The Social Relations Department's latest move to improve its relations with the world at large is not all beneficial. It is two-thirds good, when it says (1) that undergraduate honors theses in Social Relations should not have as their "principal purpose...a concrete description or journalistic account of particular events, persons, or places," and (2) that names of persons, places, and things should be omitted from theses except where they are essential to the meaning or where they are "transparently well-known to the public." But it is one-third bad, when it sets up a category of "Restricted" theses that will not be publicly available. The criterion for determining which theses shall be "restricted" is whether "material in the thesis could cause embarrassment to persons or institutions concerned."
The three-part regulation was brought on by newspaper stories which have taken parts of theses referring to Harvard and "distorted" their meaning. But this surely does not make the "restriction" necessary. If theses are to contain the names of persons or institutions only when that information is essential, then the only theses that mention Harvard will be those that treat some unique property of this college. In that case, there remain two worries: conclusions drawn by the thesis-writer from insufficient data, and distortion by newspapers of the author's conclusions. The solution to the first is not to accept theses with invalid conclusions; then the Department will not have the responsibility of hiding them from the public. The solution to the second is to follow the other writers in the art of writing clearly and correctly, so as to cut down the possibility of later distortion.
The problem of material gathered confidentially can also be solved without resorting to secrecy. Sources of information should not and cannot be promised that the information they give will be seen by nobody but the thesis-writer; the most they should be assured is that their names will not be used or that off-the-record material will not be reproduced in the thesis.
There is strong reason for objecting to the "restricted" classification. One of the purposes of theses is to widen the boundaries of knowledge, and a basic postulate of free universities is that all their discoveries shall be publicly available. Furthermore, the criterion of "embarrassment" is particularly offensive; it could easily include theses which point up inadequacies in university curricula or government programs, for example. If the Social Relations Department can ensure that its theses are properly scholarly jobs, it need have little fear of exposing them to the press or to the public. It has much to fear from locking valid "embarrassing" material in its safe.