The Good News: You Can Download Hawking's PhD For Free; The Bad News: It Took 50 Years To Make It Happen

from the why-are-we-waiting? dept

Techdirt has been writing about the (slow but steady) rise of open access for a decade. That's as long as the Annual International Open Access Week has been running. Cambridge University came up with quite a striking way to join in the celebrations:

Stephen Hawking's PhD thesis, 'Properties of expanding universes', has been made freely available to anyone, anywhere in the world, after being made accessible via the University of Cambridge's Open Access repository, Apollo.

The 1966 doctoral thesis by the world's most recognisable scientist is the most requested item in Apollo with the catalogue record alone attracting hundreds of views per month. In just the past few months, the University has received hundreds of requests from readers wishing to download Professor Hawking's thesis in full.

The idea has been quite a hit -- literally, since the demand for Hawking's thesis was so great on Monday, that it hit the Apollo server hard enough to take it offline for a while. The Guardian reported:

A University of Cambridge spokesperson said: "We have had a huge response to Prof Hawking's decision to make his PhD thesis publicly available to download, with almost 60,000 downloads in less than 24 hours.

"As a result, visitors to our Open Access site may find that it is performing slower than usual and may at times be temporarily unavailable."

Popular as the 1966 PhD has proved, the point of the exercise was to spread the word about open access. Hawking is quoted as saying:

Anyone, anywhere in the world should have free, unhindered access to not just my research, but to the research of every great and enquiring mind across the spectrum of human understanding.

Cambridge University made a further announcement to mark Open Access Week. Dr Arthur Smith, Deputy Head of Scholarly Communication, said:

From October 2017 onwards, all PhD students graduating from the University of Cambridge will be required to deposit an electronic copy of their doctoral work for future preservation. And like Professor Hawking, we hope that many students will also take the opportunity to freely distribute their work online by making their thesis Open Access. We would also invite former University alumni to consider making their theses Open Access, too.

That's great, as is the free availability of Hawking's PhD. But the question for both has to be: why has it taken so long -- 50 years in the case of the thesis? Even allowing for the fact that the Internet was not a mass medium for 30 of those 50 years, there was nothing stopping Cambridge University putting PhDs online from the mid-1990s. Similarly, why make depositing theses as open access optional? The University would be quite justified in requiring the thesis of any PhD it grants to be online and freely downloadable immediately under a suitable CC license. The moment to make that happen is now, not in another 10 years' time.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • icon
    Vidiot (profile), 26 Oct 2017 @ 3:56am

    Every time a brilliant world figure takes a stand on making research available under Open Access, a tree in the Elsevier parking lot bursts into flame.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Oct 2017 @ 4:02am

    "But," bristled MyNameHere, "Who would ever go into science and research if it would eventually become available for free? You can't compete against free! You just can't!"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DannyB (profile), 26 Oct 2017 @ 5:49am

    Difficuclt to download

    At first, when it was made available, this PhD thesis was very difficult and slow to download. As if a black hole was trying to pull the thesis back into the server.

    This space time phenomena seems to happen with other downloads that suddenly experience popular download demand.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 26 Oct 2017 @ 8:25am

      Re: Difficuclt to download

      This space time phenomena seems to happen with other downloads that suddenly experience popular download demand.

      Pro tip: archive.org will let you directly upload any scientific paper, or anything else, that they're legally allowed to distribute. Unfortunately this doesn't include Hawking's paper, which is still marked "All rights reserved" (maybe their Wayback Machine has a copy anyway). But there's no need to host files like this yourself, and no bullshit like an interstitial "wait for download to start page"--you can directly link a file.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Oct 2017 @ 6:56am

    Hawking could have put this up on his website (I am assuming he has a website, and that he had not done so in the past) long ago, why didn't he do this if it is such a big deal?

    I also don't think that a PhD thesis should be made public by mandate. If someone wants it public, fine, if they don't, they should be forced to make it public or have no say in it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      JEDIDIAH, 26 Oct 2017 @ 8:56am

      Been there, done that.

      I was thinking the same thing. When I was in college, I looked up the doctoral thesis of one of my profs because he went to school there. If I were still in town, I could go grab that thesis myself and scan it.

      Now that I think about it, I'm kind of surprised a bootleg didn't surface before now.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 26 Oct 2017 @ 10:07am

      Re:

      I also don't think that a PhD thesis should be made public by mandate.

      Why not? The whole point of a PhD is to confirm that a person has advanced their field of study. Plus, "The mission of the University of Cambridge is to contribute to society…"

      If you want to do non-public research, do it at a private company and not a public university.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    anonymous coward, 26 Oct 2017 @ 7:48am

    Posting thesis being optional

    I'm acquainted with a few PHD's who don't want an intelligent reader to see their PHD thesis. Apparently, too many PHD programs are "good ole' boy/girl" networks. If one jumps thorough the right hoops, says the politically correct things, and has the "right" results then one gets a PHD. The scientific value of such PHD's and their thesis is questionable. Posting PHD thesis' online will always be optional.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 26 Oct 2017 @ 8:20am

      Re: Posting thesis being optional

      Must be from one of those for profit schools

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        JEDIDIAH, 26 Oct 2017 @ 8:57am

        Re: Posting thesis being optional

        I don't think any of those offer PhDs.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 26 Oct 2017 @ 10:42am

          Re: Re: Posting thesis being optional

          Some offer diplomas for which you do not have to take any tests, read anything, or write anything - just put it in a frame on your wall ... and like magic, you're a doctor!

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Oct 2017 @ 8:02am

    Even allowing for the fact that the Internet was not a mass medium for 30 of those 50 years, there was nothing stopping Cambridge University putting PhDs online from the mid-1990s.

    For how many of those years was a relevant Cambridge employee (meaning, a decision maker with authority to publish, or someone with the ear of someone with that authority, not just anyone who happens to be paid by Cambridge) aware that there was enough public interest in historical theses to justify the trouble of making PhDs available online? Legacy entities often have tremendous bureaucratic and technical baggage, such that even getting relatively simple and uncontroversial things published online costs a non-trivial amount of time and effort. If there's no obvious financial reward for such publication, you need someone altruistic enough to push the initiative anyway and informed enough about public interest to realize that it's worth doing.

    Similarly, why make depositing theses as open access optional? The University would be quite justified in requiring the thesis of any PhD it grants to be online and freely downloadable immediately under a suitable CC license.

    The University could require it, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily right or justified. If publishing a PhD thesis substantially reduced the job market desirability of its authors (because you could get most of what they know by reading their thesis instead of employing them), thesis authors would be leery of a compelled immediate publication. Add in that they may not have a good sense of whether prospective employers will think that way, and the cautious self-interested course is to assume it might be bad for future job prospects and then keep it private until presented with a specific case for how it will be beneficial.

    Now, if we restrict the discussion to theses that are purely publicly funded (meaning, the authors all attended on full-ride public scholarship, and that scholarship also covered reasonable expenses while the thesis was researched/written), then there'd be a strong case that the thesis should be the property of the public, and as such should be publicly available -- and it's easier to make it available worldwide for free than to deal with making it available for free, but only to citizens whose taxes supported the relevant government.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      JEDIDIAH, 26 Oct 2017 @ 9:00am

      > For how many of those years was a relevant Cambridge employee

      Probably since the 90s. This kind of thing is nothing new really. Been going on since before the Internet was a consumer product.

      My first job was with an academic information service that started in the 70s.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 26 Oct 2017 @ 10:58am

      Re:

      The University could require it, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily right or justified … the cautious self-interested course is to assume it might be bad for future job prospects and then keep it private until presented with a specific case for how it will be beneficial.

      That's a good reason not to leave it up to the authors.

      If publishing a PhD thesis substantially reduced the job market desirability of its authors (because you could get most of what they know by reading their thesis instead of employing them),

      If the person is no more useful that a ream of printed paper... well, the employer may as well go to the Cambridge library and read the thesis, as they've always been able to do.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Dave Cortright (profile), 26 Oct 2017 @ 8:52am

    This is *EXACTLY* why HTML was created

    I thought it was funny that here they are sharing a physics paper on the internet, nearly 3 decades after physicist Tim Berners-Lee specced and implemented HTML, specifically for sharing documents.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HTML#Development

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Use markdown for basic formatting. HTML is no longer supported.
  Save me a cookie
Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Shop Now: I Invented Email
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.