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This post is an extension of this previous situation that I discussed a few years ago here: Supervisor has said some very disgusting things online, should I pull my name from our paper?

That advisor contacted me (and the other collaborators of that paper) today, saying he's submitting his PhD dissertation this month, and that one of the requirements is getting signatures of all co-authors related to the dissertation. My natural inclination is to not sign anything involving him, however I'm not sure how strict this requirement is, and whether or not my not signing would significantly impact his dissertation.

Personally, I think his views are at odds with his field (psychology), and I would prefer that he doesn't earn such a degree and gain that level of influence. However, I'm obviously hesitant to do anything that would stop anybody's life's work; I'm not in the business of ruining lives. These two preferences are opposing, which is frustrating.

Ideally, signing/not signing his dissertation would have no impact on anything, and then I can happily not sign it and continue to distance myself from him. But I don't know enough about academia to determine if that is feasible.

My question is therefore, do I run any serious risks to the advisor or myself by not signing his dissertation?

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    The person to whom you refer will have a dissertation supervisor or dissertation committee chair. That person will know the answer. You could write, "What would happen if I declined...?"
    – Bob Brown
    Mar 7, 2023 at 23:32
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    When you sign, you are agreeing to something. What exactly are you agreeing to? Are you just agreeing to some true statement of fact? Or are you actually giving permission for something that you have the legal right to withhold? Mar 8, 2023 at 2:57
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    Echo that you should add details about exactly what you are signing. Also, assuming this related to the prior paper you co-authored -- was that paper actually published anywhere with your name on it (e.g., the conference prospect in prior question)? Mar 8, 2023 at 5:39
  • I'm not sure this makes in difference to the answer but: it's a stapler thesis, right? Mar 8, 2023 at 16:06
  • The cited other question on SE is basically "he said something bad, now what?" without saying what the bad thing was. It's kind of difficult to evaluate.
    – Boba Fit
    Mar 8, 2023 at 16:29

2 Answers 2

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In the end, the relevant question is what it is you are signing. If you are signing an affidavit that the thesis contains some data you have collected and that you are ok with it being published in this way, then that is a technical certification that you probably are legally obligated to sign, but that regardless does not pose ethical problems because you are certifying a fact. [1]

If, on the other hand, you are asked to sign an endorsement of said candidate, then that is an entirely different situation, be it as a statement of the candidate's scientific abilities or of the correctness/novelty/relevance of the thesis. Here, what you are asked is to provide your judgment of something, and it legitimate for you claim that in your judgment, the bar is not met.


[1] You should think of this in the same way as a tax official certifying the tax exempt status of a not-for-profit organization once they have filed an application and paid the application fee, and have made credible that they really are not for profit. The organization has satisfied the requirements, and the official is required to sign the certification. The fact that the organization espouses white supremacist views is not a part of the decisionmaking.

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    I have a hard time imagining any case where the OP would be "legally obligated to sign" anything. Mar 8, 2023 at 5:37
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    @DanielR.Collins Then call it "can reasonably be expected to sign". I am also not legally required to sign my travel request forms, but the university can sure reasonably expect me to do it as part of my job duties. Mar 8, 2023 at 14:26
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    @WolfgangBangerth It doesn't look to me like OP is an employee of the organisation that's collecting the signatures. Mar 8, 2023 at 16:03
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    In general, I think it's OK to pursue wider ethical goals by refusing to confirm (or deny) true fact X, isn't it? Mar 8, 2023 at 16:08
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    It seems to me, though, that in the "certifying an election" metaphor, OP isn't the Vice-President; OP is someone who did an internship in one candidate's office 2 years ago, and has now left Washington and is trying to forget the whole experience, but for some reason the candidate is demanding their signature on something or other, saying that it's part of the certification process. Mar 8, 2023 at 22:43
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I expect that the thing that you are being asked to sign is merely a declaration confirming the applicant's own statement regarding the relative contribution of different authors on jointly published work. That would be fairly typical in situations where work with collaborators forms part of the material that is being submitted for the degree of one of those author-collaborators. I also imagine that a refusal on your part to provide such a declaration would be an irritation to the university and the applicant, rather than any real impediment to the applicant receiving a degree.

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