Can a thesis chapter be coauthored?

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.


“Most are”

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?


Rhetorical gymnastics

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.


Whose thesis?

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):

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

19 thoughts on “Can a thesis chapter be coauthored?

  1. Chris MacQuarrie (@CMacQuar)

    I was aware of a one-manuscript-two-theses scenario when I was in grad school. As I recall, it didn’t end well. I would hold positions 2 or 3 in your survey, depending on the context.

    Two MSc students were working a the same project and generating data together. We were always kind of curious as to how that was going to work out, as what they were doing was so different than everyone else in the same peer group. When it came down to the end of it the supervisor assigned the data to one of the graduate students. The other one had to complete more experiments on his own to generate enough data to complete his own thesis.

    In my opinion this scenario should never have been allowed by the committee. I’d argue that’s what the committee is for – defending the interests of the student & their thesis against those of the supervisor and their dossier. If a committee can be convinced that the student’s work is sufficient to obtain the degree, as it is described by the university, then exactly how the thesis is constructed is secondary. I mean, who really reads theses anyway ;-)?


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I would agree with you – this sounds like a committee failure. I can imagine it being appropriate to allow the project in both theses, or appropriate not to allow it, but either way it should have been discussed fully and clearly early on with both supervisory committees!


  2. Leonid Schneider

    Dear Stephen, how about a MD (Dr med) thesis with two equal authors? Both got a doctorate, for submitting a joint thesis. Possible at Hannover Medical School (MHH) with their adjunct professor Paolo Macchiarini
    Some background what that crazy thing which is German medical doctorate is about:


  3. Mike Kokkinn

    My head is hurting after puzzling over all the alternatives. I must say I do like the medical journal criteria for authorship. I had never considered the inconsistency of pretending the work was all yours in the thesis (apart from some gracious acknowledgements) and afterwards publishing the research results with co-authors. Having the same two-authored paper in two different these would throw up problems you discussed in your previous piece about plagiarism. Being an old fuddy duddy from a bygone era, I do not like thesis chapters presented simply in publlication format. I much prefer a reflective chapter considering failures and alternative hypotheses in a more philosophical style. That does not mean I am advocating a rambling diffuse style.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I was hoping someone would notice the interesting almost-conflict with my last post! It’s not completely obvious how much it’s the same issue (to me, at least). The copyright end of things is manageable in theses, I think. The “different functions for the reader” aspect would depend, I think, on whether we’re in scenario 2 or 3. And of course I am assuming that there’s full disclosure. But it’s interesting how complicated this gets, and how many options there are!


  4. Emilie Champagne (@MissEmilieC)

    I know a case of one-manuscript-two these…or at least it should have become it. The two students are on the same project, but on different aspect (habitat selection vs diet selection). The coauthored chapter was, if I remember well, approved by both thesis committee. But one student drop out, so I can’t tell how it would have turn out.
    Knowing the people involved, I do not think this would have been an issue.

    Liked by 1 person

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  6. Tony Diamond

    I don’t know of any examples; one nearly happened in my lab but the two students became on different timelines so it didn’t. In principle I would favour #4 because of the trend for increasing collaboration you refer to (my current record – very recent – is 89 co-authors on a paper!. And THAT is part of a thesis, but not at my university.)


  7. Abigail

    Oh did this ever happen to me (the general problem, not the two-theses-one-chapter). I had a chapter that was coauthored with someone who was not on my committee (who happened to be another student, but it was clearly not work related to their thesis). That chapter caused a lot of … let’s say concern … due to the interaction of the committee wanting to help guide my dissertation + the other coauthor disagreeing with their suggestions.


  8. Hayley

    I am currently doing a meta-analysis with a PhD student at another university. We both intend on including it as a chapter in our publication format theses. It is not a major component for either of us but does provide relevant background information for each of our topics. Each of us contacted our respective grad schools (both UK) before commencing the project and both schools said it would be fine to include in our thesis providing that an author contribution statement was included showing that we made a significant contribution.


  9. Catherine Scott

    I was first author on a coauthored manuscript that appeared as a chapter in my then-PhD-student-mentor’s thesis. It could easily (thematically) have been a chapter in in my MSc thesis but it never occurred to me that this was a possibility. I assumed (and I think my supervisor thought) that one-chapter-one-thesis was some sort of law. Now that I think about it, I don’t see why that should necessarily be the case. The authorship was clearly indicated in the thesis chapter and a similar notation could inform the reader that it was included in another thesis.

    I am currently experiencing a different but related situation, an issue of one-student-two-theses. I wrote a review as the first chapter of my MSc thesis. During my PhD, I heavily revised and extended it with help from two coauthors (my current supervisor and another graduate student). At my committee meeting tomorrow I will find out if the committee thinks it is appropriate to include the new version (about twice as long and with a completely new framework) in my PhD, with a note that a previous version appeared in my MSc thesis.


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  11. yf

    I conducted my PhD at the same time as another student and we worked on different but closely related topics. We shared an office during three years, worked in the same field sites and had so much convergence in our research questions that it felt logical to write a common chapter that kind of merged our interests and skills. This common chapter appeared on both our theses, and we are co-first-authors in the resulting papers. I never thought it could be an issue since it was perfectly clear that it was a collaborative project with the exact same level of contribution from both of us.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Stephen

    It seems like the ‘whose thesis’ question can be sidestepped if only first-authored papers can be included in a thesis. I realize this is not the case, especially now, and that students at some universities include papers in their thesis on which they were not the lead author. Call me old school, but I think only first-authored papers should count for a Ph.D. thesis. In this case the ‘whose thesis’ problem is really not an issue, as the paper can only count towards the lead author’s thesis, while the coauthors still get their name on the paper. I realize there is also the possibility of joint first authorship (although I think this is fairly rare); if there truly was equal contribution and the paper is to be submitted with both students as equal-contributing lead authors, then that would be in my opinion the only scenario where the same paper deserves inclusion in two theses.


  13. erynmcfarlane

    One paper in two theses is not at all uncommon in Sweden where I did my PhD. I have one paper in my thesis that was also in my lab mate’s thesis (although the revised version was in hers, as she defended a few months later). This wasn’t a problem for anyone; authorship is clearly stated on all of the papers in each thesis, as they’re all formatted like publications. I suspect (with no data or analyses) that it leads students to have more on-going projects, since these ‘side projects’ could as well be thesis chapters. This way, even if you’re working on something a bit outside of your main research project, it doesn’t feel like it’s taking time away from your dissertation.
    A second point about Swedish theses is that not all of the papers/manuscripts in a thesis are necessarily first author manuscripts, all though I suspect most would be.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. abigailjc

    My University only allows the co-author whose name is listed first to use it in their dissertation. The co-author listed second, even though they put in the same amount of work, is unable to use it in theirs. I am in a situation where I am the second listed first author.


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      That’s unfortunately – an interesting data point, on the issue, but I’m sorry it’s an issue for you. Maybe you should point your Dean of Graduate Studies (or equivalent) to this blog post!



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