Image credit: S. Heard. Hand models: Ken Dearborn, Allyson Heustis (thanks!).
Of course. Most are, and that’s perfectly appropriate. But some interesting issues arise.
Did “most are” surprise you? (If it didn’t, feel free to scroll directly to the next section, “Rhetorical gymnastics”.) Once it would have surprised me. But if we back away from the word “thesis” for a moment, the pervasiveness of coauthorship should surprise no one. Coauthorship rates have risen over the last century to the point where, in the sciences, very few published papers are single-authored. I would argue that theses (whether undergraduate, Masters, or PhD) aren’t any different – if anything, they might be more likely to be coauthored. That coauthorship might take the form of contributions by the research supervisor, by collaborating scientists, or by other graduate or undergraduate students in the lab.
Recognizing the coauthorship of thesis chapters isn’t hard. First, most thesis chapters are at least intended for later publication, and the published versions usually appear with coauthors (there’s some complication here around “thesis-format” theses, but I don’t think it threatens the generalization). Second, if we consider a piece of thesis research simply as a piece of science (which it is), then I suspect that standard authorship guidelines would identify coauthors more often than not. Here are the authorship criteria suggested by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, which are typical:
- Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
- Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
- Final approval of the version to be published; AND
- Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.
How many thesis chapters exist for which nobody except the student meets these criteria? Not even the supervisor? Some do, certainly; but I think few, and fewer all the time. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Graduate (and undergraduate) research is research – that’s really its entire point. Requiring it to be completely independent research (in the sense of having nobody else merit coauthorship) would seem strange – making the thesis no longer an authentic piece of work representative of the scientific enterprise. Not only that, if there are questions out there that can only be addressed collaboratively (and surely there are), it would take such questions right off the thesis table. Why would we want that?
So coauthored thesis chapters are common. How do we handle that coauthorship, in the thesis document? Over the mumble-mumble years since I wrote my own thesis, I’ve seen a shift in our behaviour. It’s a good shift, but it’s one we aren’t finished making. It has to do with the rhetorical gymnastics we’ve indulged in, in order to pretend that thesis chapters aren’t coauthored.
What I mean by “rhetorical gymnastics” is the contorted writing we were once willing to put up with to keep the word “we” from creeping into a thesis. We might have suggested the student write in the passive voice, to remove the actor (and the issue of the actor’s possibly plurality) altogether. We might have suggested the student write in the active voice, but write “I”, knowing full well that (1) this wasn’t true, and (2) a global search-and-replace of “I” to “we” would be in order for later publication. We might have suggested cumbersome phrases like “Using data provided by Jane Doe (personal communication), I….”. You could certainly have admired our semantic flexibility.
Except that the past tense I used in that last paragraph suggests that we’ve moved beyond the gymnastics. We haven’t – or at least, not entirely. I still, frequently, run into supervisors insisting that their students write theses that pretend to be solo-authored. It doesn’t fool anyone, of course. What it does do is make the writing harder to read, and require an otherwise-unnecessary revision step before publication. I don’t understand, therefore, why we’re still doing it.
What should we do instead? Easy: author contribution statements. This isn’t a novel suggestion, of course – my university, like many, requires these for graduate thesis chapters that are previously published and coauthored. Generalizing the practice to all thesis chapters is straightforward. Write “we”, just as you would for journal publication, and explain that “we” up front (as a footnote to each title page, or in an introductory chapter*). Done and sorted.
There’s another question around all this, though and I think it’s an interesting one. Sometimes a thesis chapter will be coauthored, and two (or more, I suppose) of the coauthors will be students writing theses. Which student’s thesis does the chapter go in? Or can it go in both? I don’t know the answer to this one, and the more I think about it, the more I don’t know. I can imagine a few positions one might take (roughly, from least to most permissive):
- A manuscript can be part of a thesis, but only of one thesis. Once it has appeared in the first thesis, its appearance in a second would be inappropriate – even if clearly disclosed and even if the two students co-wrote it equally.
- A manuscript can be part of two theses, but only as long as each student can point to content that is uniquely their contribution and that content contributes uniquely to answering the larger questions posed by their thesis. That is, the two theses must (of course) be distinct, and the shared chapter must serve distinct functions for the two theses.
- A manuscript can be part of two theses, but only as long as each student can point to content that is uniquely their contribution. This recognizes the possibility that a single manuscript could serve the same function in each thesis, although the two theses would build from it in different ways.
- A manuscript can be part of two theses as long as both students meet the coauthorship criteria. That is, students need not be able to point to unique contributions to the coauthored chapter. (I include this option because I’ve written coauthored papers for which I couldn’t, afterwards, remember or distinguish the separate contributions of each coauthor. In fact, these are my favourite kind of coauthored paper, and I’d like to encourage, not discourage, such synergistic collaborations.)
I suspect that position #1 would be the default position for many, and until recently, it would have been for me too. And yet I can’t generate a convincing reason why we need to confine ourselves to a model that discourages students from collaboration.
Now, I can’t point to a real-life case of a single manuscript appearing in two theses. I asked a few questions at my own university, and it seems that we (at least) don’t have an explicit policy against it**. Note, by the way, that standard policies on plagiarism do not forbid the practice. Here, for example, is the definition of plagiarism from the graduate school of the University of British Columbia: “Plagiarism…occurs when an individual submits or presents the oral or written work of another person as his or her own”***. Inclusion of a single manuscript in two theses would not meet this definition, so long as each included a clear author contribution statement.
Now some questions for you about one-manuscript-two-theses:
- Do you know of an example?
- Does your university have a policy covering the possibility?
- Do you think it’s appropriate? If so, do you hold position #2, #3, or #4? (Or another position I haven’t thought of?)
Please give us your answers in the Replies.
© Stephen Heard April 10, 2018
*^Note that I’m writing here about how I think we should do this. Universities may, of course, have policies dictating how their students must do it. Students (and supervisors) should find out what those policies are. (If they’re antiquated or otherwise unfortunate, you can push to change the policies, but it’s unwise to ignore them.)
**^Quite possibly because nobody’s thought of it. Note, by the way, that plagiarism detection software would flag such occurrences for investigation, so full and careful disclosure would be needed. (My own university doesn’t routinely use such software – but a third party could. The media, for example, have delighted in catching (real) plagiarists this way.) Note also that there might be copyright issues that would require some sort of licensing (which should be straightforward).
***^My own university’s definition is very similar but much more verbose.