The problem with co-authored chapters in a dissertation (opinion)

When I served as the founding vice dean of George Mason University’s School of Public Policy, now the Schar School of Policy and Government, my portfolio could best be described as everything the dean did not want to handle. That included managing the search and hiring process for new faculty. Over the years, I supervised dozens of searches, ranging from those for newly minted Ph.Ds applying for their first positions to others for university professorships and endowed chairs.

One of my responsibilities was to conduct due diligence—essentially, to verify the credentials and vitae of candidates. The number of exaggerated claims some candidates made were disappointing, albeit unsurprising. On occasion, I found statements that were simply untrue—articles never published, grants that could not be verified and even positions never held.

My experience turns out not to be unusual. Trisha Phillips and her colleagues published a study in 2019 that found that “of the 180 applicants whose vitae we analyzed, 141 (78 percent) claimed to have at least one publication, and 79 of those 141 (56 percent) listed at least one publication that was unverifiable or inaccurate in a self-promoting way.”

Today, although retired, I still follow the hiring process at my former university. Last fall, the department began a search for three tenure-line faculty positions—all open rank and open field. As a professional school offering both a master’s of public policy and a master’s of public administration, along with more traditional government and political science courses, it’s not hard to imagine the large number of disciplines that the current faculty represent. I could count probably as many as a dozen, including political science, economics, history and anthropology—with law, medicine and engineering thrown in for good measure.

So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me that more than 1,100 people applied for just those three positions. It’s understandable that the search committee had its hands more than full in just organizing such a search. I suspect they had little time for anything other than selecting a first cut, having initial Zoom interviews and then inviting candidates in for job talks.

While I have no role in those searches and have not attended any of the job talks, I did take time to review the vita of each of the candidates invited for an interview. The first thing I did was to log on to ProQuest Dissertation Abstracts. One of the perks of emeritus status is maintaining library privileges. The good news was that, at least so far, everyone’s dissertation was in the database. But as I looked at them, especially those of the very recent graduates, I discovered something completely new to me.

Professors in my academic generation, especially those in the social and behavioral sciences, are used to a fairly uniform type of five-chapter dissertation. In 1991, the Council of Graduate Schools described a dissertation as “a unified work with a single theme, including an introduction and literature review, a description of methods and procedures used, a presentation of results, and a concluding discussion of the meaning of the results.”

Wendy A. Stock and John J. Siegfried trace the development of an alternative form of dissertation in the field of economics in their 2013 article “One Essay on Dissertation Formats in Economics.” They describe what is known as an essay-style dissertation that is “a number (usually three) of (somewhat) related essays.” They found that the percentage of such dissertations in economics had “grown from virtually zero in 1970 to 69 percent in 2010.”

This “innovation” in economics has spread to other disciplines as well. I’ve seen candidates who have written both types of dissertations. Yet until just this year, all the dissertations that I’ve reviewed have had one immutable trait in common: the candidate alone authored them. In addition, most institutions have required that the dissertation material has not been previously published—that it must be original work in pursuit of meeting the degree requirements.

At my former institution, New York University’s Steinhardt School, where I was the assistant dean for research and development, the dissertation requirements state clearly, “You are the sole author of your dissertation and are responsible for understanding, discussing, and defending all aspects of your work, including the methodologies employed.” One of the colleges within Mason says it this way: “Preparing a dissertation proposal is an important step in becoming an independent scientist.” I’ve always assumed that most institutions had similar requirements.

But apparently not all. Two of the candidates for the current searches at George Mason wrote essay-style dissertations. While not my preference, it’s hard to argue with the options offered by candidates who’ve graduated from two very elite universities. But what literally made me gasp was that, in both cases, the dissertations included co-authored chapters. For the first graduate, only one of the chapters was the sole work of the candidate. For the second graduate, none were. And for the co-authored chapters, the candidates were the second authors in all but one case.

After gasping, I then let out a shreek. Was I reading correctly that their dissertation chairs were actually the first author on all but one of the co-authored chapters? I wondered out loud, “Isn’t that a conflict of interest? Doesn’t that put the committee chair in the position of passing judgment on their own work?” Within my own school at George Mason, the role of the dissertation chair is to “serve as the major advisor and mentor to the doctoral candidates as they research and write their dissertation.” The fuller “expectations” of the chair include descriptors such as “consult and meet with,” “advise, guide and counsel the student”—there is no provision for the chair, another committee member or anyone else being a co-author with the student.

I openly admit that I’m past my prime. In fact, I retired early to make room for the next generation. But the practice of co-authored chapters in a dissertation is deeply troubling and seems to defeat the purpose of demonstrating the ability to do original research. As the doctoral dissertation policy on co-authorship for Harvard’s Ph.D. in health policy states, “The student should be first author for journals where first authorship indicates primary responsibility for the paper. Faculty members and students are cautioned that a faculty adviser should be a coauthor only if they contribute substantially to the development of the database or analytical methodology for the paper or chapter.” What’s more, allowing a dissertation committee member, let alone a committee chair, to be the first author, or any co-author at all, seems fundamentally corrupt.

In discussing this with my former colleagues, only two claimed to have even heard of this practice, although neither had ever seen a dissertation with co-authored chapters. The rest, coming from disciplines including economics, history, geography and political science, never claimed to have heard of this and were somewhat taken aback by my discovery. None thought it should be permitted. Yet the two candidates received job offers from my former school. I can’t say if any of my colleagues would have changed their mind had they had this information before the vote.

There is no doubt that much research today is done in teams. Our students need to learn the value of collaboration. But the next generation of faculty must be able to demonstrate their skills as independent and original scholars. Receiving a doctorate isn’t the same as getting a trophy for participation.

Higher education has enough critics. We don’t need to invite any more.

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