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Art History theses and copyright

Kirsty9 December 2021

Guest post by Thomas Stacey, Open Access Team, UCL Library (LCCOS)

At UCL, students studying for doctoral and research master’s degrees are required to submit an electronic copy of their thesis to the Library for inclusion in UCL Discovery, our open-access repository of UCL research outputs, in order for their degree to be awarded.  The Open Access Team encourages theses to be made openly available, either immediately after award or following the completion of an embargo period. We do, however, recognise that there are a number of reasons why access may need to be restricted, such as future publication, confidentiality, the inclusion of sensitive and/or personal information, and – in the discipline of Art History in particular – the presence of third-party copyrighted images.

I have been thinking about art history theses and whether they could be made open access more easily – and crucially with all the images included where needed.

The University of Cambridge’s ‘Unlocking Research’ blog post written in 2019 by Dr Lorraine de la Verpillière provides a comprehensive background on the issues facing academics within the arts: many are forced to pay to access third-party copyrighted works for private study, and then to pay again later on publish the final research output. Within this blog post, one academic commented “The more successful I become the poorer I get” as the furthering of their career through obtaining copyright for images has cost them over $20,000. Even out-of-copyright artworks are affected, as galleries and museums that own the originals can create their own copyrighted reproductions and restrict others’ ability to do the same.  Bridgeman Images, for example, now owns the rights to all images of artworks in Italian national museums – which can pose a huge financial challenge for many art historians.

A further obstacle for Art History students is that the principle of fair dealing within the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, which can be used to justify the inclusion of extracts of texts and figures (as part of a wider, previously-published work) in theses, cannot be applied to the reproduction of full artworks, which constitute entire copyrighted works in themselves.

An art history thesis without images understandably compromises the integrity of the work. Unless PhD students use images with Creative Commons licences or which are in the public domain due to being out-of-copyright entirely, they will either have to obtain permissions or redact the images within their thesis accordingly. When processing thesis submissions for UCL PhD students, the Open Access Team will often be required to redact images as part of routine checks prior to any thesis file being made publicly available in UCL Discovery.

It seems there is not a straightforward solution to enable art history theses to be made open access with all images included in the work. Dr De la Verpillière suggests that there could be more support from universities for art history students and academics regarding third-party copyright. Art institutions really need to do more in this respect. Some art institutions have started to make their image collections open access (a selection is given below) so hopefully more will do likewise soon. Even if art institutions provided discounted permissions fees for PhD students needing to use images for example – that is a compromise of sorts to help new academics.

To avoid delays in making theses available in UCL Discovery post-award, or redactions being made to images of artwork that are critical to the overall integrity of the thesis, the Open Access Team also recommends that relevant licence and/or permissions information is included within the thesis file, as part of the Library’s guide to copyright for research students.

Here are some art institutions with open-access image collections:

Open Access theses

Kirsty31 March 2021

Among the many things that can be made Open Access; publications, data, software, and so many more, it is now increasingly more common for PhD theses to be made Open Access. This can be a great resource when you are undertaking your own PhD to get an idea of scope, structure and can be a great source of ideas.

Finding Open Access theses

UCL Library Services manages the DART-Europe service, the premier European portal for the discovery of open access research theses.  At the time of writing, this service provides access to over one million research theses from 564 Universities in 29 European countries.  It was founded in 2005 as a partnership of national and university libraries and consortia to improve global access to European research theses.  It does this by harvesting data from thesis repositories at contributing institutions, including from UCL Discovery (see below), and providing a link to at least one open access electronic copy of each thesis.  The theses themselves are located on the websites of the contributing institutions.

Users of the DART-Europe portal can search this vast database by keyword, or browse by country or institution, and view the research theses in full, without charge.  New theses are added every day, from doctoral and research masters programmes in every academic discipline.  For more information about the service, please contact the DART-Europe team.  Institutions not currently represented in the portal can view information on how to contribute to DART-Europe.

In normal times, the digitisation of doctoral theses can also be requested on an individual basis through the British Library’s e-theses online service (EThOS).  This is a database of all UK doctoral theses held in university library collections, with links to open access copies in institutional repositories, and hosted directly in EThOS, where available.  If an electronic copy is not available, you can create an account with the service to request digitisation of the print copy: this prompts the institution where the thesis is held to find and check the print thesis, and then send it to the British Library’s facility at Boston Spa for digitisation.  Please note that this process incurs a charge (which is indicated during the requesting process) and is currently suspended due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Your thesis – UCL Discovery

Since the 2008-09 academic year, UCL students studying for doctoral and research master’s degrees have been required to submit an electronic copy of their thesis to the Library as a mandatory condition of the award of their degree.  Students are encouraged to make their theses openly available in UCL Discovery, our open access institutional repository, although in practice access can be restricted for a number of reasons if necessary.  A citation of the thesis appears in UCL Discovery even if access to the full text is restricted.

Older theses have also been digitised and added to UCL Discovery retrospectively.  The bulk of this work has been carried out as part of a specific project covering over 10,000 theses from 1990 to 2008.  This project is ongoing but mostly complete: over 7,000 digitised theses have been added to UCL Discovery during the last twelve months alone by Library Services staff who have not been able to carry out their normal work due to COVID-19 restrictions.

If you cannot access a UCL thesis which is listed online through these methods, please contact the Open Access Team, who will be able to provide advice on options for obtaining access.