Let me abstract away from my dispute with Will about the ethics of reporting the contents of Peter Nurnberg’s senior thesis. Consider a more interesting topic: What should the policy of Williams College be with regard to the availability and use of senior theses?

1) Start with Will’s comment:

I do not assert that you have to remove the information that Peter chose not to put on the web, from the web, but until you have leave from him to do so, I assert that you should.

Reasonable Ephs can differ about moral imperatives, of course. But to the extent that others agree with Will, Williams ought to change its policies to make moral behavior more common, if not universal, in this context.

2) I do not know current Williams policy on the availability/use of senior thesis. Pointers welcome! But I think that (with no exceptions) any Williams senior who writes a thesis must make a copy of that thesis available in the Williams library. (I guess that there might be some exceptions but I have never heard of any.) If a Williams senior does not want to make her thesis available, then she is not allowed to write one.

3) The main control that Williams seniors have is whether or not they want to retain copyright or give it to Williams, and whether or not they want to allow the College to make an electronic copy available over the web. See the thesis release form (pdf) for details.

4) The release form highlights, I think, the current official policy of Williams College when it comes to the availability/use of senior theses.

Your unpublished thesis, submitted for a degree at Williams College and administered by the Williams College Libraries, will be made available for research use. You may, through this form, provide instructions regarding copyright, access, dissemination and reproduction of your thesis. The College has the right in all cases to maintain and preserve theses both in hardcopy and electronic format, and to make such copies as the Libraries require for their research and archival functions

Thanks to Professor Sam Crane for providing a link to this document.

If this is the policy, then, from Will’s point of view, there are some real problems. The College is asserting that student writers have no choice. If you want to write a thesis then you must allow Williams to make that thesis available to others for research. Students do not get to decide that researcher X can use their thesis but not researcher Y. They do not get to demand that researcher X use only part A of their thesis for purpose Q and not part B for purpose R. This seems like an excellent policy to me. Kudos to the Williams librarians, the Committee on Educational Policy, the College Administration and whomever else is responsible.

5) But policies can change. Williams is wonderful but could always be better. What specific policies would Will (or anyone else) propose? My prediction is that the Williams Library and the CEP would object to any policy that restricted researcher access or use of Williams thesis. Yet, until we have some specific alternatives on the table, it is hard to know for sure.

Comments welcome!

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