PhD theses may represent the rite of passage for academics, but most are destined to lie mouldering on university library shelves or buried in institutional databases, never to be read again.
All this will change, however, under plans launched this week to give researchers throughout higher education, science and industry easy access to the 14,000 academic dissertations in disciplines ranging from molecular chemistry to medieval history, produced in the UK each year.
The Joint Information Systems Committee, the Consortium of Research Libraries in the British Isles (Curl) and the British Library are working together on an 18-month project to preserve printed and electronic theses centrally and make them generally accessible.
The UK is well behind many other countries in giving electronic access to the full text of theses and dissertations. The new project, EThOS (Electronic Theses Online Service), aims to develop a working prototype for a national scheme of e-theses, offering full text access via the web.
The project leaders believe that a one-stop-shop approach to theses will boost the visibility of research. And they say that better knowledge of what research graduates have done will minimise duplication of projects and improve cross-fertilisation between research programmes.
Electronic theses could boost the quality of postgraduates' work. Students are likely to make more of an effort if they think their thesis will be widely read, and creating an e-thesis may mean more sophisticated work in terms of the media they use.
The British Library gives access to more than 170,000 doctoral theses, mainly from the 1970s to the present, although these are acquired only "on demand". Researchers can also approach universities directly, but they have to know of the existence of a thesis to ask about it.
The EThOS project aims to create a database that can be searched for any UK thesis indexed. If a thesis is in electronic format, researchers will be able to access the full text from their desktop. All electronically stored theses will be accessible, whether they are held centrally in the British Library or by institutions themselves.
While the prime focus of EThOS will be developing a supply service for e-theses, it will also start a programme of retrospectively digitising theses. Some theses that are available only in print form will be digitised using the Jisc-funded digitising line book scanner based at Southampton University, while the British Library will digitise others from its microfilmed collection of 150,000 theses.
Robin Green, executive director of Curl, said: "UK theses contain a largely untapped mine of research knowledge. This initiative will offer researchers a single and convenient means to access that knowledge, and is a significant step in the development of a national approach to provision of research information."