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Open Access Theses & Dissertations: Launch of a New OA Discovery Tool
Posted On May 6, 2013
As the body of open access (OA) literature continues to grow, figuring out how to access OA-specific material has remained a challenge for researchers. Various discovery layers have been developed to collect and present openly accessible materials for several subject areas—RePEc (Research Papers in Economics), (physics and computational sciences), and e-LIS (eprints in library and information science) are just a few examples. But up to this point, no discovery tool focused exclusively on openly accessible Electronic Theses and Dissertations (ETDs). The Open Access Theses and Dissertations ( project was designed to change that. Led by Thomas Dowling, director of technologies at the Z. Smith Reynolds Library at Wake Forest University, provides a simple way for users to search a global collection of openly accessible ETD literature. The service was launched in early April 2013 and currently includes references to ETDs from more than 600 universities around the world.

During a telephone interview, Dowling was asked how the project originated. He explained that the idea was based on a statewide initiative, the OhioLINK ETD Center, which he was instrumental in implementing while working in a previous position. The OhioLINK project is focused on bringing together ETDs from colleges and universities throughout the state of Ohio; translates the same concept on a global scale.

When asked why he felt it important to develop such a tool specifically for ETDs, Dowling responded, “I wasn’t terribly satisfied with search options for Open Access theses and dissertations—no single tool does a particularly good job of searching this material.” As far as potential users of the OATD, Dowling explained, “There are times when students or researchers are researching all of the literature on a particular subject … and thesis/dissertations are usually the hardest part to get hold of. I’m hopeful that this [discovery platform] helps address that issue.”

Finding and accessing ETDs can indeed be a challenge. Previously, options would be limited to searching search engines, the NDLTD, or ProQuest’s subscription service. (See the Table for a comparison.) While each of these platforms has its strengths, none had the capabilities Dowling was looking for to facilitate research specifically through ETD literature.

Search Mechanism


Google, Bing, Other Search Engines

-          Free to search

-          Results intermingle ETDs with other web-based materials

-          Results include mix of freely-accessible articles and subscription-based articles

Google Scholar 

-          Free to search

-          Results intermingle ETDs with other web-based materials

-          Results include mix of freely accessible articles and subscription-based articles

Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations (NDLTD) 

-          Free to search

-          Results limited to theses and dissertations

-          Results link to a mix types of access to theses/dissertations:

  • Direct, free access to theses/dissertations held in repositories
  • Catalog links for campus-restricted access
  • Catalog records for toll access to purchase single copies

ProQuest Dissertations and Theses (PQDT)

-          Subscription needed to search

-          Results limited to theses and dissertations

-          Results include a mix of access types based on availability and subscription levels–include requests for print and electronic access


-          Free to search

-          Results specific to ETDs

-          Results limited to freely accessible, full-text ETDs

OATD provides a blend of most of these options by providing a free search tool that is used to search only electronic, freely accessible theses and dissertations and should be useful for students and other researches interested in focusing searches on this particular body of literature. As Hilton Gibson, systems administrator at Stellenbosch University in South Africa noted,  "[I]t is great for students and the public to have one authoritative place on the Internet to find ETDs.”

Likewise, Gerry McKiernan, associate professor/science and technology librarian at Iowa State University and author of the blog Open Resources Librarian, noted, “The obvious benefit is that it provides one-stop open access to a sizable worldwide collection of important gray literature.” Furthermore, “The ease of access should / will encourage access / use to this literature, that in most cases, would be overlooked outside a local institution or country.”

The service is also a boon for institutions around the world that collect and make their ETDs openly access through repositories. Hendriette Jansen van Vuuren, acting manager of the Open Scholarship programme at the University of Pretoria (South Africa), wrote: “ is a very useful tool to enhance the visibility of University of Pretoria research.” For student theses and dissertations, repositories often serve as the only way potential readers can find or access these materials, so any and all opportunities for increased visibility are appreciated.

Metadata Harvesting

OATD works by harvesting metadata records using the Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAI-PMH), a protocol incorporated into most commonly adopted institutional repository platforms including DSpace, ePrints, and Digital Commons. Once OAI-PMH is enabled, metadata records from repositories can be collected by harvesting systems. The digital objects continue to be hosted by repositories, but metadata records from multiple sites are then pulled together and searchable through a single interface.

Even though most repository traffic comes from search engines, many involved in supporting scholarly publishing believe it is important to develop search interfaces and other types of discovery tools in order to make it easier for researchers to find and access materials meeting their search criteria. Discovery tools designed to support subject-based research communities, thematic areas, or type of literature can include functionality designed in response to specialized needs compared to broad-based search tools. For instance, the OATD platform includes functionality to refine results based on Degrees/Levels, Languages, Departments, Universities, and Publication Date.

One side effect of the OATD project is that ETD metadata is more visible. Dowling hopes that seeing ETD metadata from multiple institutions meshed together might encourage metadata cleanup and improve the quality and consistency of metadata. When asked about the OATD, Gibson also referenced a related issue, “From recent discussions on the DSpace help mailing lists, I see there is a need for better metadata schema to describe ETDs.”

How to Participate

When asked what it means for a university to participate, Dowling stressed that OAI-PMH is handling the bulk of the work. “For the most part, universities with ETD programs don’t need to do anything special.” Most repositories already expose metadata records. “We’re just coming in and picking up the metadata.”

For institutions with ETD programs in place but repository records not yet included in the OATD, Dowling encourages repository managers to contact him. Further details are available via the OATD’s Frequently Asked Questions page.

Abby Clobridge is the founder of and principal consultant at FireOak Strategies (formerly Clobridge Consulting), a boutique firm specializing in knowledge management, information management, and open knowledge (open access, open data, open education). Abby has worked with a wide range of organizations throughout the world, including various United Nations agencies; private sector companies; colleges and research universities; nonprofit, intergovernmental, and multi-stakeholder organizations; and the news media. She can be found on Twitter (@aclobridge).

Email Abby Clobridge

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