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The Education exception and past PhD theses

Chris JHolland23 April 2019

A recent enquiry concerned the use of a past thesis in a writing workshop where students of a specific course would have the opportunity to examine and also to critique the writing style of that thesis, which would be studied as a relevant example. The question was whether it would be acceptable to copy the thesis in its entirety for the purpose of the workshop.

It seems very likely that this re-use of a thesis would be “fair dealing” in terms of the education (or “illustration for instruction”) exception which can be found in Section 32 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (CDPA). Naturally this would only be “fair dealing” to the extent that the copies were used strictly for the task in hand and not for any additional purpose beyond the scope of Section 32. The context also needs to be “non-commercial” so something like  a fee-charging CPD course would probably not be covered.

In addition Section 32 does not specify that the work must have been  “…made available to the public” as does the exception for criticism, review, quotation and news reporting (Section 30, CDPA) for example. So that question does not arise in relation to the thesis.

Plagiarism and self-plagiarism

Chris JHolland29 January 2019

Copyright infringement arises from re-using someone’s work without the permission of the copyright owner (or the benefit of a licence or suitable copyright exception) and is a legal issue. On the other hand, plagiarism arises from re-using someone else’s work in a way which implies it is your own. It is essentially a matter of ethics and academic discipline rather than a legal issue, although the consequences can be very serious.

Naturally the two problems can often overlap (re-using work without a legal basis and without acknowledgement). The key to avoiding plagiarism is always to acknowledge other people’s work when you are quoting form it or when relying upon ideas developed by someone else. That way you can’t be suspected of passing it off as your own work.

The UCL Copyright team are often asked about the dangers of self-plagiarism:

“Will  I be in danger of self-plagiarism if I re-use material from my thesis in a published article?” or conversely perhaps: “Can I use material from my previously journal articles in my thesis?”

Self-plagiarism is a real issue, in the sense of recycling you previous work as though it were wholly original, in a context where a certain level of originality is essential. The key to avoiding this danger is very similar to avoiding any kind of plagiarism: You need to be scrupulous about citing your own previous work where you are quoting from it or relying upon it.

In the context of your  thesis there may be separate academic issues about relying too heavily on your previously published work even though you are crediting it scrupulously, so in those circumstances  it would be good to discuss that with your PhD supervisor at an early stage.

Quotations in a PhD thesis

Chris JHolland18 May 2018

Recently we were asked about quotations in a PhD thesis which was about to be submitted for posting in Discovery, UCL’s open access repository. The student had included a small number of images from published papers by other authors (third party material).

Very sensibly the student had made an initial attempt to seek permission by contacting the publisher in each case but had received no response and was concerned about what to do next. Was permission essential to include these particular images? Again, a sensible question.

Further investigation showed that one of the source articles had in fact been published under a Creative Commons licence (as it happened, the most generous “CC BY” licence). In that particular case it would be fine to reproduce the image without seeking permission but only if one fulfilled the terms of the CC licence in some reasonable manner.

In our example the student had not realised the significance of the licence so had not initially taken steps to fulfill all its terms, such as identifying the licence and linking back to the Creative Commons website. So, ironically, even though the student was licensed to reuse the image, if they had proceeded without fulfilling the terms, there was the potential for copyright infringement.

Post graduate students will typically have an impressive grasp of detail in their chosen field but not necessarily when it comes to copyright and licensing issues. This example illustrates the importance of having at least a broad awareness of copyright when you are making your work available online and including quotations from third party material. Fortunately in this case the student was wise enough to seek advice on the potential issues.

Quoting from an unpublished PhD Thesis

Chris JHolland17 April 2015

This query received by the UCL Library involves several aspects of copyright. A researcher, Shilpa, who is planning to publish a book, has visited the Library to consult a PhD thesis. The author of the thesis (Hector) died a few years previously. Shilpa has asked about the copyright implications of reproducing some quotations from Hector’s PhD thesis in her book. A question springs to mind for those familiar with the recent changes to UK Copyright Law:

Could the use of material from the PhD thesis be covered by the new, broader Quotations exception (Section 32 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988)? If the quotations are of modest length and meet the requirements of the Fair dealing test (which applies to Section 32 along with other copyright exceptions) then it may be that the researcher will feel confident in relying on the exception.

However, if there is any doubt about whether it is then, given especially that the book will be commercially published, Pam may decide to reduce her risk by seeking permission.

 But then whom should she approach for permission? Copyright would initially have belonged to the author. The thesis is unpublished so it is most likely that copyright remained with the author, now deceased. IP rights can be inherited like any item of property. Unless the author of the thesis made provision for the copyright in his works in a will it has probably been inherited by his family as part of his estate. The task facing Shilpa is therefore to trace Hector’s family in order to find the copyright owner and seek permission.