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I am an undergraduate student doing summer research and I am helping a PhD student to write a portion of her PhD thesis and with a bit of editing here and there. I am wondering how would credit be distributed since I don't think a PhD thesis can be co-authored. Also, when I apply to graduate school afterwards, how would I show the admission committee that I have done this work?

To clarify: I had two kinds of contributions to this thesis. There are parts describing research we collaborated on, but it was mainly me in that I collected the data and performed the analysis but she gave me advice. There are also parts that describe her research, that I helped to edit.

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The PhD student would certainly fail her defense if you truly "collected the data and performed the analysis." You may think you have done a lot, but I am sure that the PhD student has done far, far more. Working as a tutor from a sophomore until after my own PhD, I have helped countless PhD students w/ 1000s of pages of research--enough to earn 15-20 PhDs of my own using your logic. But the truth is that at most my help was collaboration, something that is expected of all researchers. "Credit" is the wrong word. "Acknowledgments" in a dissertation are appropriate for help such as this. –  Joseph Myers Jun 30 '14 at 18:42

5 Answers 5

In some fields, almost all work is done as a collaboration. In these fields, it is not at all unusual for this collaborative work to end up in a student's thesis. However, the thesis text should clearly state "This chapter describes joint work with X" (e.g. in a footnote).

However, to really get credit for this joint research, you should prepare a manuscript and try to get it published, or at least release a preprint you can put online (if there isn't time to get it published before you apply to grad school).

For the editing assistance, the most you can get is a thanks in the acknowledgements, and help with editing is not likely to impress an admissions committee.

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My answer is somewhat of an amalgam of previous answers, with a little softening.

As to the editing, there is no problem. It is fine (and encouraged) for PhD students to ask others to proofread or edit their writing. Out of courtesy, she should acknowledge your assistance in an appropriate part of the thesis (usually a special page near the beginning). But you should be doing this either as a personal favor to her, or in exchange for money; other than that, there is nothing in it for you. It isn't something that would likely interest an admissions committee (though you could certainly list that you did it, as it does give you a little extra exposure to professional writing).

As to the substantive research and writing contributions, there are possible ethical issues. You should talk to the PhD student and make sure that she has told her advisor and her committee about your contributions, and that they are okay with it. You should also ask about any special procedures that the university might have for including collaborative work. (For instance, at my PhD institution, they would need a signed letter from you confirming which parts were yours.) If you get any sense that she might not be following all the rules, or that she may be intending to pass off the work as her own, you should go to her advisor and explain everything. (Ideally, you have already been talking to her advisor, since he or she presumably is the ultimate supervisor of your research work.) The fact that some of the text was actually written by you will invite the most scrutiny, so be sure this is clear to everyone.

She should certainly describe your contributions, very specifically, in the acknowledgements. If the thesis work is going to be published in a paper, depending on the level of your contributions, you might be entitled to coauthorship on that paper. You should discuss these authorship issues with the student now (e.g. who will be first author, etc), but you might also want to talk with some other faculty member, since it sounds like you may not have enough experience to know what is reasonable or customary in your field.

In the short term, the way you would get "credit" for your work, for the purposes of graduate admissions, is to get a letter of recommendation from the student, as well as from her advisor or whichever other faculty member is supervising your research. They can tell the admission committee in detail about what you did, and how they think it reflects on your research potential; that's likely to be even more helpful than being able to point to a part of a paper or thesis as yours.

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For my MSc Thesis, I put the people who proof read and helped edit my thesis in the acknowledgements.

I think the admissions committee would care if you did some of the research, and if the PhD student was your primary advisor for that research, it would be good to get some form of letter of recommendation from him/her. A few people I know submitted 4 letters instead of 3, because a lot of the research they did was a PhD student and they thought a 4 letter from that student would help them.

If you didn't do any research, you basically edited and made suggestions, I'm not really sure an adcomm would be interested. Great, your a friendly dude who helped his friend, now show me what you've done yourself.

But I'm not really sure how the adcomm will look at "editing" someone else's PhD thesis.

If you did some of the writing for the PhD thesis, I think thats weird; all of the writing should be done by the PhD student.

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There is a portion which is my own work and my own research. The parts where I edited are her part. –  Mat.S Jun 29 '14 at 16:26
Then it's probably worth getting a letter of recommendation from her; she will have a PhD, and that is a credible source. –  Neo Jun 29 '14 at 16:28
@Mat.S Did this PhD student collaborate with you for the parts that you worked on? If some parts are your work, and your work only, that material probably should not be in the thesis. –  Moriarty Jun 29 '14 at 16:37
Yes, sorry for the ambiguity. The work that I worked on we collaborated but it was mainly me in that I collected the data and performed the analysis but she gave me advice. –  Mat.S Jun 29 '14 at 16:43
I think you need to have some discussions with the PhD student, and perhaps even the PhD student's advisor. I have never heard of an undergrad's work going into someone else's PhD thesis. –  Neo Jun 29 '14 at 16:51

You write that you are "helping a PhD student to write a portion of her PhD thesis".

Clearly from your question and comments this isn't a stapler thesis: this isn't a case where you and the PhD candidate have co-authored papers, where your work would be in the thesis and explicitly attributed to you.

In your other comments, you make it clear that you have written passages that are in her thesis. That goes way beyond just doing collaborative research. If it's in the student's PhD thesis as her own writing and her own research, then she is falsely representing that she's done the research, and she's falsely representing that the thesis is all her own writing.

In any university that I knew of up til now, that would result in the thesis being failed.**

I think you need to find out the rules of your university pretty quickly, because although the PhD candidate will get the worst of the enforcement, you could get hurt by this. This is now your responsibility to put right, for your own sake. That's because if it is against the rules, then you have unwittingly been complicit with the PhD student in what, upon submission of the thesis, would be the breaking of those rules. I think ignorance of the rules is unlikely to be taken as innocence in any ensuing disciplinary proceedings. At best you could make a case of being led astray by trusted colleagues, but that's going to damage your relationship with them. It is possible, as things stand, to extricate yourself from this situation without too much damage.

So don't go to the candidate or her supervisors to ask for their interpretation of the rules yet (if at all). Find and read the relevant rule yourself. They are almost certainly on your university intranet, if not the outward-facing website; failing that, ask in the university library.

Here, for example, is the rule for PhDs at University College London (UCL):

The work in the thesis submitted by a student must be their own work and the submission of a thesis for examination will be regarded as a declaration of that fact.

The thesis may include collaborative work, but this should be stated as such, and must be written up by the PhD candidate, not the collaborator(s).

If, as I suspect, co-authorship of a PhD thesis at your university is not allowed, then you need to insist to the PhD student and her supervisors that the passages you've written be removed from the thesis. Do it gently, politely, in a collegiate spirit, but do it unambiguously. As you've done genuinely new research, you'll be submitting the words you've written to a journal, so tell them that - that should be enough for them to be sure to remove it from the thesis. Keep the paper trail of all of this (including the emails or other records of when you've sent your material to the PhD candidate in the past), to protect yourself.

** though through the comments below, I've learnt that the University of California in San Diego does allow some co-authoring, providing advance permission from the Dean of Graduate Studies has been obtained.

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We must have experience of very different universities, then, because at all the ones I know, it is perfectly fine for a thesis to contain collaborative work, provided that the collaborations are appropriately disclosed, and the committee is satisfied that the student's contributions demonstrate their research ability. –  Nate Eldredge Jun 29 '14 at 19:20
@NateEldredge the OP has written bits of another student's PhD thesis - have you seen that happen before? Can you say which departments, which universities? –  EnergyNumbers Jun 29 '14 at 19:22
On the other hand, I mildly disagree with "This is now your responsibility to put right, for your own sake." Owning responsibility is never a bad thing, but it is really not any undergraduate's job to know the rules and customs of what constitutes an acceptable PhD thesis in some academic department. That responsibility is that of the student, the advisor, and the committee. The OP should not in any way hide his participation, and I think that a conversation with the student and/or the advisor addressing this issue would be a very good idea. But this is really not the OP's problem to fix. –  Pete L. Clark Jun 29 '14 at 19:40
I wouldn't call the OP "complicit", because he and the student are not at all in the same situation. Is there any written rule that says "Undergraduates cannot contribute to PhD theses"? No: all the rules are from the perspective of the thesis. Someone who is more academically sophisticated would know that he has been asked to do something strange, but that's not the same thing and I don't see why the OP would be expected to know this. But I think this is kind of moot: I think the OP should talk or write to the candidate's thesis committee with their concern. Once he does that, he's fine. –  Pete L. Clark Jun 29 '14 at 19:52
No, I do not know a non-stapler example off the top of my head. But my PhD institution's thesis guidelines contain procedures for how to include co-authored material in a thesis, whether or not it has been (or will be) published. See page 43 of this document; despite the heading "Using Published Material", the rules in that section are described as applying to coauthored material, even if unpublished. It certainly requires extra scrutiny, but is not inherently impermissible. –  Nate Eldredge Jun 29 '14 at 20:02

I am helping a PhD student to write a portion of her PhD thesis.

Based on this statement, I assume that the thesis is a monograph. I think it is very weird for an undergrad to write parts of a PhD thesis. Although the work in a thesis can clearly be the result of collaborative work (in the form of co-authored papers or other publications), a thesis in essence must be an individual effort.

... and with a bit of editing here and there

The PhD student should describe in the acknowledgement section that you proof-read and/or edited parts of the thesis.

Also, when I apply to graduate school afterwards, how would I show the admission committee that I have done this work?

If there is a scientific or research value to your contribution, some or all of it could end up in a publication, of which you can ask to be a co-author.

I don't think a PhD thesis can be co-authored.

No, and again, I find it very strange that you are actively writing sections in the thesis. Furthermore, most academic institutions will ask PhD students to sign a document stating "I am the sole author of this thesis" when submitting their thesis.

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