Contribution to The Authentic Dissertation: Alternative Ways of Knowing, Research and Representation
convened by Don Four Arrows Jacobs
[August 3rd 2007]

To the best of my knowledge, the Flight of Ducks was the first fully online doctorate in that it was publicly conceived, researched, developed, submitted, examined, and stored - online since 1995. For the last 10 years it has attracted an annual audience of over 2 million individuals. This is a brief description of how it came about. There's more, but you'll have to go to the Web for that.

The research began in 1990 when my father died. I extracted from his belongings a collection of artefacts, a pile of photographs, and journals relating to a camel expedition into Central Australia in 1933. I'd grown up with stories from this trip and I felt a duty to protect the integrity of this collection.

My father was only twenty years old in 1933 when he wrote his field journal. He never sought to have it published. Indeed, he insisted that it was not of sufficient interest (or quality) to warrant publication. At first glance, he was right. The original is, by itself, little more than a few sparse jottings.

Nevertheless, as part of the journey of the son around the father, I spent many nights over the next 3 years typing up an annotated version of the journal that combined the original with subsequent versions. To my surprise, I found that many of the stories I had grown up with were (through the process of elaboration) imaginary. Then, when I started looking at other people's accounts of central Australian journeys, I discovered that his journal was typical, that most of the desert journeys were actually spiritual journeys assembled from the imagination, field notes, and previous accounts.

Herein lies the significance of the title, the Flight of Ducks. It refers to a song at the heart of the expedition journal, to imaginative flight, and to the shape and form that the project began to assume after I found that I had lost all my typing to a corrupted hard drive and began to use the World Wide Web as a space to hold the story.

I chose the Web as a repository as a pragmatic way of ensuring that my digital files would be there when I wanted them. It enabled me to build a deeply layered work where the files were laid out in a series of parallel lines to reflect the topography of the landscape through which the expedition travelled.

As the site evolved, I began to traverse a datascape and to write about my own journey of discovery. These reports took on some of the characteristics of the explorer's journal. They were like streams of conversation and they had a poetic that lay somewhere between a post card and a phone tap.

I hadn't anticipated that other people would find the material and talk back to it. My central story and research rapidly became encrusted with other people's stories and observations. I guess this inclusive aspect make it the first blog. It is easy to forget that in late 1994, any understanding of a web-enabled poetic was drawn more from the vision of such prescient thinkers as Vannevar Bush and Ted Nelson than from actual experience. Back then, the Web was a novelty: there were very few personal digital repositories, neither semantic nor syntactic consensus for metadata, and most 'interactive' writing took little account of the implications of having two-way communications - particularly over scholarly material.

In 1995 I became a 'mature-age' PhD student with a vaguely defined archival project based on preserving my father's material in a digital domain. But it was enough to give me access to a server. As I recall, each student was entitled to an email account with a Megabyte of storage space.

Through luck rather than skill, I found my way into a newly established research lab with access not only to a server but also to a $100k Silicon Graphics workstation. It was computing heaven if you wanted to work on high-end 3D graphics but I didn't and I never took this Maserati out of first gear. I just used the text editor (Notepad equivalent) and taught myself HTML the hard way. At that time there weren't any books or tutorials on Markup. The way to learn was through a process of reverse engineering where you would copy someone's source code and modify it to suit.

The values underlying this form of shared collaborative learning, involving unbridled appropriation, proliferation, re-use and re-presentation have become the values of the Electronic Thesis and Dissertation (ETD) movement. But at the time, I was barely aware that for information to be knowledge it required a social and cultural dimension.

The hands-on work of writing and learning Markup languages meant that when I scanned the images and fragmented the texts I was necessarily engaged in an iterative methodology akin to sculpting. I'd once worked as a puppeteer and I could not help but see the screen as a small theatre. However, the shape of a container inevitably influences the way its content is both produced and consumed. The challenges of working with these constraints led to my involvement in the development of the shadow language of descriptive containment known as the Dublin Core Metadata Standard.

The application of metadata was one of several interrelated areas of research that constituted the focus of my doctoral research. The others were: long-term access strategies, networked narrative structures, and the complex arena of Aboriginal representation online.

There was an obvious tension between the institutional requirement for fixing an exegesis in time and the evolving nature of the research. The paper entitled, Killing the Duck to Keep the Quack describes some of these challenges.

The University not only lacked the infrastructure to accommodate an online thesis but also lacked any insight it to how it might be examined. Eventually, I had to write my own protocols. I think that Virginia Tech, in the USA, adopted them. The Higher Degrees Committee insisted that I also submitted a bound paper thesis and a CD-ROM of the site. On the eve of submission, a politicised University Ethics Committee deleted the entire site from the University server. Such was the level of controversy that my Australian examiners withdrew and I became an academic untouchable.

My research into long-term access had encouraged me to engage in proliferation as a preservation strategy. This meant that the site could be accessed through several servers in Australia and the USA. In addition, the National Library of Australia had chosen the Flight of Ducks as a pilot for their archive of sites of national significance. After 9 months the Ethics Committee conceded their mistake and in 1998 the doctorate was examined in the USA at MIT and UCLA. This was the first of a series of politically motivated assaults on the site. It is now hosted in Hong Kong.

Regardless of the institutional dysfunction, or good fortune, that has kept the Flight of Ducks 'in the wild,' it remains outside the custodial influence of the University that approved my research and awarded my doctorate. As a consequence, the rationale behind proliferation, as a demonstrably successful digital preservation strategy, has extended to values that can be characterised as open, transparent, unprotected, and responsive.

That the Flight of Ducks is still 'live' and still growing is not necessarily at odds with existing academic and administrative requirements. The imperative to freeze the doctoral thesis in time, for the purpose of examination, is easily accommodated. But why should it end there? The more time passes, the more likely it is that there will be more to say and more to understand about any chosen area of research.

That an electronic thesis should be open to annotation and responsive to change is not only dependent on its architecture, but on its genuine connections to human activity and thought. If we acknowledge the passion and endurance that is required to complete a higher degree of substance, then there is a discontinuity in the expectation that the momentum of scholarly discourse should stop at the point of submission for examination.

Doctoral research inevitably leads to professional and academic practice. The Flight of Ducks demonstrates that the electronic thesis can also serve as a personal repository for containing the revisions, expansions and contractions of post-doctoral thought - as well as locating articles and conference papers within a contextual framework.

For me, the thoughtful human interaction that occurs almost every day as a result of having an openly accessible dissertation on the Web is not only a source of delight but inevitably leads to what one contributor described as, 'the flesh meeting.' This is a tendency towards physical meeting as a consequence of networked communication. It is a phenomenon at odds with the notion of disconnection invariably associated with an intellectual life.