This is a big deal for graduate students and recent alumni. ALM theses are guided by Harvard faculty and take years to complete, but until now the printed findings have seldom reached beyond a very small population of students and faculty who have access to Harvard's Grossman Library. Placing the theses in an online, searchable database bypasses the limitations of physical libraries, and makes information available to a much larger scholarly community. Now, any student, professor or associate whose university library system has a UMI/ProQuest subscription can find the Harvard Extension School theses by browsing topic areas or searching for certain keywords. HES students can also have their theses published on PQDT Open, a service which places theses and dissertations on an open Web server for anyone to download for free.
Of course, there are many other options for sharing scholarly work online, using hosted Web services or publishing on Scribd. However, such online services have a significant trust issue, as I noted on Harvard Extended several years back:
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. 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.Other academic units at Harvard already used the service for dissertations, and the ALM office saw the value in extending it to the Extension School as well. I really believe it greatly increases the likelihood that HES graduate research reaches a much wider scholarly audience and contributes to the understanding of the world around us.
My own thesis ("Making a case for quantitative research in the study of modern Chinese history: The New China News Agency and Chinese policy views of Vietnam, 1977--1993") was actually the guinea pig for the ProQuest arrangement. I've been nagging the school for some time about this, and the ALM office unexpectedly approached me last year to let me know about the electronic archiving option and also to ask if I was interested in trying out the ProQuest interface to upload my thesis. I experienced a couple of hiccups owing to a minor problem with the thesis PDF, but eventually I successfully uploaded my thesis and had it approved by the ALM office.
Note that there was a fee attached to UMI/ProQuest's service. In my case, I had to pay the most expensive rate -- around $150 -- because I chose the "open" publishing option, which places the abstract and thesis PDF on an open Web server, where anyone can download it (otherwise, it can only be seen by subscribers to the ProQuest service, such as university library systems). This extra charge for making information free and the long delay in publishing the thesis online (it took about four months) are my only complaints about the service.
If you're interested in reading my thesis abstract and downloading the PDF, it's available here. If you are an Extension School student or recent alumnus and want to find out more about the electronic archiving option, contact the ALM office.