Former Virginia Tech President Charles Steger’s dissertation is 339 pages long. But it doesn’t take up an inch of shelf space at Virginia Tech’s Newman Library. That’s because it is available online at VTechWork’s Electronic Theses and Dissertations collection.

Virginia Tech was the first university on Earth to mandate that graduate students use an ETD system. Currently, the system is a package designed to obtain electronic approvals from committee members and the graduate school and deposit the thesis or dissertation at the library for electronic access and storage. Since its launch, the ETD publishing procedures at Virginia Tech have been flexible and allow students to designate varying levels of access to their thesis or dissertation. People all over the world can query the database at VTechWorks and download the thesis or dissertation for viewing on their personal computer.

Professor Gail McMillan at Virginia Tech’s Libraries, Professor of Computer Science Ed Fox, and former Associate Provost for Graduate Studies John Eaton collaborated to launch this innovation. The ETD initiative began in the 90s with discussions across the library, departments and graduate school and with external collaborators at other universities. After two years of testing, on April 5, 1996, Jinxia Sun became the first student to deposit a dissertation in the system titled Characterization of Organosilicone Surfactants and Their Effects on Sulfonylurea Herbicide Activity. Sun is now a Virginia Tech alumna and a research manager at Croda in Delaware where she heads up teams to develop agricultural applications of surfactants . Since becoming mandatory on January 1, 1997, over 27,160 ETDs have been added to the collection. This number includes some bound theses and dissertations that the library pulled off the shelf, scanned and uploaded to VTechWorks’ ETD collection.

The ETD initiative was the “most important and effective” change that made research more open said Fox. Virginia Tech’s motivation to move from bound theses and dissertations to online versions was rooted in our mission as a land-grant university to share the knowledge created by our scholars with the public.
The ETD initiative has had four notable benefits:

1. worldwide accessibility.

2. space savings at the library.

3. faster access.

4. enhanced content.

Unlike a printed document sitting on a shelf, the ETD database archives diverse file types. Since Virginia Tech formally launched the ETD initiative in 1997, hundreds of universities all over the world have followed suit.

The ETD initiative is about more than just storage, though. It teaches graduate students about the responsible conduct of research.

“The vision for the ETD initiative is eternal. There will always be a need for a future professoriate that has the right skills for the job,” said Fox. “When graduate students deposit their thesis or dissertation in the ETD collection, they are learning the technical skills required to create and manage files for sharing and long term storage. At the same time, they are participating in and contributing to the open culture scientists must practice in research.”

The ETD initiative has certainly proven to improve accessibility to research. The data files for Glen R. Gibson’s dissertation titled “War and Agriculture: Three Decades of Agricultural Land Use and Land Cover Change in Iraq” have been accessed more than 3,500 times. The ETD initiative has also improved the richness of graduate students’ thesis or dissertation. From the beginning, students have taken advantage of the ability to deposit any kind of file that showcases the scope of their research. Unlike the dissertations of President Steger’s era, today, ETDs can contain color photographs, videos, websites, non­standard page sizes, raw data files or code.

Fox’s Ph.D. student, Uma Murthy, created a tool that helps a user identify fish. She deposited her code and fish database along with her electronic dissertation so that future users can access the fish ID tool.

On January 1, 2017, Virgnia Tech’s ETD initiative will celebrate its 20th anniversary. As a virtual resource, it is awkward to throw a party for something that doesn’t have a physical form. There won’t be a party with cake and balloons. But we can still celebrate. The best way to honor the achievement is to use it. Pull out your laptop, tablet or phone and browse the scholarly work of Virginia Tech’s community.

Highlights of the ETD collection include contributions from an astronaut, a high-ranking USDA official, and video files of historic Turkish coffee houses among others:
Former VT President Charles Steger’s dissertation:
“An integrated modular watershed planning model applied to the Upper South River watershed, Waynesboro, Virginia.”

Astronaut Charles Camarda’s dissertation:
“Development of advanced modal methods for calculating transient thermal and structural response”

USDA Undersecretary Catherine Woteki’s dissertation:
“Some nutritional considerations of lactose malabsorption in Mexican American children.”
An example of video files in a dissertation:
“A Contemporary Turkish Coffeehouse design Based on Historic Traditions” by Oral, Timur
An example of a website as a dissertation:
“bipolar[i].discuss();” by Walker, Megan Anna Hein
Graduate student Uma Murtha’s fish identification tool:
“Digital Libraries with Superimposed Information: Supporting Scholarly Tasks that Involve Fine Grain Information” by Murthy, Uma

An example of color used in a dissertation:
“An Urban Park Pavilion as a Sense of Place: A Community Theater and Water Taxi Terminal at the Foot of King Street” by Seong, Rok

Written by Nancy Dudek, grants coordinator, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences