Yes, people do read PhD thesis! (at lease some)

Wikipedia logoWell, anesthetist I know PhD thesis are in many cases good pieces of work, where people put really a lot of effort, and which usually are well written, and are quite insightful and all that. However after writing one, supervising some, reviewing some more, and reading even some more, I still wonder really how many people (in addition to the author, supervisor and reviewers) do actually read even a good thesis.

Of course I’m not talking here about the really exceptional thesis, which is a must in all citations in the field, which opens new avenues for research and all the pack. It’s clear that a lot of attention is obtained in some, exceptional cases. But how many people read the even best-than-average thesis? I guess that in the days prior to the Internet, that was really a small buch of people. Do you remember those days? You had to come down to the library and ask them to get you a copy of the thesis (in paper, or course), or contact and convince the author to mail (I mean, snail-mail) you a copy, or maybe get the Department where it was presented mail you that copy. Even if the thesis seemed interesting, well, not that many people would follow that process. And certainly no one outside research institutions would do that.

Internet has changed this process completely.

And not only because now you can get the PDF in a matter of seconds, but also because now it is possible to spread the word about an interesting work, and let it be known not only to academics, but to anyone interested in the field.

I knew all this… in theory. But thanks to Felipe Ortega, I’ve seen it working in practice.

I had a lot of fun advising Felipe on his thesis, Wikipedia: A Quantiative Analysis. For both of us, this was a new field, which let me explore new opportunities for some of the methodologies we were using to study FLOSS development. And as I said, was the opportunity to have a lot of fun. Once the thesis was complete, I knew Felipe had produced a big pile of good stuff. But I had no idea about what was about to happen.

And what happened was that people really started to read the thesis. Thanks to Felipe’s presentations in some conferences, but over all thanks to the availability of the PDF text, people could appreciate what he had written, and started to talk about it. You know, talking these days include (or maybe means) blogging and web-based information. And of course also more traditional presentations in workshops and congresses, and even good old press releases. A first wave of attention was caused by those, in two different groups: researchers studying Wikipedia (as could be expected), and Spanish media (thanks to press releases). Well, you know, both Felipe and me happen to be located in Madrid, Spain.

But the buzz about the results on how Wikipedia was performing attracted the attention of the regular media, via an article in WSJ. And the press coverage worldwide was enormous.

I guess everything would have stopped here, if people could not read the thesis after knowing about it. But they could. And therefore, they could get to the facts, and not only to the summaries journalists and bloggers were preparing. And the thesis started to have readers… A lot of them. Some, even write about it in some detail, such as WikiXRay and Statistics on Wikipedia. And some, meta-discuss what happens with thesis are easily available, as The importance of the PhD thesis in a connected world. Of course, you have also reactions from Wikimedia Foundation, and Wikipedia itself provides related data, and discussions on some specific results, and all that. To some point, the studied object has entered the discussion, which is quite interesting. Which is an interesting by-product of what happens when the thesis is online…

Well, all in all, now I have the proof that people (in fact, many people) actually do read thesis nowadays. Or at least some thesis 😉

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