A potentially controversial issue that can jeopardise the career of one or more people, so I am treading lightly while protecting the concerned persons as much as possible, save a few details for context.

This is taking place at a government funded research institute in Singapore (something akin to national laboratories in the US). They hire a fair mix of scientists and engineers to perform fundamental and translational research for industry. The particular person (let's call him Tango, in his late forties) recently became a deputy director there. However, he does not have a PhD, a fact which

  • likely bothers him a bit
  • may become a glass ceiling in terms of his influence or career progression

For context, this is a place which keeps a very clear line between scientists (staff who have a PhD) and engineers (those who do not). However, Tango's division still has collaboration with some local universities and professors to conduct joint research projects.

So recently, a bright young chap (let's call him Delta) joined the institute as a junior scientist right after his PhD, and Tango is in his direct reporting line (I think 2-3 levels above his manager). Obviously, Tango holds a great degree of influence over Delta.

So, Tango, because of his influence or some leverage unknown to me, entered an arrangement with a professor in a local university to do his PhD, but almost the entire real work has been dumped on Delta. In the arrangement, Delta's responsibility includes

  • Reading papers in the field
  • Identifying interesting problems or open areas
  • Proposing solutions, approaches, run simulations, experiments
  • Writing papers (where he is a co-author, and obviously Tango as well)

To me, the above sounds like doing another PhD. But Tango's responsibility includes

  • Attending conferences
  • To talk to people (I know in academia, a lot depends on talking)

I did my PhD (in what I call the honest way, writing my own paper and stuff), and then left the academic landscape. Personally, I do not care who has a PhD or not, as anyone without a PhD or masters can be as smart, hardworking and technically proficient as anyone else. But I am not a senior academic, so I'm not sure what I observed above is an aberration, or the norm.

But it enrages me when I see people getting a shortcut to a PhD (purely by connection and leverage), when there are thousands who had to finish a PhD in their twenties without any concept of connection, leverage or name. I used to believe PhDs earn you connection and leverage, but Tango shows it is the other way around.

So, I have a few questions

  • What makes a professor (Tango's supervisor) accept such an arrangement, assuming he is aware of it? I know he has collaborated previously with Tango's division for joint research project, but this seems like outright theft
  • Is this a violation of academic integrity? Or assuming everyone involved (the professor, Tango and Delta) consented to this quid-pro-quo, it is totally fair?
  • Is there a way to blow the whistle on this while remaining anonymous? I mentioned it's an RI in Singapore, only to give some context as I know the authorities are country specific.

No disrespect to anyone, but seeing this makes me kinda happy that I left academia.

And yes, if any of the readers here are affiliated to any institute in Singapore, or have connections to the academic/research community in Singapore (it's a small circle), feel free to share this with your colleagues and get their feedback as well. I would be very happy if Tango or his supervisor see this post and identify themselves.

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    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Mar 17 at 2:35

5 Answers 5


The real variable here is whether Tango's advisor and committee are being deceived.

What makes a professor (Tango's supervisor) accept such an arrangement, assuming he is aware of it?

Impossible to guess. One option could be that Tango has already proven himself as an individual contributor (that's how he achieved such a high rank) and so his advisor suggested that they focus the PhD on supervision. What seems to you like "dumping work" might seem to them like a good opportunity for Delta to do some interesting work under Tango's guidance. Of course, your theory is also plausible; we normally avoid trying to judge individual cases from the outside for exactly this reason.

Is this a violation of academic integrity? Or assuming everyone involved (the professor, Tango and Delta) consented to this quid-pro-quo, it is totally fair?

There could be violations of academic integrity here, for example if Tango did not contribute intellectually to the papers that bear his name, or if he is lying to his committee about what he did. But it's hard to say from the outside.

Is there a way to blow the whistle in this while I remain anonymous, and does not jeopardise Delta's career?

The proper authorities are likely Tango's advisor or other committee members. Only you can decide whether your evidence is strong enough, whether Delta's career will be impacted, or whether it's your place to get involved in this.

  • 9
    If someone being listed as an author without contributing to a paper is an academic violation, then every single Max Planck Institut director I've ever met should be investigated. (I do believe in that, btw) Commented Mar 15 at 5:37
  • 3
    @QuantumBrick This discussion is never-ending here on Stack Overflow. Let me put it like this - everybody agrees that only contributing people should be authors, but there is an enormous span of what counts as "contributing" between fields, countries, and institutions. I have found the discussion to be not particularly fruitful, to say the least.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Mar 15 at 10:34
  • 3
    @QuantumBrick Also, it's kind of neither here nor there for this question. For getting a PhD, the requirements are a lot higher than "co-authored papers" - those papers need to be your papers, your research. Even your Max Planck Institut directors will not claim that they were the sole driving force behind the 40-ish papers that came out of their institute in 2023.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Mar 15 at 10:36
  • 2
    @xLeitix It will be fruitful the day someone decides to do something. I've been around and I've seen things (in my field and closely related fields). I've seen fair directors that let their group leaders publish papers without them, and I've seen directors who force everyone in his/her division to put their names in every single paper. This has been normalized because people wonder about the metaphysics of "contribution" instead of taking action. I hope someone will take action one day... But this is indeed off topic to this question and I will stop here. Commented Mar 17 at 4:46

This sounds unethical to me and warrants reporting to the Ethics Officer/Board

There are several potential issues in this case, some of which raise scope concerns about the candidature, and some of which raise ethical concerns:

  • Scope: Is the share of the work that Tango is doing in this project sufficient to meet the requirements of a PhD award (assuming that those parts are done to appropriate quality)?

  • Disclosure/ethics: Has Tango fully disclosed the relevant work-sharing arrangements to the university, via disclosure to his supervisory panel?

  • Disclosure/ethics: Will the university fully disclose the relevant work-sharing arrangement to the outside referees assessing the PhD award when it is sent for review?

Based on the facts as you have described them, the described portion of work being done by Tango certainly would not meet (or even come close to) the requirements for a PhD award. In particular, by delegating the reading, problem formulation, literature review, substantive analytical work, and writing of papers to another person, the "meat" of the research project is not being done by Tango. Mere attendance and conferences and networking relating to a research project is nowhere near meeting the requirements of a PhD award. In particular, the described contribution to be done by Tango would not meet the requirement to produce novel and substantial research work.

It is important to note here that it is not sufficient for the supervisors to agree to this arrangement; the supervisory panel at the university has a responsibility to ensure that the candidate undertakes the required work for the award and does not delegate this to others. They cannot simply agree to have a student delegate their work to others and then have it assessed as their own work. (Otherwise people could effectively just purchase any degree they want by paying someone else to do it for them.) Contrary to the other answer here, it is irrelevant whether Tango has "already proven himself as an individual contributor" --- he must either seek a PhD award for individual work previously done, or else prove himself again in the candidature by doing more individual work.

In general, if there is to be any work-sharing arrangement between a PhD candidate and another person, immense care must be taken to ensure that the scope of work done by the candidate meets the requirement of candidature and that there is full disclosure of the details of the work-sharing (i.e., who did what) both to the university and then to the referees assessing the award. This is something that is so tenuous that most supervisors would not consider it at all, due to the risk of insufficient disclosure and resulting ethics issues. The requirements for a PhD award are assessed by independent referees, usually outside of the host university but at least outside of the faculty. This means that if there is work-sharing occurring then the university must ensure that this is disclosed to those referees to assist them to determine whether or not the requirements for candidature are met. If there is any misrepresentation to the referees, this could put the university at risk.

As to your question of whether this is academic misconduct, that depends on whether Tango has disclosed the work-sharing to the university. If Tango has not disclosed this work-sharing to the university and has represented any of the work done by Delta as his own (either explicitly or by implication) then that is highly likely to constitute academic misconduct.

Reporting this situation: Based on what you have written here, I think there is a strong case for reporting this situation to the relevant Ethics Officer/Board at the university. This is the appropriate point-of-contact for reporting potential ethics concerns, so you should bypass the supervisory panel and faculty entirely. When making your report, I recommend you do not presume anything beyond the known facts and simply let them know that you have knowledge of delegation of work that appears to be part of a PhD candidature. The Ethics Officer/Board will then investigate the matter and obtain the full facts to see if there is any problem.

If you wish to make your report anonymously, you should make a preliminary phone call to the Ethics Office/Board (without giving your name) to see if you are able to make a complaint that allows you to talk directly with the Ethics Office but not have your name disclosed to others. Failing this, you will need to decide whether to make a report with your name on it, or you could simply make an anonymous report through some communication medium that does not have your details.

  • 1
    I disagree. You list three factors in your bullet list. I suggest the original poster has no way of knowing the situation of any of those items, as real knowledge (and not suppositions or guesses) would be held by Tango, Tango's school, and Tango's employer. The poster is none of these. You say "Based on the facts ...", but I don't really see facts here. Commented Mar 15 at 17:39
  • 2
    @ScottSeidman: OP appears to be aware of the work-sharing arrangement directly, but does not know what, if any, disclosure has occurred in the university. As I have noted at the end of the answer, this is sufficient to refer to the Ethics Officer, who can then investigate the remaining issues that are unknown.
    – Ben
    Commented Mar 17 at 2:49

This really depends on the details of each situation.

The purpose of people doing a PhD is to prepare them to be senior researches. A major part of that, and something not covered by doing a BSc and MSc, is managing other people to do the grunt work. In fact, during a PhD is the first time I would expect people to manage and supervise others. Usually, that means supervising the "lower ranks" but a good, senior PhD student should be able to supervise junior or even other senior PhD students.

Since Tango also is a deputy director, supervising other PhD students in joint research is exactly what I would expect from them. Presenting the output of this, connecting with others, is exactly what I would expect from them.
The real question is where the line goes, and your description of the situation is not clear on that.

You say Delta is "Proposing solutions, approaches, run simulations, experimentations", but proposals and simulations and experiments are a dime a dozen - is it Tango who decides on solutions, who evaluates the simulations and experimentations?

You say Delta is "Writing papers" but also "where he is a co-author, and obviously Tango as well" - is Tango a co-author in name only, or do they actively take part in creating the paper?

You say Tango is the one "Attending conferences" - is it to upstage Delta or not really because Tango is the better presenter and manager? You say Tango is the one "To talk to people" - how do they do that if they are not familiar with the science and decisions behind it?

By all means this can be academic misconduct but you should be absolutely sure about it. I too was in the boat of seeing a PhD student do zilch but "delegate" effectively and "surpass" the honest, diligent, and competent PhD students who would do all the grunt work. But as much as it pained me back then, on reflection I have to say they got research done that others did not - even if they did not get the stuff done with their own hands, but just the human tools they had at hand.


Ad hoc solution to this conundrum.

Show up for Tango's public defense, and ask involved questions about their thesis. If Tango can answer these to the satisfaction of the committee members, then they deserve their PhD. If Tango cannot, they fail.

There are precedents for this, e.g. Hendrik Schön or Martin Heidegger.

  • 2
    Interesting idea, but a good bullshitter would fare perfectly adequately in this scenario.
    – Ben
    Commented Mar 17 at 4:44
  • If your institution awards PhD degrees to bullshitters, then all hope is lost, run! Commented Mar 18 at 10:41

We need more information about Tango's current role as well as his scientific background. What does "deputy director" mean at your institute? Is it (1) a technical position equivalent to being a professor or research group leader? Or is it (2) more of a management position suitable for someone with a business/MBA background?

In case (1), Tango almost certainly has a PhD in all but name, and this arrangement that you describe would be unusual, but not unethical. It would just be a way for Tango to finally "formally" get his PhD, while supervising Delta.

For example, imagine that at some point in his later career Freeman Dyson decided, for whatever reason, that he needed a PhD. Would you expect him to go through the same coursework, qualifying exam, work-for-a-supervisor, etc., that a typical PhD student has to do? He would probably just do research as usual (with students as junior collaborators, as usual) and then "officially" submit that to to receive a PhD degree.

In case (2), it would definitely count as exploitation of Delta. If Tango only has the scientific experience of a beginning researcher, then he needs to work to earn his own PhD, regardless of his age and management position.

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