year, $91,117 grant to develop and test the "Monticello Electronic Library Thesis and Dissertation Program" are Ed Fox of computer science, John Eaton of the Graduate School, and Gail McMillan of the library.

Eaton, who is associate provost of graduate studies, explains that "for students, the electronic dissertation can be easier to prepare, more error-free, less expensive, and more flexible in format. It can also allow more creativity on the part of the author by permitting inclusion of hypertext links and, soon, digital audio and video recordings.

"Documents prepared and published electronically will be fully word searchable and will therefore become much more accessible to scholars," Eaton says.

McMillan, director of the library's Scholarly Communications Project, points out the advantages from the library's point of view. "There will be more timely public access to current research--all day, every day. It will never be checked out, or overdue. We will be able to serve more users without increasing demands on the staff, such as to circulate and reshelve material.

"Electronic data does not require shelf space, physical copies, the record will come largely from existing electronic text," McMillan says.

Fox explains that initiation of the electronic thesis and dissertation project requires three steps: "Students have to take action so that we have their theses or dissertations in the proper electronic format; we have to be able to store the documents electronically; and, we have to make the documents accessible online."

Virginia Tech has explored two ways for students to put their final work into electronic form and has implemented the first. Students are asked to create PDF (Portable Document Format) files. The Graduate School, Computing Center, and library made Adobe Acrobat software available at the university. The software allows PDF files to be manipulated-read as pages and searched to a limited degree.

However, a second method for converting theses and dissertations to electronic format by applying SGML (ISO's Standard Generalized Markup Language) is preferred, Fox said. SGML will allow the documents to be more easily searched, and to be read or referred to (e.g., to be excerpted to help graduate instruction and further research, or for entries in a bibliography to be reused). Also, since HTML, the basis for the World Wide Web, is an application of SGML too, access over the WWW should be easier from SGML.

Ultimately, the Graduate School and library would like to see documents available in both forms-a PDF page format to be read and SGML format to be used. "Our goal is to stimulate reuse of information," Fox said.

Implementation of a process using SGML is the focus of the SURA grant. "SGML supports document interchange that allows access from different software systems," Fox said.

"The challenge of the project is to make it so that students are willing to do the things we need," Fox said.

The grant calls for Fox, Eaton, McMillan, and colleagues to: develop an SGML-based system "that people can use;" implement search and delivery technology so that documents are archived without library staff having to make manual entries, and so users can search and copy, and prepare documentation and training materials for this approach to be used by other universities in the Southeast.

The three principal investigators also are seeking funding from the U.S. Department of Education or other sources to distribute the Virginia Tech standard for electronic theses and dissertations nation-wide.

Fox has been working on digital library design and implementation technology since the mid '80s. He is co-chair of the working group on theses, technical reports, and dissertations in the Monticello Electronic Library Initiative, which is sponsored by SURA and the Southeastern Library Network (SOLINET). He is program chair for the First ACM International Conference on Digital Libraries, March 20-23, in Bethesda, Md. At Virginia Tech he is the project director of digital library research undertaken in collaboration with IBM.