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I am reviewing the MsC. dissertation of a friend of mine before it is submitted to the evaluation board. I started looking for formatting errors, badly written parts, malformed citations, typos, orphaned references, factual errors, logical gaps, and other stuff like that. One of the authors that she most cite is, of course, her advisor.

However, when I checked all that stuff, I found that the works of her advisor are very sloppy, containing a lot of errors, typos, incomplete sentences, misnumbered pages, misnumbered sections, inconsistent spacing and margins, mixing text with two different fonts in the same paragraph for no reason, misplaced images obscuring parts of the text and even sentences that were left painted with red or yellow to be reviewed before publication, but that were published anyway without further review.

The worse is that her advisor works contains a lot of malformed citations. Those includes things like: typos in cited authors' names; opening quotation marks without closing them (so I can't tell for sure where the quote ends); closing quotation marks that didn't open anywhere; quoted parts that differ significantly from the quoted work when I double check; citations from works that do not show up in the references section; cited text parts that don't appear anywhere in the cited work (maybe misquoted something from paper A as being from paper B); papers in the reference section that aren't cited anywhere in the text; quoting things in the middle of the text without telling who or what is being quoted; telling that someone is being cited without actually providing a citation, etc. It is so sloppy, that it certainly even contains a lot of unintended plagiarism not due to malice, but due to the severe lack of competence and discipline on properly quoting stuff and on editing, formatting and reviewing documents.

Luckily, this is not my work and I don't have any relation with her advisor. Also, my job is reviewing her paper, not her advisor's papers. But, if I were in her place, what should I do if I am obliged to cite a lot of very low-quality work? Trying to argue or denounce or whatever with the advisor is probably just a way to ensure being dropped from the program, specially near the scheduled date for the deadline when the text is in its final development steps. Also, it is likely that this might cause some trouble inside the evaluation board that if composed by competent people would likely perceive all of those (since I did, surely could them). Further, even after the degree is received, the fact that the Master's dissertation is based in so much low-quality works is likely to cause problems further down the road. What should I do?

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    I note you are in the editing phase. The points you are complaining about are precisely the sort of thing I would hope to find in editing. I imagine your expectations are being let down here, but until it goes out to press or peers, it doesn't matter what condition it's in. Feb 20 at 1:05
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    Did you find the advisors paper on scihub, libgen, or other similar paralegal sites? It's often the case they don't have the published version, but a leaked preprint/prepublishment one before the formatting and typos were fixed, and sometimes additional format errors introduced as it went through different conversions. Even arxiv papers suffer from this issue occassionally. Unless the papers are from the publisher itself, don't give much thought for it.
    – Neinstein
    Feb 20 at 14:07
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    @Neinstein Some where paralegal, some were not. They both have the same low-level quality. Feb 20 at 15:02
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    I think you are also overestimating the scrutiny an MSc thesis will get. Feb 20 at 16:55
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    @Marianne013 Probably, If her advisor didn't get so much scrutinity, it is unlikely that she will. Feb 20 at 17:05

5 Answers 5

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Your question is very dependent on the locale and the time.

Over the last decade, in most of the world, the formal standards for scholarly work have increased a lot. People who are now reaching retirement age published in an era where there was no word-processing for the general public and students graduating even with a doctorate routinely employed other people to write up their thesis. Their advisors often had their thesis set, an expensive and cumbersome procedure, and there is at least one famous dissertation (or a dissertation by a famous mathematician) that was so marred by typos that its significance was only recognized later. Even if authors typed their own papers using something like troff, they made many mistakes. You can still see this in LaTeX-set papers where many people still do not know how to put text components into an equation.

The expectation on the quality of citations has also increased significantly. Thirty years ago in computer science, we used a lot of abbreviations and because there was not a lot of information on the Internet, we sometimes cited by (short-term) memory and got things wrong.

The acceptance and availability of modern electronic tools also varied quite a bit according to countries. In addition, the quality of work has increased a lot in certain countries over the last couple of decades.

Regarding your question: First make sure that you are applying contemporary standards to contemporary works. Only if the advisor's current papers are full of problems of the type you are describing, then maybe taking an action would make sense.

Second, what do you expect as the outcome of a complaint? Do you want the titles of the advisor nullified or do you want her to be fined? Presumably, the advisor is subject to evaluation and their evaluators will look at current publications and react to them. What you describe is only feasible in low-quality outlets for which no or very small credit would be given.

Third, your friend is stuck with the advisor. Is your friend really basing their results on bad papers or rather on poorly written papers? If your friend uses previous work, then your friend is held responsible for a critical reading of this previous work, independent on how well or poorly it is written.

Fourth, if your friend is forced to use invalid or shoddy work as a foundation of the friend's thesis, then indeed her degree might not be worth a lot. In this case, and only in this case, your friend should reconsider the relationship, even if it means graduating later. However, it might just be best for your friend to get the degree "and run". In industry or government, the title might be the only things that counts.

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    The only reasonable outcome of complaining is getting dropped out of the program, so it is a great no-go. It could be the "right" thing to do in a perfect world, but the world is imperfect and in a perfect world this issue would not even happen to start with. Feb 20 at 15:21
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    However, it might just be best for your friend to get the degree "and run". - Exactly what I was thinking about. Feb 20 at 15:22
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    Her advisor surely is already well past retirement age - 77 years old. Probably someone who never properly learnt how to use a computer. Feb 20 at 15:25
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    "bad papers" ≠ "poorly written papers" - you are right. Feb 20 at 16:53
  • Over the last decade? That would be ten years, putting us back in 2002. Typesetting was not some mysterious process, inaccessible to normal people. Computers were in widespread usage, and desktop publishing was commonplace going well back in the nineties, if not the eighties (for those with access to computers, natch, which should have included anyone attending an educational institution). Surely, you meant a much longer span of time than a "decade". Maybe half-century? Feb 22 at 14:13
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You are making too much of this. Writers are not responsible for the typesetting or grammar in the papers that they cite. Citing a paper does not mean endorsing all aspects of it. Presumably your friend is citing her advisor because her new work builds on the advisor's previous work; so long as the parts being built upon are technically sound, and your friend's paper is itself well written, there is really nothing to do here.

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    This. All day this. The only impact the sloppiness (assuming it's just formatting and not factual errors) should have on the new paper is to choose citation-via-paraphrase and not citation-via-quotation.
    – Ben Voigt
    Feb 22 at 21:05
  • This is the answer. The quality of your friends thesis has nothing to do with the citations she uses (assuming of course that the citations are valid). I think the real question you are asking is what do you do when already published material is sloppy? Unfortunately there isn't much you can do in this case. Feb 23 at 3:22
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You only need to worry about the quality of the advisor's work to the extent that it impacts on the quality of your friend's work. For example, if the advisor gives an ambiguous quotation from another paper (without closing quotes to indicate where the quote ends), that is only going to matter if your friend also uses that quote, in which case your friend should go back to the primary source to use the corrected quotation (citing the original source of the quote). If there are mis-numbered pages that affect the ability to clearly cite the source then your friend should note this problem for the reader in their citations (e.g., with a footnote) so that the reader can find the relevant pages for the citation.

In cases where the cited work of the advisor contains an error relevant to the point being cited, your friend should note the error and act accordingly (e.g., correcting spelling or grammatical mistakes with appropriate notation of changes). As a reviewer of your friend's work you can point out instances where you think the material being cited is erroneous and suggest appropriate changes. However, it is not necessary to point out errors in cited work that do not impact on the work you are reviewing. Many of the issues you raise with the cited work (e.g., aesthetic problems with fonts, etc.) are not things that are going to impact the other paper.

From what you have described, it sounds like some of the works being cited are working papers, rather than properly peer reviewed work. (I would certainly hope that some of those problems would not appear in a final version published in a journal.) In such a case the bibliography will make clear which references are working papers. It is of course possible that the level of mistakes in the cited work is so severe that you might legitimately question whether that work is trustworthy to cite at all. If you form the view that it is not then you can make this known in your review, though your friend is probably constrained by the fact that he is working with this advisor.

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    'I would certainly hope that some of those problems would not appear in a final version published in a journal' but they might appear in a green-open-access author-generated postprint. Feb 20 at 9:49
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Almost none of this matters. To my mind, there are three reasons that you cite something:

(1) To reference specific facts established in that work.

(2) To acknowledge the precedence of previous research in the area.

(3) To point the reader to other sources in the area which might interest them.

For (1), if the source establishes your fact correctly, it basically doesn't matter if the typesetting, formatting or grammar are unclear. If there are material errors in the source, then I would indicate how to fix them in as non-judgmental language as I can.

For example: "See SOURCE for the complete table of X's. Note the typo in the third line of the table: The 2 should be a 3," or "The equivalence of conditions Y and Z is Theorem 1 in SOURCE, but it appears to us that the authors of SOURCE only prove one direction of the implication, so we provide a proof of the converse." If the badly written material is brief and easy to write well, you can also do "Theorem 1 was proved by SOURCE; since the proof is short, we include it for completeness." Note that there is no need to directly criticize SOURCE in the last example.

If you need to directly quote material which has a typo, you can use sic or square brackets to fix it, but I would consult with your advisor about how to do this without seeming rude; I think this is something where norms differ from field to field.

For (2), I think this doesn't matter at all. "This research area was pioneered by SOURCE" -- if SOURCE is badly written, this sentence is still true and you have done your job acknowledging precedence.

For (3), this can be a bit awkward. If I am pointing the reader to important earlier sources or surveys, then I don't want to leave out major papers, but I also want to give them sources which they will find useful. I usually opt for praising rather than criticizing: "For background on TOPIC, see SOURCE1, SOURCE2 or SOURCE3; the author particularly recommends the clear exposition of SOURCE3."

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I am reviewing the MsC. dissertation of a friend of mine

You did not mention the country, but at least in Europe an MSc dissertation is a formality and there is nothing (or almost nothing) new in it.

You have to write it, and then forget it. Nobody cares about details and the reviewers have several of them to go through (which, otoh, means that a neat, readable dissertation will help). But nobody is going to check details such as the citations contents.

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  • The country is Brazil. Brazil is not really known for the quality of our academic work, and also our regulations and norms are plagued with many problems for reasons that aren't in the scope of this question. However, what I saw from her advisor was well beyond anything that could be considered minimally acceptable, but on the other hand, as you and other answers stated, nobody really cares. Feb 21 at 21:18
  • @VictorStafusa-BozoNaCadeia --- in our (European) case it is not really the quality of the academic world but rather the fact that we have a 5 years university education (roughly speaking) and the goal is to educate "doers", that is people who will use a very small part of what they learned. The final dissertation is a prerequisite for the diploma and people have been extensively tested during these 5 years; if this was me I would completely get rid of it as it is utterly useless in the context of what these people will do later.
    – WoJ
    Feb 22 at 11:39
  • @VictorStafusa-BozoNaCadeia (cont'd) This is of course completely different if you actually go the academia way, i.e. a PhD.
    – WoJ
    Feb 22 at 11:39
  • This is generally the case, but not always. Occasionally MsC dissertations do contain original results. Feb 25 at 16:54
  • @GiuseppeNegro: sure, there are always such cases (mine was definitely not :)) but they are extra rare (I saw a page on them once but could not find it again). The amount of time and trees lost on these theses is staggering.
    – WoJ
    Feb 25 at 18:09

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