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Co authored dissertation help

Jun 22, 2018


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Thank you in advance for your help. I read online in the dissertation guide the following:

"If you choose the papers option, your dissertation or thesis is organized as a series of relatively independent chapters or papers that you have submitted or will be submitting to journals in the field. You must be the only author or the first author of the papers to be used in the dissertation."

Can I be co-first author on a paper I'm including? I assume that counts given that it only says I must be first author (and not the only first author), but I wanted to double check.

Thank you,

Dissertation Writer


Dear Dissertation Writer

A thesis or dissertation is generally expected to be the original work of the sole author, but you are correct that the Graduate School does allow students to submit a “papers option” thesis or dissertation if graduate field has agreed that this format is acceptable.  The Thesis Guidebook does not specifically address the question of whether a co-first authored paper could be used in a thesis, but the clear intent of the policy as it’s described in the Code of Legislation of the Graduate Faculty is that the student’s portion of the work must be “substantive.”  Here’s the exact language of the policy, as described on page 34:

Papers Option

In fields that have so authorized, the special committee may permit a student to submit a thesis or dissertation consisting of publishable papers that are not necessarily related. In such cases, it is important that the special committee and the student determine, early in the student’s program, if the papers option is acceptable to the committee. Papers may include multiple authors, but the work of the student must be substantive. A special committee decision to allow this option must be unanimous.

Because authorship issues can be complex, I encourage you to discuss your plans with your full committee and DGS.  If there have any questions about a co-authored paper I’d suggest you to contact Jan Allen, Associate Dean for Academic and Student Affairs, for more specific information.  You’ll notice that the same page in the Code of legislation also includes information about a “Partnership Option.”  This seldom-used arrangement would be appropriate if a collaborator or co-author was responsible for a significant portion of the content.  It requires a petition and approval by the General Committee, Graduate School’s governance body.



Jason Kahabka, associate dean for administration

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Every thesis is, to some extent, a collaboration between the supervisor and the student. A student will have a research topic or an idea. The supervisor can say, "this is an excellent data set," "have you read this paper?" or "try taking this approach." A meeting between supervisor and student can turn into an hour long session at the chalkboard - "O.k., let's try it this way and see if we can work something out" "what you're saying is essentially the relationship between X and Y is like this."

Most supervisors are more experienced writers than their students, and correct minor grammatical errors. And there is a slippery slope. At first, it's just putting on "track changes" and fixing misplaced apostrophes. Then one begins adding long editorial comments that can easily be incorporated into the student's text.

The next logical step is to take the professor-student collaboration and turn it into a co-authored paper, suitable for publication. The professor, of course, is better at writing introductions, literature surveys, and conclusions, so takes care of those parts of the paper. And why not include that co-authored paper in the PhD thesis - after all, it is the student's work?

And what is wrong with a student co-authoring a doctoral dissertation with his or her supervisor when most academics co-author most of their research? The myth of the brilliant genius working alone is just that, a myth. Ideas are tested, refined and sharpened through discussion with other people. Even the words we use are not our own. Our heads are filled with words and phrases that we have heard elsewhere - definitions drilled into our brains, lyrics of a favourite song, a catchphrase from the Simpsons. Those words and phrases find their ways into our fingers and onto the screen.

One problem is, when research is co-authored, the supervisor is in a conflict of interest position with regard to that research. Suppose, for example, in an otherwise excellent paper, one comes across a turgid and overwritten section obviously authored by the supervisor? Suppose one criticizes that section during the thesis defence, and the supervisor strongly defends it. One could say, "of course you're going to defend that section, you wrote it, but it's still wrong." But generally one doesn't.

Another problem is that, when research is clearly co-authored, it becomes difficult to assess the contribution of the student. This is a particular problem if the student is a brilliant, diffident and modest woman, taught from a young age to say, "oh, it was nothing" - even if it was all her own idea. It is  crucial for PhD students to understand the importance of protecting and defending their own intellectual property rights.

There are ways of changing the status quo.

I was recently external examiner on a doctoral dissertation that contained a statement of authorship, outlining the contribution of supervisor and student to each chapter. I would like to see such a statement of authorship on every thesis.

Supervisors should also be required to refrain from the evaluation of any co-authored research, and allow the evaluation of that work to rest entirely on the hands of the rest of the committee and, most importantly, the external examiners.

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