It is a surprising situation. Never mind that nearly all educated members of early 21st century society are already familiar with the World Wide Web, the most extensive and accessible publishing and communications tool ever invented. Despite this, many facets of the academic world remain firmly planted in the ways of the early 20th century. Whether it's writing a term paper or conducting a major research project, the fruits of students' and scholars' efforts usually end up as printed sheets of paper destined for a professor's mailbox, a filing cabinet or a university library. Even a doctoral dissertation that takes years to complete is probably going to exist as a paper hard copy in just one or two locations. The insights contained in it may never be read by more than a handful of people.
This is not to suggest that academics are Luddites. Far from it -- most students and educators are very familiar with email, search engines, online databases, and Microsoft Word. But even if students use software programs to make and distribute a term paper or thesis proposal, electronic copies hardly ever venture beyond the hard drives of the students who created them, or the inboxes of the professors who received and graded them. On occasion, high-level research will be deemed good enough for a wider audience, but all too often these works remain restricted to books or journal articles that can only be seen in university libraries or expensive, password-protected databases. Fifty years from now, the scholars of the future will marvel at all of the ideas, hypotheses, evidence, analysis that were expressed but were only shared with a limited slice of humanity, despite the ubiquity of the Web and the many software tools at our disposal to share them with a much wider audience. This system will not only be viewed as inefficient, it will be regarded as isolating researchers from potential sources of knowledge and preventing them from making discoveries and improving our understanding of the world around us.
But there is hope. I have mentioned initiatives at MIT, Berkeley, and elsewhere that are attempting to leverage the power of the Web to spread knowledge more widely (see Online education, sharing knowledge, and a proposal for Harvard and UC Berkeley's free lectures on YouTube). Harvard Extended itself represents my own personal effort to share my experiences, observations, and research findings with a wider audience, and has succeeded beyond my wildest expectations -- Google Analytics tells me that more than 3,000 visits to Harvard Extended have taken place in the past 30 days, and nearly 85,000 visits have occurred since I first started using the tool in May of 2006.
Still, I want to do more. My blogging on Harvard Extended will come to an end in the next week, and it bothers me that the class papers I worked so hard on over the years do not have a permanent online home. Collectively, they took many hundreds of hours to research and write, and were shaped by my interactions with Extension School instructors, including members of Harvard's faculty. What a waste if they were to be resigned to a box of old papers in my basement, or a file directory on my hard drive. When I was still a student at the Extension School, I posted some of them to a fas.harvard.edu Web server. Unfortunately, I lost my FAS computing privileges when I graduated earlier this year, but I think I've found an alternate solution: Scribd.
Scribd is kind of like the YouTube of electronic documents. Registered users can upload their PDF or Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, and random .txt scribblings. Anyone with a Flash-enabled Web browser can view them, or even embed them on their own websites, just like you can do with YouTube videos. The database is searchable and indexed by Google, meaning that people anywhere can readily find specific documents, if they use the right search terms.
So, I've taken a half-dozen papers and uploaded them to Scribd. The idea is to share them with my readers on Harvard Extended, and anyone else who finds them interesting. I've linked them below, and embedded one of them in this post -- my final research paper for HUMA E-105 (Survey of Publishing, from Text to Hypertext). You can read them in your Web browser, or download a PDF copy, but I've disabled text and Word exports to discourage plagiarism. Here are the papers, starting with the research proposal I prepared as part of my proseminar back in the winter of 2003:
Defining a Territorial Sea: China's South China Sea Policy in the 1950s and its 1958 Declaration on the Territorial Sea (research proposal)
- January 2004. Harvard DCE/SSCI E-100B (Graduate Research Methods and Scholarly Writing in Social Sciences), Joe and Doug Bond, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University
- August 2004. Harvard DCE/Archaeology S-171 (Archaeology of the Silk Road), Irene Good, Peabody Museum, Harvard University
- May 2005. Hist E-1834 (Chinese Emigration in Modern Times), Professor Philip Kuhn, Harvard University
- August 2006. History S-1855 (Film and History in Postwar Japan and Post-Mao China), Prof. Charles Hayford, Visiting Scholar, History, Northwestern University
- February 2006. Prof. Donald Ostrowski and Prof. Alastair Iain Johnston, Harvard University
- November 2007. HUMA E-105 (Survey of Publishing, from Text to Hypertext), Matthew Battles, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
You'll have to take my word that all of the above papers were submitted to Harvard faculty or Extension School instructors for review, and all received excellent grades. However, the weaknesses in the Scribd system have convinced me to hold off on reposting my thesis on scribd.com. I want it to have the largest possible impact on my field, and I don't believe it will have that impact if posted to Scribd. Instead, I am holding out hope for a Harvard-sponsored solution. Nearly two years ago, I petitioned the Extension School to archive masters theses in the same electronic database used for doctoral dissertations at Harvard, ProQuest UMI (Update: My thesis is now available through UMI/ProQuest). While this is a closed database that can only be accessed through university library systems, it is restricted to vetted, accepted research from university masters and doctoral programs. It is widely used in academic circles -- in fact, the literature review in my thesis referenced several dissertations that I had located in the ProQuest UMI database. I hope that someday my own thesis might also be useful to future scholars of modern Chinese history, Cold War history, and Chinese media studies, if Harvard decides to extend this resource to ALM theses from the Extension School.