Iowa's "Open Access" Policy is Nothing But a Trojan Horse

There is a glaring problem with a policy that strong-arms students into forfeiting the rights to their own written work in order to get a degree.
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All writers remember the formula that allowed the Greeks to take Troy: one mock retreat, a little Trojan posturing, a whole lot of drink, and, of course, a giant wooden horse with thousands of soldiers in its belly. It's classic, but cliché, a story of subterfuge leading to great success that makes us shake our head in wonder and think: did somebody actually fall for that?

As well-read as we writers are (or, at least, as we aim to be), it's something of a marvel that The University of Iowa's Graduate College would actually believe we graduates and currents students wouldn't recognize a Trojan horse if we saw one. The one they're pushing -- two innocuous-looking paragraphs -- isn't as cumbersome as the one we remember from the Aeneid, but it still has the power to sack the empire.

Those two paragraphs outline the University of Iowa Library's new "open access" policy, written by the Graduate College. That policy states that, starting this year, all graduate students who submit a thesis or dissertation must give permission for that material to be made "freely available over the internet at no cost to the end user." In time, that material will likely end up posted on Google Print. The policy has been added to the bottom of a standard form that upcoming graduates must sign in order to submit their thesis or dissertation, and that form must be submitted in order for them to graduate. All the forms must be submitted by April 4, just two weeks from now.

At first blush, the policy seems harmless. After all, what's wrong with uploading this kind of academic work to the Internet and sharing it with anyone who cares to see it? The free flow of information can be a wonderful thing. Share and share alike, right?

But read it a little more closely, and the masquerade fails. Kembrew McLeod, a journalist, artist, and associate professor of communication studies at Iowa who has been following this issue closely, said the new policy "can be construed as a license that hands over student thesis publishing rights to the University of Iowa -- unless an embargo form is signed, and that embargo only lasts two years." McLeod said he ran the draft by an entertainment lawyer just to be sure.

But verbiage, said McLeod, isn't the policy's only problem. Despite internal pressure from students, staff and faculty to change the language, the Graduate College won't budge. Dean Dale Wurster of the Graduate College evidently won't hold an open meeting to discuss proposed changes to the policy, but instead is choosing to hold one-on-one meetings with the individuals who represent departments -- such as the Nonfiction Writing Program and the Writers' Workshop -- whose students and graduates are deeply concerned about the policy's implications. Sentences still linger on the document that have supposedly been stricken, such as one that, apparently falsely, states that the library "ultimately intends" to scan all theses and dissertations -- both those of this year's graduates and of all of the university's previous graduates -- and upload them to the Internet.

"In short, it's a badly written, ill-conceived document," said McLeod.

Response to this policy has been swift and fierce. Hundreds of current students, faculty, and alumni, including myself (full disclosure: I am a 2001 Writers' Workshop graduate), have voiced their outrage to one another and to the university. Curtis Sittenfeld, author of Prep and a 2001 Writers' Workshop graduate, called the policy "a bad idea with far-reaching copyright implications." Jarhead author Anthony Swofford, also a 2001 Workshop graduate, said the decision to post creative work is particularly troubling, in part because if published to the Web prematurely, it could sink a potential book deal, and also because so much creative work is still "in process," even when submitted in thesis form.

"It is quite a different thing to have an amateur work in the stacks at one's alma mater and to have it online and instantly available, any time, anywhere," said Swofford. "When faced with the possibility of her early work being available on a public forum, will a student self-censor in order to save some of herself for future work? This is a chilling possibility."

1997 Workshop graduate Thisbe Nissen, author of The Good People of New York, said the policy is "misguided" and would deny writers the right to publish portions of their theses in online journals, and to get paid for those publications, because the material would already be online. "The whole thing sounds wrong-headed to me," she said.

Nick Arvin, another 2001 graduate and author of Articles of War, said the policy is outrageous. Arvin said all of his material from his thesis went into his first book, which was picked up by Penguin and well reviewed, which ultimately did a lot for his career as a writer. "But none of that would have happened if my thesis were already available for free on Google," he said.

If the policy were to go forward as is, said Arvin, "no one in their right mind would submit publishable material for a thesis. Why would you do that, hand the material to Google for free, and eliminate any opportunities for placing the material into magazines and journals, book contracts, and review attention? Basically it would force MFA students to submit material for their theses that they believed to be completely unpublishable. The entire thesis process would become a pathetic joke."

So the verdict is in, and I hope Dean Wurster decides to listen. No matter how the Graduate College tries to spin it, there is a glaring problem with a policy that strong-arms students into forfeiting the rights to their own written work in order to get a degree. There is a fundamental flaw in a policy that treats both scholarly work and creative work as material free for distribution and wholly unfettered by an author's permission.

And unfortunately for the officials from the Graduate College, none of us are Trojans. Those of us participating in the outcry against this policy are neither drunk enough, nor foolish enough, to believe that what the Graduate College is trying to give us is some kind of gift.

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