Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Dissertation Co-authors

Somewhere, somehow, I must have touched on this topic before, but maybe not lately, and it came up in a recent discussion with a colleague, so here goes:

In some fields, research is highly collaborative, and, as a result, publications have many co-authors. Therefore, in places where the doctoral thesis is a collection of papers resulting from the PhD research, there are 'co-authors' of the thesis, although of course only one official author of the thesis itself.

If the person whose name is on the thesis played a major role in the papers included in the thesis, I don't think having 'co-authors' of a thesis is a problem, as long as it is clear that the thesis chapters are papers and the co-authors are clearly indicated.

In some cases, formatting rules of the institution allow for reprints to be bound together to create the thesis, so there is no question about the relationship of chapters to papers. In cases in which the thesis must be formatted following strict rules of font, font size, margin size, pagination etc., the title of each chapter needs to be very clear about the relationship of the chapter to a paper, including listing co-authors of the paper. [Most, but not all, students are aware that they should list co-authors or, once told, have no problem with doing this and realize it is the right thing to do.]

The role of a PhD student may vary from paper to paper, and therefore from chapter to chapter in the thesis. In some cases, the PhD student may not have been the primary author in a paper that is included in the thesis. What then?

I remember one potential problem with this particular scenario once, when there was a question raised about a student's including a chapter that was a paper on which the student was not the primary author. It was not my student, or even my field, but I was nevertheless asked to weigh in. So, I did a bit of scouting and learned that, at many institutions, it is considered OK to include a minor-authored chapter/paper if the majority of chapters (papers) represent major contributions by the thesis author. Again, the authorship of each chapter/paper needs to be spelled out, but if that is done, then there should be no problem.

There are certainly fields in which it is common for a doctoral student to be just one person in a very large group of collaborators, all of whom are included as co-authors on papers. Are any of you concerned about the amount of research done by PhD students -- specifically in a collaborative project -- with respect to what ends up in a thesis?

In cases in which a thesis is a bundle of co-authored papers, I think it is good if the student writes an introductory chapter (and possibly also a concluding chapter) that gives a broad view of the body of work and gives the student an opportunity to put their own stamp on their own thesis, without any co-authors. It may be that no one will ever read the thesis itself, but, if time permits the writing of such 'extra' chapters, the exercise of being sole author on at least one part of a dissertation can be very useful.

How much of your thesis did you write (yourself)? (please note your field, if you are willing)

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