Web Magazine for Information Professionals

EThOS: from Project to Service

Jill Russell describes the impact the new Electronic Theses Online Service is making on the availability of UK doctoral theses.

EThOS 1 opened up access to UK doctoral theses in January 2009. It is a service by and for the research community. Although EThOS is still in beta version, it is already changing the way theses are accessed and is helping to raise the visibility of UK research.


Doctoral theses represent a special category of research writing and are the culmination of several years of intensive work. Traditionally difficult to access, they have as a result remained underused; so modernising access to research theses has been on the Higher Education agenda for many years in line with the changing characteristics of the working environment:

Two projects [2], funded by JISC, Consortium of University Research Libraries (CURL)/ Research Libraries UK (RLUK), the British Library (BL) and the project partners, enabled the BL and partner Higher Education institutions (HEIs) to undertake detailed planning and consultation to meet the needs and preferences expressed by the UK Higher Education community in achieving a modern document delivery service for theses. Details of the approach were published previously in Ariadne [3] and elsewhere [4].

In summary, the aims were:

The EThOS service itself is the most visible result of this work. It is exciting and gratifying to see an initiative move from project to a real service, but in addition to this, the projects played a key role in addressing the concerns of students, alumni, supervisors, administrators and librarians in HEIs, in order to encourage the adoption of e-theses in UK universities.

The majority of institutions who award higher degrees are somewhere along the path to accepting e-theses, in line with the general trend towards opening up access to completed research work. Some now require research students to submit an electronic copy of their work, while others have voluntary arrangements, or are putting measures in place for e-submission. The EThOS Toolkit [5] provides a great deal of advice, guidance, model documentation and answers to frequently asked questions.

Launching a New Service

The EThOSnet project team followed up HEI contacts who had expressed an interest in the service, to guide them through the options available for participation and to offer advice relevant to each institution’s own circumstances. The details of the EThOS system had been planned through wide consultation with many different stakeholder groups, but in the time between the initial project stages and the service launch, changes of personnel meant that, in some HEIs, the issues and queries needed to be revisited and reconsidered. So far, over 100 UK HEIs are participating in EThOS, and several more are finalising their position.

Most people involved do appreciate the benefits of electronic dissemination, and the potential advantages for authors and their institutions [6]. A centrally co-ordinated service for finding and ordering theses has also been welcomed by users and libraries.

As anticipated, the most frequent hurdle to participation has been the management of the risks associated with IPR and disclosure of thesis content, but most HEIs are comfortable with the processes recommended by EThOS. These include:

For its part, EThOS:

Further details of the measures to address these risks, together with guidance for authors and HEIs, are available in the EThOS Toolkit already cited.

The majority of participating HEIs are supporting the service financially, by choosing one of the open access options. This means that the HEI that holds the thesis covers the cost of digitising it when it is ordered. Many libraries regard this as a shift of costs from the acquisition of theses via purchase or document supply to the conversion of locally held content that will reduce workload in the longer term.

EThOS will monitor usage of the service, producing measures of the numbers of theses requested, the numbers of downloads, etc, to help HEIs see the take-up and usage of their theses, and to budget for their ongoing contribution to the service.

EThOS also provides a valuable service to HEIs by including all theses that are digitised or harvested into the system in the BL’s digital preservation programme.

Participating institutions are encouraged to contribute to the ongoing development of the service. Suggestions for improvement have been prioritised by the project team for action, and will continue to be welcomed after the project phase and beta phase come to an end. There is also a general discussion list for HEI staff interested in e-theses developments [7].

EThOS metadata will be available for harvesting via the usual OAI [8] channels, and available for incorporation in suitable general or specialised repository search engines.

Supplying Full-text Content

In some subjects, recently completed theses are in demand as sources of current research on a topic, but in others, unique work, completed years or decades ago, is still of interest to current researchers. This means that readers are requesting a wide variety of work from different disciplines, institutions and eras. A growing number of recently completed theses is beginning to become available in institutional repositories. They are being harvested and included in EThOS, but they are only a small proportion of the research work completed for doctoral degrees. Some of the institutions which run repositories are taking their own steps to source digital copies of theses from authors. Their aim is to increase the availability of electronic copies, and in turn to increase the amount of full-text content available in EThOS.

Selected theses that had been most popular at the BL in recent years were digitised in advance of the service going live, through a JISC-funded digitisation project [9]. These are available in EThOS, and many of them feature amongst the titles recording the most frequent downloads in the first weeks of the live service.

The EThOS database contains metadata for over 250,000 theses from the BL catalogue, of which approximately 16,000 are already available for immediate download. However, with a vast body of unique work contained in theses from all eras, the immediately available full text represents only a fraction of the material expected to be required by readers. The unique feature of EThOS is that it not only provides a central point of access to existing digital material and a repository system to store and preserve it, but also provides a facility for readers to request theses that are not yet available in electronic form.

This is achieved with the active support and participation of the HEIs which hold the theses. The EThOS system generates a request to the appropriate HEI. Staff there (usually in the library), locate the thesis, and provided there are no known barriers to its use, supply it to EThOS for scanning. The HEI benefits from such a simple system for getting the requested work digitised to a high standard, and at a reasonable cost. Once the thesis is in the system, it is there to satisfy all future requests, and the HEI is also entitled to the digitised copy, and associated metadata, for upload to its own repository.

Initial Reaction from Users

The service proved to be phenomenally popular with users right from the start. In the first quarter of operation (20 January to 20 April 2009), the volume of requests via EThOS was more than 10 times the level of activity under the previous thesis service. It is fair to say that although we knew the service would be popular, this increase in demand exceeded all expectations and has had an impact on everyone concerned.

On the one hand, e-theses that are already available for immediate download are available to satisfy multiple requests, with no effort on the part of the reader or the staff who would previously have been involved in the document supply process. They accounted for 28,000 downloads in the first quarter, and have already saved a great deal of time and effort for both parties. They represent a growing proportion of transactions on the system, and of course this was exactly the benefit expected from providing electronic access to materials. There have been many complimentary remarks from readers who have downloaded theses and appreciate their ready accessibility.

However, on the other hand, many new requests were received in respect of material that was not yet available in electronic form. This in turn generated work for the EThOS digitisation team, and for the HEIs which supply the theses for scanning, leading to backlogs. Such requests in respect of as yet undigitised material also have budgetary implications for the (majority of) institutions which support open access to their theses in terms of covering the costs of that unscheduled digitisation work.

The three main groups involved in the supply have all been affected by this unprecedented demand:


Moving a document supply system from an expensive and slow paper- and microfilm-based system to an open access service has seen a huge rise in expectations, and brought its fair share of challenges. Moving from a project to a live service brings new relationships amongst the practitioners involved. However, the British Library and the HEIs are rising to those challenges in the context of current approaches to electronic delivery of information and open access. Let us leave the last word to the thesis writers and readers at the beginning and end of the chain, who have recently made (unsolicited) comments:

A past thesis author:

‘thanks - a really great facility that would have been indispensable when i was searching for existing research. best wishes,’

A recent thesis author:

‘I just want to say hi. I’m in [Africa] working to give something back to my nation for sponsoring my studies abroad. I also checked and saw the e-copy of my thesis. Grateful indeed.’

A current researcher ‘customer’ of EThOS:

‘I wanted to say congratulations on providing a real service to scholarship. EThOS is very quickly going to become one of those things that leaves us thinking ‘how did I ever manage without it?’… Overall EThOS is well-designed, easy to use, and a huge help to serious research. Many thanks for all your hard work.’


  1. EThOS Web site http://ethos.bl.uk/
  2. Details of the two projects are at
    http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/programmes/digitalrepositories2005/ethos.aspx and
  3. Russell, J. “EThOSnet: Building a UK e-Theses Community”. Ariadne 52, July 2007.
  4. Key articles and presentations are listed on the project Web site at
  5. EThOS Toolkit http://ethostoolkit.cranfield.ac.uk/
  6. A summary of these benefits is at
  7. UK discussion list for electronic theses and dissertations
  8. Open Archives Initiative http://www.openarchives.org/
  9. JISC UK theses digitisation project

Author Details

Jill Russell
Digital Assets Programme Manager
Library Services
University of Birmingham
(Member of the EThOSnet project team)

Email: info@ethos.ac.uk or j.c.russell@bham.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.ethos.ac.uk/

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