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I know someone who is currently writing their master’s thesis. They will be the single author of the document. Our (German) university requires a statement that says something like: ‘I wrote all of this thesis myself unless otherwise specified’, meaning everything not cited is your own work (Eigenständigkeitserklärung).

Now the amount of supervision given for students of course varies between both students and supervisors, but it is generally understood that thesis examiners will read the thesis for grading.

However, one of the advisor’s/examiner’s of my acquaintance offered to proof-read their thesis. This proof-reading can be expected to be both for grammar and content, as the same thing was apparently done by both advisors for the person’s bachelor thesis.

This is not common in my department as far as I can tell. It seems unfair to me: the thesis to be graded was already improved by comments of people who will grade it. In addition, why would they proof-read something for their own examination?

I will most definitely not take any action in this issue. My opinion though is that this is different from proof-reading, e.g., a publication, because the thesis is subject to grading and will not necessarily be published.

Question: Would this situation be considered cheating, micro-managing or just better supervision than average? (or none of the above?)


This question is somewhat related, but the proof-reading is done by peers instead of examiners. Comments and answers are generally in favour of proof-reading, and one answer mentions proof-reading by supervisors is customary in the UK. I'm not sure whether this applies to Germany, since I haven’t heard about it before.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Aug 31 at 16:42
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Whether it is allowed depends on the specific regulations of your university, but your advisor proofreading your thesis and offering suggestions is quite common. I would consider not having a proofreading round to be lazy on the part of the advisor.

Keep in mind that the examiner can still have the initial reading influence the grade. Somebody who submits a perfect thesis that requires no corrections would usually get a higher grade than somebody who submits the same thesis after receiving detailed comments on how to improve it. The proofreading is part of the teaching process, and how well you implement the suggestions is part of the assessment.

What do you think is better from a didactical perspective?

  1. Telling a student that they got a barely-passing grade because X and Y need to be improved

  2. Telling a student that they could improve X and Y by doing Z, and having them do that before assigning a final grade

Clearly, the student will learn much more from option (2).

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    Also, in my experience the grading includes the whole process of obtaining the thesis, not just the final product. It surely has the most weight, but even if your write up is kind of crappy because of reasons (bad at writing, time management, etc.) but your actual research was outstanding the final grade will typically be somewhere in the middle. – Frank Hopkins Aug 29 at 17:46
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    "Somebody who submits a perfect thesis that requires no corrections would usually get a higher grade than somebody who submits the same thesis after receiving detailed comments on how to improve it." This is actually not allowed at my university (Denmark) as I should only grade the final product (the thesis) and not the process. – Sune Aug 29 at 18:39
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    "Somebody who submits a perfect thesis that requires no corrections would usually get a higher grade than somebody who submits the same thesis after receiving detailed comments on how to improve it." In fact the opposite might happen at my university; the final grade explicitly depends not only on the final product, but also the processes of researching, writing and communicating that go with it. Someone who hands in a thesis without even once having had someone look at it might score poorly on the writing process. – Servaes Aug 30 at 7:42
  • I mistakenly down voted this instead of up voting!!!!!!!! – Alchimista Aug 30 at 15:23
  • @Araucaria - Not here any more. Tried it but still not allowed. :( – Alchimista Aug 31 at 4:09
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Let me start with a quote from Good scientific practice for scientific qualification reports and theses in physics (German version). These are recommendations are published by the conference of German physics departments, whose prime purpose is to coordinate teaching and thesis standards. This document is specific to physics (and makes this point itself) but after all I heard, it holds at least for all the physical sciences, mathematics, and computer science:

At the same time, in physics it is part of the scientific discourse that parts of the qualification report or thesis are presented in advance to another person, e.g. to the supervisor, for critical commentary. Such commentary can refer to the interpretation of the scientific results themselves, the organization of the subject matter, or the chain of arguments within the report or thesis. For doctoral theses, the commentary should rather have the character of a collegial feedback. For reports and theses within undergraduate or master studies, it is also a duty of the supervisor to aid the student in developing the competences necessary for writing such a report or thesis. Within the development of the study program, this aspect should play a lesser role.

In my experience and from what I gathered from colleagues, the rationale for this is:

  • Part of the purposes of a thesis project (and studying in general) is that the student learns how to present their own work in writing. Providing constructive criticism on the thesis before submitting and having the student implement this (often in multiple iterations) is the best way to nurture this, as the student is forced to revisit their own writing and engage with the criticism. Critical comments on the final product do not achieve this, as the student has no motivation to revisit their thesis and doesn’t get the fruit of their work examined.

    I have never encountered any student (including myself) who had sufficient writing skills to write a paper before finishing their master’s thesis under proper supervision (i.e., with criticism before submission). Usually the pre-supervision writing skills were abysmal by any standard and then were considerably improved during the thesis-writing process.

  • We train the student for real writing, whether in academia (papers, grant applications, etc.) or in industry settings. And it is rare and inadvisable to write anything important in a vacuum. One always has co-authors and colleagues or similar whom one can and should solicit for constructive feedback. Even for the papers I wrote as a single author, I solicited the feedback from colleagues and supervisors before submitting them. By contrast, I did peer-review some papers where I was very likely the first person to read them and they often had severe shortcomings in writing. Thus having feedback from the supervisor is a more realistic writing conditions and also trains the valuable skill of handling feedback on one’s writing.

  • The supervisor (usually) doesn’t dictate sentences to the student, but just shows them what is wrong and provides guidance on how to fix these issues. Thus the condition that everything written is the student’s own work is not violated.

  • In particular for bachelor’s and master’s projects, the stated purpose is that the student performs a scientific project under supervision and I see no reason to exclude the writing process from this. With other words, applying constructive criticism from your supervisor to your thesis is part of the project and the grade captures how well this was done. (Thus there is no paradox of “proof-reading something for one’s own examination” does not really arise.)

  • One hardly ever compares theses under different supervisors with respect to their grading and even if one does, the topics may be considerably different in how challenging it is to write about them. Thus the unfairness issue simply does not arise. Moreover, a supervisor has far stronger means to give an unfair advantage to their supervisees.

Finally, some further remarks:

  • I strongly urge students I supervise to hand in the very first page as soon as they have written it. This way I avoid that bad practices become a habit and their further writing already has a better quality before I first see it. For this reason, I think any good supervision should engage with the thesis long before it is complete.

  • I disagree with the idea that the initial thesis (before critical comments) should influence the grade. As already stated, one of the points of the thesis project is that the student learns writing about their own scientific work and they have no chance to acquire this skill elsewhere (except for previous theses and similar). A student who considerably improves their writing during the supervision process should be rewarded. Students who already have the skill are likely to have it not due to their own ingenuity but because they enjoyed a proper thesis supervision before. Moreover, implementing constructive criticism is part of the skill we want to teach and thus the grading should reflect it. Finally, there is no clear separation between before and after supervision in case of a good supervision (see the previous point).

    That being said, in my experience there is a strong correlation between the quality of the initial writing and the final result, with the latter being considerably better. The main exceptions are students whose initial writing is bad and who do not respond to the supervision for some reason. I have never experienced a student whose initial writing was above standard and who did not improve.

  • Mind that this is still field-specific. In particular, in the humanities, wording holds a much higher value and thus things may be different. (It is for that reason that plagiarism is much more prevalent in those fields.)

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    "One always has co-authors and colleagues or similar whom one can and should solicit for constructive feedback. Even for the papers I wrote as a single author, I solicited the feedback from colleagues and supervisors before submitting them." - this should possibly be highlighted more. Expecting people to work in a vacuum is for undergraduates and below, where this is really a trick to get students to work harder to learn the basics. For any sort of "professional level" of writing, from scientific publications to novels, everyone should get feedback from others. – Bryan Krause Aug 30 at 2:46
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    @BryanKrause: Very well, I added some highlighting. – Wrzlprmft Aug 30 at 8:08
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There is a generally agreement and understanding across academia that theses must contain the student's own work. However, when it comes to details, the customs vary dramatically.

In some places BSc students are expected to come up with their own project proposals and are free to execute them as they will under a gentle advisory guidance of their supervisor. In some places, projects are specified and proposed by academics, together with the list of recommended literature and expected outcomes; students simply go through what is effectively a taught material delivered in one-to-one mode.

Considering the dramatic variation of what the projects are in form and purpose, it is not surprising that there is also difference in details, e.g. the role of supervisor. It often stems from the fact that some supervisors perceive the projects as some kind of competition between staff. This is often reflected when it comes to marking, and some staff make a major effort to secure higher mark for the students they supervised, while offering a much lower mark to students of other supervisors. The situation can become particularly nasty if "successful supervision" is a promotion/progression criteria in a Department.

Needless to say, if some academics wrongly understand the quality and mark of theses as criteria of their own success, rather then the success of their students, their behaviour can deviate far from being fair and objective. It is quite common that such academics may become overly pro-active and offer to proof-read theses, edit them, etc. In one extreme case I've seen an academic who kept all good projects from past years in his office and could offer a struggling student to "look at" a successful project on a very similar topic, effectively encouraging plagiarism.

This behaviour if unfair to other students and detrimental to students' learning. Unfortunately, academic administrators often turn a blind eye or even support this sort of behaviour, because it keeps the struggling students happy and allows them to pass, improving the statistics of outcomes for the department. This is particularly typical in countries with strong marketalisation of Higher Education, where education is considered a service, and students are treated as customers. In this model, administrators find nothing wrong with keeping the clients happy, and may even reward academics for "supporting students who need support", creating an additional incentive for the wrong behaviour.

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    "In one extreme case I've seen an academic who kept all good projects from past years in his office and could offer a struggling student to "look at" a successful project on a very similar topic." I was expected to read a lot of similar theses which have been written at the department before me, this did not however lead me to plagiarize anything. One is supposed to do novel research, why not look at what has already been done? I don't get this point at all. – TheoreticalMinimum Aug 30 at 13:02
  • @TheoreticalMinimum There is a subtle difference between showing past work to a aspiring student who has a significantly different task and wants to apply a significantly new approach vs showing past work to a clearly struggling student who repeats a very similar project. – Dmitry Savostyanov Sep 1 at 10:44
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There may be exact rules, but they exist mostly for the fools to obey and...

I don't see anything sketchy happening here. Sharing a few possibilities that occured to me.

  1. It may be that the examiner put on the co-advisor hat. May be parts of the thesis rely on a piece of theory that a colleague of the advisor is more familiar with. Surely it is to everybody's advantage that the said colleague (soon to become an examiner) takes a look in advance. Possibly improving the thesis. I have acted in such a capacity at our math department, examining master theses supervised by a colleague mostly working in a different part of math.
  2. It may be a scheduling problem. I have also been involved with cases like the following: For the student to graduate this Spring, the thesis must be processed before a given date. A signed statement from the examiner is required for the process to go through, but their schedule makes them unavailable for two weeks prior to the deadline. Again, surely it is in everybody's interests that the examiners looks at a slightly unpolished version. They can then write their statement in time without compromising the integrity of the process. If no suitable alternative examiners are available at the department the alternative would be to delay graduation to the next semester for a trivial reason.
  3. A third pair of eyes/brains may spot something the student and the advisor both missed. One of the examiners my own dissertation spotted an error I understand what you are claiming here. That claim is important, correct, and follows from the preceding discussion. But look carefully how you phrased this theorem. It says something else, and it's not what you are really claiming, is it? Of course, the examiner was right. When I told my advisor about it, he just laughed.

Also, the recommended edits coming from such a reading by an examiner are not going to substantially change the thesis. Any effect on the grade would be somewhere between non-existent and minimal. To have a marked impact on the grade the edits would need to be substantial, like completely rewriting parts of the thesis.

Whenever I am the examiner, I make it clear that any implementations of my suggested edits are left to the discretion of the advisor/student. Recalling a case when I served as an examiner of a PhD dissertation. A day before the public defence there was "the informal but grueling real defence". When preparing for that I spotted one possibility for further simplifying one of the formulas. I brought it up in passing (it was by no means essential). And the candidate ran with it! He spent the night to work it out, and extended his slide set to cover it. I thought more highly of their ability after this, and I think most of us would do likewise.

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