This is a real life scenario, but I'll refer to the people involved as A and B.

A and B are both retired. A is doing a part-time PhD (humanities), but for at least a year* B has been working nearly 9-5 every day helping A. The help seems to involve research (finding and reading papers/sources), discussion and input, proof-reading and re-touching the thesis, but I don't know about actually writing large chunks although I wouldn't be surprised.

As far as I know Masters and PhD theses usually need a declaration saying something like "this work is all my own except where explicitly marked". To me it seems as if the declaration would be false, and anyway, even if person A declared they'd received significant help presumably joint PhDs aren't granted, and B isn't enrolled on a course of any kind.

What's my best course of action? Ethically, I feel as if the university should know about this, although presumably the fact that a lot of work has been done (by whomever) shouldn't go to waste.

(*The help has been going on for years, but I only know the specifics of the time invested for the past year or so.)

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    If you are so eager to correct injustices of this sort, start somewhere else, where the real problem is. Report Ph.D. theses that were actually written by advisers and don't let the students get away with being completely ignorant of what is written in their papers during the defense. Leave the retired people alone for now. They have done enough good for the society when working during their prime time to deserve turning a blind eye on a harmless mischief even if they are really planning one, of which you have no solid proof.
    – fedja
    Commented Jun 4, 2018 at 2:22
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    What is your role in this? Commented Jun 4, 2018 at 3:03
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    @fedja: That wasn't very convincing to me. It suggests more effort should be spent on the bigger problems, but retirees don't get an a seniors' discount card for ethics. Commented Jun 4, 2018 at 5:20
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    @fedja "Leave the retired people alone for now. They have done enough good for the society when working during their prime time" Um. Being old doesn't automatically make you a good person... Commented Jun 4, 2018 at 14:40
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    "for at least a year* B has been working nearly 9-5 every day helping A" There's no way you can know that unless you live with them. The remark makes me wonder what your own motivations are and how fair your "observations" are. "I don't know about actually writing large chunks although I wouldn't be surprised." Again a suggestion here that you want to believe the worst possible interpretation of anything you saw. Frankly very few (if any) people get a PhD without a lot of support, direct and indirect. Commented Jun 4, 2018 at 15:51

8 Answers 8


Getting help is in and of itself not a problem. Proof reading is perfectly fine. Discussing research with others is very much a part of doing research, so having a sparring partner is a good thing. Even finding and reading papers is not a problem if person B is just interested in the research and the discussions. So a lot of the things you mentioned are not necessarily problems.

If B wrote large portions of the text and A fails to clearly mention that, then that is a problem. But you will need proof before you can take action.

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    Getting help isn't a problem. But to this extent? Having two people work full time and only one get the resulting PhD seems wrong to me.
    – thosphor
    Commented Jun 3, 2018 at 21:41
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    Your question (and comment) did not convince me. The following is harsh, but is only meant to tell you how your question has come across to me and how it may come across to others if you decide to take action: A got a strong support network (good for her/him) and you are jelous (get over it). To avoid this reaction I recommend you trim down the complaint to include only things that are really problems and for which you have strong evidence. Looking at your question, there isn't much left after you do that. Commented Jun 3, 2018 at 21:54
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    @user3087409 - fine, but how does B feel about it? If I’m B and A is my wife and I’m retired, sure I’d help her. A lot. With no qualms whatsoever.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jun 3, 2018 at 22:33
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    I think you can distill this conversation down to "is there any proof of plagiarism" of B by A? When I was working on a M.S., my wife proof read a lot of my work. It was surprisingly less helpful than you would hope. We were in two very different disciplines and while it was nice to share conversation and interests together, it was of little value in the assignments. The interaction between A and B could be the same.
    – Paul
    Commented Jun 4, 2018 at 20:37
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    I read the question again, and I think I pinned down what bothered me about it: "I don't know about actually writing large chunks although I wouldn't be surprised." Plagiarism is a very very serious issue in academia. Accusing someone of plagiarism is correspondingly serious. If you filed the complaint with me, with that sentence in it, you will get a mark on your records not A. Loosely accusing someone of plagiarism without a shred of evidence is really not OK. Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 10:43

Without knowing more of the reasons why person B is helping person A, it's not easy to say what's going on. Perhaps person A has physical or learning disabilities that requires the assistance of person B, or there may be other issues going on. Or it could be something more nefarious. But without knowing the intent of the assistance, it's hard to conclude if anything untoward is going on.

Some of the help—polishing and editing the text of the thesis, for instance—is also clearly not outside the realm of "allowed" help, so this would not form the basis of a complaint of lack of independence. Neither would discussions of the material, or even bringing materials to someone else's attention.

So, what you're left with is the scope of the help, and again, there may be valid reasons.

If you wish to pursue this, then the way to go about it is to ask person A and person B what is going on, rather than trying to report it without knowing the facts.

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    Yes, there is plenty of "help" that is standard and does not need to be cited or reported. Do you report that someone received help with using a library catalog? Do you report someone who bought a pen from an office supply shop rather than making their own from a feather? Do I need to cite my 6th grade teacher who taught me to use prepositional phrases correctly? Commented Jun 4, 2018 at 13:42

As others pointed out, there are no strict ethical guidelines for the level of help a PhD student is allowed to receive. So I think the only course of action you could take, assuming you truly believe that A should not be considered the sole author of their work, is to rely on the formal evaluation process of a PhD.

There are differences depending on the country, but in general a PhD is evaluated through at least one external review based on the manuscript and through the defense; this is how the PhD candidate is formally evaluated by their peers. During the defense in particular, the committee is supposed to assess the level of the candidate by asking questions, and the final decision should depend on the ability of the candidate to defend their work. In some cases the defense is public and even peers present in the room are invited to ask questions as well, so if you hold a PhD yourself you might be able to ask your own questions.

In the same idea but not part of the formal PhD process, if A presents their work at some conference you could attempt to expose their level of knowledge (or lack thereof).

Needless to say, this is an imperfect system, like many aspects in the evaluation of research.

  • Except a good paper with a bad defense is often taken as a "he/she was stressing out", not a "did he really do his PhD?", although this may be country dependent. Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 9:43
  • True, and among other common biases the committee might be selected for their leniency more than their expertise. It's definitely an imperfect evaluation system, but it's the one we got.
    – Erwan
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 14:14

In my research lab, I collaborate with undergraduates, master students, other PhD students who are all working 9 to 5 on related research, and even salaried researchers. They provide me with ideas and help me proofread my work. Admittedly, they are usually not doing exactly the same work that I am, but their work supports and inspires mine. As long as I also work on research and make a significant contribution, do you believe that I shouldn't get a PhD because we collaborate on the same problems?

It's true that B is not in the PhD program with A and is not being compensated for their work (either financially or with a degree), but if you consider their involvement in research as a hobby where they collaborate with A, I see no difference to any other collaboration based on your description.

However, it is important for B to receive acknowledgement for their research contributions. My graduate school provides the following rules:

Every thesis or dissertation must comply with all requirements regarding research integrity. Plagiarism, fabrication, falsification, and other forms of research misconduct will be investigated by the Standing Committee on Research Misconduct[1]

The Standing Committee on Research Misconduct defines plagiarism as

portraying another person's intellectual property as one's own.(...) More subtle forms may involve appropriating ideas, concepts, or data without credit and then changing the actual language so as to give the impression that the ideas are one's own" [2]

Therefore A must acknowledge any ideas and creative content provided by B. However, collaborating on research is not research misconduct in itself.

If A accurately acknowledges B's contributions, A's committee will evaluate whether A's contributions merit a PhD. B's contributions are independent of A's PhD success. There is no need for a "joint PhD" to be awarded.

  • Thanks for your answer. I've done research so I know what collaboration looks like, and this is different. However, you've reminded me that really I should just wait until the acknowledgements are written and see that B's contribution is acknowledged in full.
    – thosphor
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 15:14

Thank you for asking before you proceed with this and perhaps cause some real harm. Follow the advice of most of the comments and answers and just let this be. What you describe (if it's the whole accurate story) does sound odd and unethical. I can imagine a story like this where unreported provable fraud might lead to bad consequences later. This does not seem to me to be such.

Go with no harm no foul.

  • I agree with the first and last parts of this answer, but I don't see anything unethical from the description - can you elaborate?
    – arboviral
    Commented Jun 7, 2018 at 7:52
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    @arboviral I think having someone else write a large fraction of your dissertation violates ethical norms in academia. Years ago I knew of a jointly written thesis - the authors arranged in advance with school and advisors about how that could be done. Commented Jun 7, 2018 at 10:04
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    Absolutely, but "I don't know about actually writing large chunks although I wouldn't be surprised" sounds entirely speculative to me so I was discounting it. As other posters have noted, this would indeed be serious if it was true, but it sounds like there is no actual evidence that this is occurring. From the first and last parts of your answer I assumed you were interpreting this the same way - if you are assuming there is substance to these allegations, then "just let this be" doesn't seem like the right advice.
    – arboviral
    Commented Jun 7, 2018 at 14:30

Sidestepping the question about whether this is cheating, I think it's important to consider why cheating in unethical in an academic setting and whether that applies here.

If individuals attending an educational program solely to educate themselves, there's really nothing terribly unethical about one student cheating. Everyone who didn't cheat will still learn the material just as well, so the cheating is of little consequence and probably just leads to the cheater coming off with a weaker understanding. I'm sure you've heard "you're only cheating yourself".

On the other hand, if part of the motivation is to receive some scarce benefit from the program (i.e., scholarships, awards, etc.), suddenly cheating has a lot of consequences for the other students and is of much higher concern.

So circling back to the question at hand, as others have stated it's not 100% clear that cheating is going on. Supposing that what is happening does give an unfair advantage to A compared with other students (which may well be possible), the real question is whether this is harming the other students. If A and B are two retired individuals who are excited about doing humanities research together now that they are retired, that alone doesn't hurt the other students. On the other hand, if department resources are being disproportionally allocated toward A, perhaps because professors are amazed by A's super human output, then it might make sense to inform professors A is not working alone.

Given the information I've read so far, it sounds like the first case to me. That is, although A is enrolled in the PhD program, A and B enjoy working together but that doesn't cause other students to be set back. Personally, I would doubt that the department over allocate resources toward an individual already retired so don't worry about whether this is cheating or not and just let them have their fun.

  • Why would the department allocate resources at all to someone making a PhD in part-time. The only resource that might be given is some contact from time to time with the supervisor. But from what I know these are sparse for people who do not work in the department.
    – Kami Kaze
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 14:48
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    @KamiKaze: I agree. Hence I think it's extremely unlikely that the other students are actually worse off given the scenario.
    – Cliff AB
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 15:50

You're framing this mainly as an ethical problem for A and B. It's also a typical moral and ethical dilemma for YOU. Some questions that can help resolve such a dilemma: What is my duty to report violations? What are the benefits of reporting this? What harm could come from it? Is the possible harm greater than the benefit? What harm will result if you don't report it? Are there other ways you could fulfill your impulse to make things better? What are your underlying reasons for wanting to report this? How will it make you feel?

Ultimately, the world is a very imperfect place and figuring out how to best use your energy to make it better is a lifelong quest that involves letting go of a great many things that we have an urge to protest.


I understand your concern and the issue at hand. While others have alluded that you may be jealous or have an ulterior motive, I will put that aside and consider the task at hand. Yes it is possible that person B could be helping person A in a more than reasonable acceptable manner but how can you prove it? It's acceptable to have discussion about points and have some proof-reading your thesis as I am sure you already know; but what is the tipping point? Unless you can prove that Person B wrote Person A thesis for them then I would leave it alone. I guess one could consider Person B, a research assistant, in that case. I guess another question is if Person B feels exploited in some sense.

As you mentioned you can wait to see how the person is acknowledged in the manuscript but in my mind it would have been at the end of the road in any case.

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