Science - February 9, 2017

All my own work

Text:
Roelof Kleis
1

From now on, PhD candidates will be required to sign a statement saying exactly how much of their thesis they wrote themselves. Dean of Research Richard Visser sees this as a useful aid for opponents at the defence. Others see it as a symptom of distrustful control freakery.

illustration Pascal Tieman

A PhD is a slog, especially in the final stages. And then you reach the finishing line, the public defence to a group of four colleagues whose job it is to assess your work. In order to help these opponents assess the candidate, the Academic Board of Wageningen University & Research has decided that from now on PhD candidates will have to sign an ‘authorship statement’. This is a signed statement of precisely what a candidate contributed to his or her thesis.

This may sound strange, but it is not, says Dean of Research Richard Visser. This kind of statement fulfils a wish expressed by many opponents, he claims, whose task is quite a slog too. ‘Opponents often say: a lovely thesis but I can’t evaluate it because I don’t know what was the candidate’s own work.’

Research is group work nowadays, and that is reflected in the theses, explains Visser. ‘The introduction and the discussion are entirely the candidate’s own work. The other chapters are articles which are written together with co-authors, including the promotor, co-promotors and other colleagues.’ The increasing number of co-authors makes it difficult for opponents to know which part of the work was actually done by the candidate, says Visser. An author’s statement, in which that candidate outlines what his or her role was chapter by chapter, goes some way towards solving that problem, according to the Academic Board.

Superfluous

There is criticism of the measure too, however. ‘An author’s statement for a thesis which you wrote yourself. Isn’t that superfluous?’ asks professor of Aquaculture and fisheries Johan Verreth. He can imagine that the opponents would like to get some insight into the extent to which supervisors and promotors shared the writing, but points out that many academic journals already require their contributors to state what the role of each author was in every published article in the thesis. ‘So what is the added value of this kind of statement then? You are getting into the territory of academic integrity and the responsibilities of the promotor and the candidate. And you can’t defend that with a simple statement.’

Verreth also points to the general discussion, which along with the introduction is the only part of the thesis in which no co-authors are involved. ‘So do people write it entirely on their own? That is difficult to ascertain. Especially if candidates don’t have a great command of English and their work needs a lot of polishing up. Before you know it you’re in a grey area. As a promotor you have to keep a good eye on how far you can go. Questions and comments are acceptable; changing arguments is not.’

Crazy

Bas Zwaan, professor of Genetics and director of the PE&RC graduate school, speaks on his own behalf and in no uncertain terms. ‘A typical piece of what I call corporate distrust. Which you see increasing throughout the organization. There is no more trust in what our own people are doing. What purpose does that serve? Apparently when there are several co-authors it is not clear what the candidates themselves have contributed. But we have our author guidelines, don’t we? They describe precisely when you are a co-author and when you are not. If you have that, surely it’s crazy to ask a candidate: what did you do, actually?’

A typical piece of corporate distrust

According to Zwaan, the assessment of a PhD candidate focuses too heavily on the thesis. ‘The thesis has become the evidence that a candidate is worth his degree. I think we should aim to provide far more insight into what a candidate is capable of. Where do our people end up? Some in the scientific world, and some in the business world, in politics, in not-for-profit organizations and so forth. We train PhD candidates expressly for these things, but that is not made visible anywhere. I think it would be much more useful to add a short paper to the thesis outlining the whole process the candidate has been through. Get supervisors to write a narrative about the candidate. In it you can also indicate when someone really has shown outstanding qualities.’

Hitch-hiking

The Wageningen PhD Council (WPC) was not involved in this proposal, says chair Marlies van Splunter. But she does not reject the idea out of hand. ‘Although personally I would like to go a bit further: let all the co-authors of the articles make such a statement, and then you’ll know whether the co-authorship follows the author guidelines. That is a way of dealing with the issue of co-authors hitch-hiking on other people’s work. At present it happens to often that you do the work and all sorts of co-authors get named for political reasons. That large number of co-authors implies that you, as first author, have not contributed as much. I think that is the real reason why opponents find it hard to estimate the PhD candidate’s contribution.  

Dean Visser knows the author’s statement is controversial. 'Opinions range from “great, we should have done this sooner” to “another infringement of the integrity of the PhD candidate and promotor”. Personally I think this measure is appropriate in this era of openness and transparency.’ According to Visser there will be an initial trial period of a year and then the system will be evaluated. The statement is currently only an aid for opponents. ‘But if we go ahead with it, in my view it should become an integral part of the thesis.’


Author’s statement for this article

Author: Roelof Kleis
Supervisor: Edwin van Laar
Title: All their own work
Publication date: 9 February 2017

I came up with the subject of this article myself in response to the publication of Wageningen University’s new PhD regulations. I planned the story myself and conducted and wrote up the interviews. The people quoted read the story before publication and suggested a few changes, which I made. The editor of Resource put the finishing touches to the text. There was consultation with the illustrator about the illustration.


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  • Alexandre Villela

    I would like to start by congratulating the Academic Board of the university for policies of high social sensitivity put forth through the "letter to PhD supervisors and PhD candidates" and the "Doctoral Degree Regulations", both of January this year.

    About the "PhD candidate’s authorship statement", topic of the article above … I very much welcome such a statement. Placed in journal articles, similar statements help to address one of the ethical matters the academic world faces. Namely, the placement of names of people who did not sufficiently contribute (or who did not contribute at all) to the works being reported in lists of authors. (By the way, the same takes place concerning institutions which were not involved in the works, and are placed in lists of authors’ affiliation)

    Journal "The Lancet", for example, instruct prospect authors on this matter. In the information for authors of its website, it is written “We ask all authors, and all contributors (including medical writers and editors), to specify their individual contributions at the end of the text”. I find this a good example of move towards the needed purification of the academic world on the matter. The "PhD candidate’s authorship statement" of the university, besides supporting the assessment of theses by opponents, may also contribute to this. In fact, I think the university could further contribute to the topic by promoting the publishing of such statements of contribution of authors in all we (its researchers and apprentice researchers) publish.

    I would like to conclude by mentioning that I, however, do not support incorporating the "PhD candidate’s authorship statement" in the theses in its currently proposed form (page 35 of the "Doctoral Degree Regulations"). For that, a more professional language, such as that used in the lists published in journal articles, would, in my opinion, be needed.

    Alexandre Villela.
    (PhD candidate, teaching assistant, coach, chemist; Laboratories of Organic Chemistry and Entomology, this university)

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