Late last night, I was thumbing through the stack of thesis and dissertation drafts that had been given to me by students in anticipation of a December graduation. I swore under my breath over the unpleasant task ahead — not the reading per se but rather the gratingly unaesthetic form in which I had to read these tomes. Each one represented approximately two journal papers worth of content inefficiently spread out over 120+ double-spaced, single-sided sheets of text and oversized figures. Some of these were not early drafts requiring extensive copy-editing; they were final drafts requiring only my approval and that of my fellow readers before being deposited with the Graduate School.
I was reminded of something I had recently read in this document (p. 3):
“If you put in too much space, lines lose their connection with each other, and the document becomes unreadable. Double-spacing is an extreme example of this – text should never be double-spaced if you expect anyone to read it.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I found myself orating to an imaginary Faculty Senate meeting, “in no other literary or scholarly context today is a major or minor work published in final form as a double-spaced document! Why in the world do we still require double-spaced theses and dissertations at UW-Madison?”
Of course, UW-Madison is not alone. Virtually every other university in the United States has similar archaic format requirements (this is not true abroad). There are defensible historical reasons why those standards for theses came into being in the first place. But they arguably have their roots in 19th century editing and production issues that no longer apply in 2009, and it is past time to take a fresh look. We can be the leaders of that reassessment.
Over generations, typographers have studied the parameters that make a document reasonably pleasant and effortless to read. Desirable qualities include (but are not limited to)
- a largish chunk of the text visible on a single page for effortless browsing,
- a text column width of somewhere between 50 and 70 characters, and
- line spacing that is optimal for the font and line length.
The first and third criteria partly explain why virtually all professionally published documents are single-spaced. The second explains why many text-heavy documents printed on 8.5″ or wider paper are laid out in two or more columns. Think newspapers, magazines, journal articles, and conference proceedings.
Needless to say, the UW-Madison format requirements for Masters theses and doctoral dissertations violate all of the above criteria. Only a miserly 22 lines of text fit on one double-spaced page. As already noted, double spacing is inherently hard to read fluidly. The 6.5″ lines of text correspond to about 86 characters of 12 point Times New Roman, which is really a bit too much.
So, to make my own small but indelible mark on this campus, it should suffice for me to point out to the right people that, in the era of desktop publishing, laser printers, and electronic document archival, the Graduate School’s format requirements are not only badly outdated but positively burdensome to everyone who has to actually read a thesis or dissertation, not to mention to the forests that have to supply the necessary wood pulp.
As I write this, I am awaiting an answer from the Graduate School as to who has the ultimate authority to review and amend thesis and dissertation format requirements. But it is hard to imagine that it should not be the faculty.
In the meantime, here is my preliminary proposal:
- Allow theses and dissertations to optionally be printed with single spacing. However, instead of using the ambiguous term “single spacing”, specify the required leading in points for a given typeface and size.
- Reduce minimum margin requirements to 1″ on the binding edge (e.g., left edge on odd pages) and 0.5″ on the outer edge, with a total text width not to exceed 6-7/8″.
- Subject to the above relaxed margins, allow the optional use of two-column, 10 point format similar to journal article and conference proceeding layouts. Columns would be 3-1/4″ wide with 3/8″ of space between them.
- If single-column format is used, require the use of a 12 point font, and limit text width to three times that of the lower-case alphabet a-z, or 78 characters. For Times New Roman, this is 5.9 inches. For Palatino or Book Antiqua, one gets to use up to 6.6 inches.
- For table and figure captions, allow a font size that is one point smaller than that of the main text.
- Provide Graduate School-approved document templates that implement all format requirements. Make these available for Word and LaTeX, the two major typesetting systems in wide use for thesis preparation.
There may be reasons I haven’t thought of for why such revisions would be undesirable. I look forward to reader comments.