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I'm in the jury of a PhD thesis in a small institution in Canada. The candidate has been a part-time PhD student here for about ten years, and is also the founder of a not-for-profit that aims to disseminate the results of his research. Apparently, he received a MPhil degree from the University of Cambridge in 1986. I've seen no indication on his web site or anywhere else that he has any continued relationship with that institution.

Now (2022), he will present some of his current PhD research in a workshop, where he listed his affiliation as University of Cambridge.

To me this looks very dishonest: he should claim affiliation either with our university, or with his not-for-profit organisation. I suspect a fancier institution might have been a way of sounding more important and improving his chances of acceptance (this was just a paper proposal based on an abstract, not blind peer review).

Question: Is there any "rule" that says which institution you can claim affiliation with? Is this just bad form or clear academic dishonesty?

Secondly: I have a feeling that there is some misbehaviour here, but should I allow that to affect the evaluation of the thesis? (I mean, after follow-up and checking what the situation actually is)

Update: The thesis supervisor indicated that the Cambridge affiliation was used to obtain a participation grant, which was only available to members of certain universities. The conference people apparently thought it was ok to use his alumnus status as affiliation.

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    In my experience, it is quite common to give as affiliation all institutions where parts of the work have been done. You can disagree with this and expect only the current affiliation to be listed but “misbehavior” is a strong word for this.
    – Roland
    Mar 18 at 15:38
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    that seems reasonable. In this case I'm pretty sure the Cambridge work was completely unrelated... and completed 37 years ago. Mar 18 at 16:05
  • I believe if your research was done in your previous institution, yes, you should use your old one, at least that's what I did with my publications Mar 19 at 7:01
  • Someone once told me that if you do a masters degree in Cambridge, or at least it was so in the past (and not the very distant past, so certainly including 1986) you get some automatic affiliation with Cambridge. I believe it was the same with Oxford. I didn't do my masters in either one, so I never had to check, though.
    – Ink blot
    Mar 20 at 15:45
  • Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.Do you have any specific knowledge of this person's lack of a relationship with "University of Cambridge" which justifies "affiliation" or are you just assuming that there isn't one based on a lack of evidence? [Note: I'm not saying there is, or even that I think that it's likely there is, but there's nothing in your question to indicate anything other than an assumption on your part that the person doesn't have a relationship with Cambridge sufficient such that they could reasonably state they are affiliated.]
    – Makyen
    Mar 20 at 19:38

4 Answers 4

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The rule is that you put your current affiliation and any others where the work was done, or just the ones where the work was done, or perhaps just the one where most of the work was done. You can't put a past affiliation just because it looks good, even if that university regards its graduates as members for life.

I would say this case is halfway between bad form and academic dishonesty, because the rule is not formal or universally agreed. I changed my mind about this and I agree with Dan Romik that it is dishonest. But the person is a student so I would be slightly less harsh on him.

It shouldn't affect your evaluation of his thesis. The workshop and the affiliation he used are separate from the thesis. But do ask him about it and point out the problem.

EDITED TO ADD: The update at the end of the question changes everything. It looks like there was a special reason to use the old affiliation and the conference organizers knew and approved it.

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Is there any "rule" that says which institution you can claim affiliation with?

Yes. The rule is that words in the English language should be used in a way that’s consistent with their accepted meaning. Especially in situations in which using them in a non-standard meaning results in you being given money or something of significant monetary value.

This rule was violated in this case, it would seem.

Is this just bad form or clear academic dishonesty?

See above. It’s not academic dishonesty — misrepresenting facts to gain access to money sounds like plain old fashioned dishonesty to me.

I have a feeling that there is some misbehaviour here, but should I allow that to affect the evaluation of the thesis?

No, you should do your job as member of the jury and evaluate the thesis impartially based on its contents. If the thesis itself contained any misrepresentation of facts or other shady behavior, that would be fair game to take into account. But knowledge that the candidate behaved dishonestly on a matter not directly related to the thesis, while it may be cause for concern and/or taking action to alert people who were hurt by this behavior, should not affect your evaluation of the thesis specifically.

As for the dishonest behavior, it sounds like the people in charge of disbursing the participation grants were aware of what the student meant by “affiliation”, and decided to give him the grant anyway. That is their decision and not something you can or should do anything about. If they were not aware of the misrepresentation, it would be appropriate to alert them of the situation and let them think what to do about it.

It’s also appropriate to have a negative personal opinion of the student based on this incident and allow that to affect your future relationship with them, for example not agreeing to write them a letter of recommendation, etc. Although you should probably be very sure that your judgment is correct and not based on a misunderstanding of some sort.

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    It’s not academic dishonesty — misrepresenting facts to gain access to money sounds like plain old fashioned dishonesty to me. was entertaining
    – Joe
    Mar 20 at 12:02
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(Caveat at end) While I believe that claiming an affiliation in such a circumstance is dishonest, I think you should evaluate the thesis on its own merits. It is the scholarship that should matter here, not the ethics of the writer unless they affect the work itself.

It is possible, of course, that the person has, in fact, maintained a formal connection to Cambridge. If not, they could claim a "former affiliation".

On the other hand, a note to the person that this seems improper might get a response, but that is separate from the quality/value of the thesis. But, since you are judging the work, it might be improper for you to make a public issue of it until your evaluation is complete.

For more general usage, claiming a past affiliation as current can get a person in trouble. Especially if the institution might object. The claim of affiliation needs to be mutually acceptable. If it is acceptable to Cambridge for its former students to claim affiliation then it is proper as noted in a comment by user erstwhile editor.

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    "Formal connection". The ancient English universities reckon their graduates as being "members of the University" and in the days of printed lists one would remain "on the books" until one died. Mar 18 at 15:57
  • @erstwhileeditor, if this still applies to Cambridge, certainly an "ancient English university" then the claim is appropriate, even if it seems odd to others.
    – Buffy
    Mar 18 at 16:00
  • @erstwhileeditor while it is true that past graduates are considered members of the university body in some senses, I have never seen anyone use it in the context of an academic affiliation. I don't think it's relevant here.
    – Andrew
    Mar 18 at 16:10
  • @Andrew I have seen people use their "membership" in this way; if they phrase their claims carefully they are not saying anything false. I don't myself like it, and am inclined to be rather suspicious! Mar 18 at 16:31
  • @Buffy it would be semantics or legalese to claim the student is affiliated with a University they attended 10 years ago. What’s going on here is plainly meant to mislead any reasonable person. It seems the person was able to use alumnus status, but this is applicable only in special circumstances and would be just dishonest outside of this context. Mar 20 at 1:24
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  • affiliations should represent the responsible institution for funding and monitoring the research and publications and ownership of the data - so no, skipping the institution which officially awarded you the PHD title for the research is IMHO not possible if the presentation/publication refers to results supervised by the PHD supervisor. (no matter how serious the supervisor took their job, it's their signature).

  • The situation in the case of "founded non-profit, but was part time PHD student" is probably quite tricky. Probably it's best to consult the Ethics/Compliance office of the involved institutions. If there was substantial direct or indirect funding via the former university (e.g. master research together with the non-profit), they may want to be mentioned in a specific way.

  • I don't see a problem with multiple affiliations if the work spanned several institutions, however AFAIK PHD theses have only the supervising institution listed (the standards for the thesis are set by the awarding institution).

I also think it is shady. Evaluate the content of the thesis and refer this formal question back to the institution.

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