Thorny Technology: Open Access Causes Problems at the Iowa Writers Workshop

March 12, 2008 | 3 3 min read

Emails are circulating among various current and former students from the famed Iowa Writers Workshop expressing concern over the University of Iowa’s new “Open Access” policy with regard to theses. These include MFA theses, which, according to our own Workshop grad Edan, might typically consist of a “book-length manuscript… poems, short stories or a novel (either completed or partially completed).” She added, “I turned in a bunch of stories, and I might not have included a couple if I knew they would be made public online…they were experiments more than anything, writing by a student.”

For creative writing students (and their colleagues in Iowa’s creative non-fiction MFA), of primary concern is that MFA theses will be “freely available over the internet at no cost to the enduser, and can be located via search engines such as Google.” In so many words, their fiction, poetry, and non-fiction will be given away for free before they have the chance to get it published, thus wrecking opportunities for remuneration and resume-building.

As is so often the case with these thorny technology issues, however, we should take care not to paint the situation with too broad a brush, otherwise we run the risk of sounding shrill and out of touch, while progress marches inexorably onward.

Lest any concerned Workshop grads think that Iowa is pulling a fast one, the history of the Open Access movement in acedemia is long and not without controversy. The Wikipedia article on the topic places the seeds of the movement as early as the 1940s, long before Google became a favorite bogeyman of those wary of technological advances. Admittedly, however, the movement really took hold at the advent of the internet, when the fruits of Open Access could be realized in full. Peter Suber, an academic who is one of the more prominent voices on Open Access, defines it in its simplest terms as follows: “Open-access (OA) literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions. What makes it possible is the internet and the consent of the author or copyright-holder.” In academic communities, Open Access has potentially huge importance, allowing scientists and scholars to easily gain access to the work of their colleagues. After all, scholarship in nearly all fields is built upon the work of scholars that went before.

Of course, the Iowa writers are arguing, with creative work, the calculation is different. Writers learn from reading other writers, but a novel doesn’t cite previous novels explicitly. Ernest Hemingway doesn’t direct his readers via footnote to Sherwood Anderson, for example. And so, the Open Access framework would appear to be flawed when it comes to theses produced by the students in the Iowa Writers Workship, as it is both irrelevant to their discipline and potentially damaging to their future careers.

At the same time, it would seem to me that the Iowa Writers Workshop, and any MFA programs that follow the same practice, do their students a disservice by deciding to call their students’ culminating works, “graduate theses.” In the academic world, terms like this have concrete meanings, and there are – sometimes unwritten – rules that govern their usage. Perhaps it would be too much too suggest that calling the final projects of MFAs “theses” is overcompensation by programs that have an inferiority complex when compared to the more grounded academic displines, but Iowa and other programs should be aware of these rules in the first place. There is also the ever-present argument that we are in a digital world, and aspiring writers need to think creatively about working with the openness and freedom that the internet offers, even in the face of potential copyright confusion. At the same time, and at Iowa especially, universities should be cognizant of the peculiar requirements of creative fields and strive not to do any harm to their students’ futures by with blanket, unnuanced policies like the one that Iowa is attempting to force on its MFAs.

Bonus Links:

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. Max, the Workshop is not an academic program. It is exactly what it calls itself: a workshop, an atelier. There is no scholarship there. Nor would you want it there. English lit people can get exercised about this, and pronounce the writers anti-intellectual, while somehow misunderstanding how the novels they study get written.

    Why is there an degree attached to the Workshop, why is it at a university? I don't know; I expect there was a deal brokered long ago. Both the university and the writers have done well by it. Until last week, though, there was absolutely no intimation that MFA theses would be treated as some form of research, or a scholarly product owed to the university or public. There was no — and I mean no — talk about ceding copyright to UI or anyone else. That's part of why you're hearing this outcry.

    Keep in mind that many of us do not have, want, or pursue academic careers. I went to the University of Iowa because it happened to be where the Workshop was housed, not because I wanted an MFA. If the MFA came free in the Workshop cereal box, that was very nice, but it wasn't the point.

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