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Who is liable for errors found in Ph.D. thesis?

By Wole Oladapo
20 April 2022   |   2:38 am
In many countries, there have been mounting complaints about the quality of recent Ph.Ds as there are about the quality of their theses.

In many countries, there have been mounting complaints about the quality of recent Ph.Ds as there are about the quality of their theses.

In this writing, I address only the latter. It is quite convenient to blame the student/candidate alone for the errors found in his or her Ph.D. thesis. But if the process that produces a PhD is worth anything, the candidate alone cannot be justly held liable for the errors in most situations.

Here is my short answer to the question: to the degree of involvement, everyone who plays a quality control role in the process that leads to the award of a PhD should be liable for the errors found in a Ph.D. thesis. I write on the assumption that Ph.D. supervisors and others involved in graduating Ph.D. candidates are aware of their roles as quality gatekeepers, although ignorance of this is not even an excuse.

There is no controversy that a Ph.D. candidate is responsible for the errors found in his or her thesis. Given their level of involvement in the thesis, supervisors as well cannot morally absolve themselves of liability for the errors found in the thesis they supervise. Just as successful Ph.D. supervision is counted as supervisors’ achievement, failure of the theses they supervise should as well be counted as their failure. While it is not practicable to expect that a supervisor be involved 100 per cent in the data collection, analysis, and writing process, the supervisor’s knowledge of the field, familiarity with the research context, and visibility in the subject area are a lot of resources for spotting errors at various stages of the thesis lifecycle. A supervisor is expected to be familiar with major scholars, seminal and key works, theories, methods, and even journals in the subject area, as the familiarity is what qualifies him or her in the first place to supervise the thesis.

Contrary to the ideal I describe above, in my few years of examining Ph.D. thesis from initial to final stage, I have witnessed a case where the supervisor knew more about the thesis than the Ph.D. candidate appeared to, and another where the supervisor appeared outright ignorant of the focus of the thesis he or she claimed to have supervised. I consider this a bigger problem than catching errors. If we can address why this is sometimes the situation, perhaps we will reduce the possibility of consequential errors in Ph.D. theses.

In the University of Ibadan, one major quality control measure is appointment of a co-supervisor when the main supervisor is not familiar with an aspect of a student’s research. This is mostly the case when the research is multidisciplinary in nature. The co-supervisor then becomes a quality check for that aspect of the research that necessitates his or her involvement in the supervision. If errors related to subject area knowledge are found in the Ph.D. thesis written under such a supervision arrangement, the supervisors should be held responsible alongside the candidate.

Besides candidates, supervisors, and co-supervisors, there are other quality gate keepers in the Ph.D. process.

Thesis/exam/seminar committee, different graduate school committees, and external examiner, where applicable, are all quality gate keepers. Strictly speaking, their job is to ensure that a thesis reflects adherence to the quality measures stipulated by the local university and global academic and research community for the award of a Ph.D. Since each and everyone of them is rewarded for the role they play in the process, it does not matter how poorly, they should be punished for infractions that occur due to their negligence. Members of thesis/examination/viva committee are recruited because they are familiar with the research subject or a technical aspect of research such as data analysis and methodology.

As done in the University of Ibadan, each member of the committee reads a draft of the thesis and submits a report. A thesis is scheduled for final defence only if the examiners explicitly recommend in their reports that the thesis is worth examining. While they might not have access to the original data that inform the thesis being examined, to the extent of their familiarity with the research context, content, or other technical areas, they should be able to sense it when some parts of the thesis are not what they are expected to be. To the extent that they attest to the quality of the Ph.D. thesis in their reports, other members of the panel or committee of examiners too should be held severally liable for the errors found in a Ph.D. thesis.

Nevertheless, the candidate bears the cross where it is heaviest. This is especially the case when department, institute, or postgraduate college does its part in teaching Ph.D. candidates acceptable research and writing standard practices through course work, seminars, and training workshops, and by providing them access to useful resources such as library and librarian services, literature databases, data management and analysis software; plagiarism and content similarity checkers; and source documentation and referencing software. A student who is granted access to such resources has no justification for either the ignorance or the slovenliness that produces a bad Ph.D. thesis.

Inasmuch as the system expects a Ph.D. thesis to make an original contribution to knowledge, no matter how little, it does not expect a Ph.D. student to turn an expert overnight. If at all, a Ph.D. student is expected to be an expert in just only one area, and that area is learning, constant and continuous learning. A Ph.D. student will have to continue to update his or her knowledge of research, data analysis, research writing, source documentation and referencing, among many others, to be able to avoid dangerous pitfalls along the way. Things change so fast in major aspects of knowledge production these days. Without staying a learner, a Ph.D. student is likely to be more susceptible to errors with career-damaging consequences.

Finally, I think our concerns should be about preventing the possibility of fundamental errors in a Ph.D. thesis, and not spotting such errors or finding who is responsible for them post mortem. If all quality gate keepers do their jobs, the candidate alone should be liable for the errors found in a Ph.D. thesis. However, fundamental errors can only be found in a Ph.D. thesis, especially post-defence, when other quality gate keepers too, like the candidate does, fail to do their jobs as they ought to. Sadly, existing systems in some universities hardly address the negligence on the part of those other quality gate keepers. It is that negligence that has made it an abomination for a Ph.D. defence to fail, no matter how horrible the quality of the thesis or how appalling the degree of ignorance of the thesis the candidate displays at the defence – if a Ph.D. defence fails around here these days, it is most likely that either the candidate or the supervisor is made a scapegoat. They ignore all quality red flags just to make up for their failure to do their jobs as expected of them, or for other transactional reasons. Should a thesis passed under such a criminal compromise be later found to contain unpardonable errors, I strongly believe that everyone involved in the process that produces it should be liable, not just the candidate and the supervisors. They all are parties to the errors, again, to the level of their involvement in the process.

Going forward, right from the outset, each and every gate keeper should be made aware of the degree of his or her responsibility for errors found in a Ph.D. thesis. Eventually, if such errors are found, all quality gate keepers should be jointly and severally liable for the errors. And there should be consequences for bad behaviours that compromise the quality of Ph.Ds, consequences that are no respecter of anybody. Those misbehaviours drag in the mud the reputation of universities, make a nonsense of the highest academic degree attainable, and question the credentials of universities as world knowledge gate keepers. Admittedly, some wicked errors might escape the vigilance of the strongest gate keepers. In such a situation, the existence of a vigilant gate keeping system and its precedents in dealing with such errors might serve as a mitigation, but I doubt if it will be sufficient as a defence. Therefore, universities must strive to model for society an unimpeachable level of integrity in all they do, including the degrees they award. After all, it is a Ph.D. of the university, and not of the candidate, supervisors, or any other party to its award.

Wole Oladapo wrote from the University of Ibadan.