My girlfriend (let's call her Rose), who is a graduate student, got approached by a person of influence in Rose's industry (call her Elizabeth) who is currently working towards her PhD. Elizabeth asked Rose to "help" her write her literature review and she will receive monetary compensation. Rose, wanting to make a good acquaintance with Elizabeth, agreed to "help." Elizabeth asked Rose to write 30(!) pages of literature review -- a "rough draft" -- which Elizabeth will use to write her literature review.

I already told Rose this is unethical behavior. However, Rose doesn't want to burn this bridge. Is there a way for Rose to ethically help Elizabeth? Possibly, in a way that Rose's credentials also grow?

  • 16
    Your question is quite misleading, in that yes, there are ways to receive help on a Ph.D. dissertation, however, the scenario that you propose in your question is most definitely unethical. Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 18:53
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    One has to ask the question: does Rose really want to be tied to someone who engages in unethical behavior? This doesn't sound like a particularly valuable bridge. What does she hope to get out of this relationship?
    – jpmc26
    Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 0:26
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    Is this a bridge that Rose would want to keep unburnt? Imagine working for Elisabeth later, what kind of boss would she be? My opinion is that Rose should walk away. Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 13:35
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    I feel like I'm missing something. How can Elizabeth be a "person of influence" while only getting a PhD (and indeed not doing so very well)? Elizabeth might have influence, but clearly not academic influence. But even industry influence doesn't make sense. Is Elizabeth moonlighting as a CEO while also getting a PhD? There are only 168 hours in a week.
    – user4512
    Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 19:50
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    @ChrisWhite In applied fields, it is not at all uncommon for "persons of influence" to not have a PhD (and, yes, some of them decide to do a PhD at a later stage). For instance, Grace Lewis (sei.cmu.edu/about/people/profile.cfm?id=lewis_15752) is currently in a PhD programme and at the same time a Steering Committee member of ICSOC, a major conference in her field. (I should note that I am sure that this is where the similarities between Grace and "Elisabeth" stop, as I have never experienced Grace as anything but highly ethical)
    – xLeitix
    Commented Jul 2, 2016 at 10:22

6 Answers 6


Your girlfriend could write an independent literature review in the same area that Elizabeth is working. She could publish this and then Elizabeth could use it as a helper with her own literature review. It's still in a gray area, but it's less unethical than being hired to write someone's thesis. Rose would get a publication out of it and Elizabeth would have a citable guide for her thesis's literature review.

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    probably the best route for this particular situation. Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 19:48
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    Only thing is, you have to get accepted or at least have a confirmation that the literature review paper will be published by a certain date to be able to use it and cite accordingly in the PhD Thesis. And we all know how much time certain journals take until they publish anything. By that time, the thesis deadline might be well exceeded..
    – teodron
    Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 8:35
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    Indeed, the best route of an utterly bad selection of routes - the independent literature review has been done specifically with the originator's agenda in mind. It's made to order. This can be ok as a part of a funded research project, but a PhD needs to prove that one can do this work oneself, not that they know how to outsource it. Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 8:52
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    A preprint of the paper can be put up on the web and cited from the PHd, if the published paper is not excepted in time.
    – Ian
    Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 10:56

Elizabeth asked Rose to write 30(!) pages of literature review -- a "rough draft" -- which Elizabeth will use to write her literature review.

Let us all acknowledge the elephant in the room. No, there is no ethical way to handle this, as Elizabeth does not want to handle this ethically. It seems painfully obvious to me that Elizabeth is outsourcing the writing of her dissertation, or at least parts of it, under a thin veil of "help" and "drafting". Given that Elizabeth is giving Rose clear length instructions and everything, I would be surprised if "draft" in this context is anything else than an euphemism for "please write this for me, and I will do some cosmetic changes and hand it in".

Any of the proposed solutions (publishing the material beforehand, claiming authorship of this chapter, ...) will not be accepted by Elizabeth, as it will not accomplish the goal she is rather evidently going for, which is getting her literature review without having to actually write it. Besides, it seems extremely dubious to me that any serious thesis committee will allow some of the proposed solutions (e.g., explicitly having a different author for chapters of a thesis - the reaction of any committee in any university I attended would be between bewilderment and anger if you proposed that).

As such, there are only two ways forward for Rose:

  1. Tell Elizabeth friendly but in no uncertain terms that she cannot do this. She can get a little creative with the reason if she does not want to tell Elizabeth that she finds the proposal unethical, if she must.
  2. Go forward with writing the literature review, but be aware that she is actively involved in a case of academic misconduct, and that there really isn't a way to rationalize this differently.
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    Spot on! The literature review is the starting point (the meaty starting point!) of any dissertation work. It shows you really did your job, got interested in the subject and scrutinized what has been done in the field. How in the world does one expect to be called a "Dr." if they don't even care to know the field they got their PhD in? One cannot trust a person that outsourced the basis of their entire work to someone else.
    – teodron
    Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 8:38
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    A surgeon student asks another student to prepare the instruments, the cuts, do some of the core tasks in their stead. They themselves will clean the wound, do some stitching up etc. Would you want this person to get the license to perform surgeries? I am surprised that people even contemplate that. But then, it's the epoch of outsourcing; a kind of Uber-PhD. Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 8:47
  • Absolutely; it's refreshing to see straightforward ethics on Academia SE every once in a while.
    – user21820
    Commented Jul 3, 2016 at 6:21

The only ethical way I can think of requires three steps from Elizabeth:

  1. checking if the university rules allow such a contribution;
  2. speaking with her adivsor to see if they, too, permit such a contribution, and if they think whether the examination committee might like it or not;
  3. explicitly acknowledging the contribution of Rose in the preface and in the chapter where the literature review appears; for instance,

    1. Introduction

    (§1.5 by Rose)

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    Advisor's permission go out the window if the examination committee doesn't like this.
    – Ketan
    Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 18:56
  • @Ketan Yes, of course, but hopefully the advisor knows if the committee might like it or not. I'll modify the answer in a more stronger form. Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 18:59
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    Regarding (3), I would suggest that in addition to what you suggest, Rose publishes her document online (e.g. arXiv or similar) and a full citation including link is provided in the thesis. Then the committee can judge for themselves how much Elizabeth added on top of Rose's contributions.
    – ff524
    Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 19:14
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    @ff524 Yes, good advice. I suspect, though, that nothing of the above is part of Elizabeth's intentions... Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 19:16

It might be okay if they publish it as a paper as co-authors (or even as a manuscript on arXiv) and this is acknowledged, complete with the author list, in the PhD.

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    Only if both have contributed to the project and both participated in writing it. Given the question, it doesn't sound like this is what Elizabeth had in mind. Giving "gift" co-authorship is unethical. In general, we prefer detailed answers that are accompanied with explanation and/or reasoning; if the answer fits in one sentence, that's often a good indicator that it'd be worth thinking about how to flesh out your reasoning in more detail.
    – D.W.
    Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 4:06
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    I disagree that it would be a gift co-authorship if, as the question claims, the lit review produced by Rose would be a rough draft to be used as source material by the student, Elizabeth. Rose should presumably be the first author, but Elizabeth would also make a significant intellectual contribution. Of course, we could read between the lines and guess that the question is being over-generous about Elizabeth's actual contribution, but I was taking it at face value. Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 4:36
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    If all the work of finding and analyzing and synthesizing prior literature is done by Rose and then Rose writes a rough draft and then Elizabeth edits it... that sounds a bit sketchy/borderline to make Elizabeth a co-author. It's possible it could be made to work, and I realize it all depends on the details of how the "collaboration" actually works, but I think your answer needs more careful disclaimers about what's needed to ensure this approach will be ethical.
    – D.W.
    Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 4:47

Almost anything can be ethical if it's done openly and honestly and nobodies contribution is misrepresented to anyone involved.

If Elizabeth makes it absolutely clear to anyone judging the thesis exactly what has come from Rose and in what context then there's no ethical breach.

There could however still be a breach of rules since the rules can still forbid this kind of "help" from third parties for a thesis.

The difference between a breach of ethics vs a breach of rules is important since it can mean the difference between a simple "fail" or rejection for including too much material from a 3rd party or in breach of some rule vs being investigated for grossly unethical behavior. One is actively attempting to mislead someone, the other is just screwing up.

If Rose were certain that Elizabeth was going to be open and honest then there would be no ethical issue for Rose, it would be up to Elizabeth to make sure that everything fit the rules of her institution but practically speaking given the context Rose should reasonably expect that perfect disclosure may not be what Elizabeth plans.

Hypothetically if Rose were to provide this "help" in a context where it seems unlikely that Elizabeth will act perfectly ethically it would be fair to also consider Rose's actions unethical and it may reflect badly on her if the situation came to light.

If Elizabeth has no problem with Rose meeting with, say, her advisor/supervisor and/or someone else senior from her institution and discussing how it will work then it may be ok.

Otherwise run a mile.


While completely agreeing with xLetix's answer (Elizabeth doesn't want to do this ethically), here are two practical options which don't give Elizabeth all of what she wants:

  1. Tell instead of write: Rose offers Elizabeth to coach her on the literature and previous work in the field - to have one-on-one sessions explaining what's been done. A sort of private tutoring.
  2. Presentation, not review: Instead of writing a 30-page literature review, Rose creates a long(ish) presentation in Beamer/Powerpoint/LO Presentation about the state of the art.
  3. No access to text: Write the review, but only allow Elizabeth to read it, not to get a copy of it. So ELizabeth would still have to write her own survey, from memory regarding the survey prepared by someone else.

This is all a bit borderline ethically, still, so I would not actually recommend it unles a gun is being put to your head, metaphorically speaking.

  • I don't see how this is significantly more ethical than simply handing in the review. Should Elisabeth not be able to answer questions about the review during her defence and admit she was helped by Rose, it wouldn't matter much whether the help was written or oral. Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 11:02
  • @DmitryGrigoryev: The point is Elizabeth would not be able to submit her literature review without writing it herself, even if it's based on what Rose has done. She would need to invest effort on her own - and would then probably be able to answer questions.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 11:44

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