Science - November 15, 2007

‘I wrote my student’s dissertation’

What does a supervisor do if a PhD student turns out to be incapable of writing their thesis on their own? While it amounts to a ‘scientific sin’, ghost-writing of dissertations does take place.

A former employee of Wageningen UR told Resource how he helped two PhD candidates to get their doctorates, on condition that the identity of those involved would not be disclosed. During the fifteen years that he worked at the university, he supervised about a dozen PhD students. One case had nothing to do with the research qualities of the person, but was a case of pure bad luck. A Dutch student who became overstressed was granted a time extension, but it turned out not to be long enough. ‘If we had then refused to let her continue, I seriously think she would not have survived. I think it’s only logical that you then help someone.’

The other case is of a PhD candidate ‘from abroad, who really did not have the capacity to get a PhD’, the supervisor acknowledges. ‘He was the perfect technical assistant, worked really hard, spoke good English and perhaps even more important: he was honest. In the end he could see that he didn't really deserve the title of PhD. But failing his doctorate was not an option: it would have meant loss of face. In some cultures, returning without a PhD means saying goodbye to your career.’

In taking the decision to help the PhD student more than normal, the copromotor admits that he knew for sure that the person involved would not abuse his title later in his career. It did not mean that the copromotor wrote the entire dissertation. ‘But I did put in a lot of my free time to make sure the articles were of an acceptable standard, and as a result the dissertation just scraped through the PhD committee.’

Professor Martin Kropff, the Rector of Wageningen University, has indicated in a written response that he intends to discuss the matter with the Academic Board to see whether the rules should be tightened. ‘The procedures make provision for consultation with confidential counsellors for special cases. It is a shame that the source in this article did not contact me.’

The Dean of the Wageningen graduate schools, Professor Frans Kok, is also surprised. He says that there is an agreement that all PhD candidates should have an assessment in their first year, when a ‘go-no go decision’ is taken. This is intended to ensure that an unsuitable candidate does not muddle on for an unnecessarily long time. Kok also wants to think more about the pressure on some foreign PhD students and their supervisors because of grant programmes. The Iranian government for example makes it a requirement that students return with a doctorate, otherwise they have to pay back the entire grant. ‘Maybe it’s time to think about how we can prevent students and supervisors from mental suffering as a result of financial pressure.’