In 1977, before personal computers and the Internet, Umberto Eco published How to Write a Thesis. It has remained in print ever since, but only now is it available in English. The book hasn’t been updated and makes no concessions to technological change. Space is devoted to card indexes and manual typewriters, offering alternatives if the student owns an IBM Selectric. Eco advises choosing a thesis topic for which ‘sources [are] locally available and easily accessible’.
Much of this has limited value for the twenty-first-century student. Also, Eco is giving advice for the Italian laurea thesis, which in scope is quite unlike the American or Australian PhD. Nevertheless, it is still true that primary and secondary sources must be accessible, even if they are not held locally, and Eco’s guidelines for manageable thesis topics remain sensible, if sometimes rather comical. He even explains to the time-poor student how to plagiarise a thesis from a sufficiently distant university to avoid detection, while carefully pointing out that the ‘advice we have just offered [is] illegal’.