Gold standard of PhD ‘under threat’, professors claim

Debate sparked by criticism of growth of PhDs by publication, and allegations that corruption and nepotism are undermining the reliability of the academic doctorate

March 14, 2019
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Academics have provoked debate by claiming that increased pressure to pass substandard candidates, nepotism and the rise of the “PhD by prior publication” are endangering the doctorate’s reputation as the “gold standard” of academia.

In a scathing critique of PhD practices worldwide, David Alexander and Ian Davis, from UCL and Oxford Brookes University, said that “corruption”, “negligence” and other failings “risk causing quality to be compromised”.

The pair are particularly concerned by the increasing prevalence of the practice of awarding a PhD on the basis of prior publications, arguing that it is “fraught with risk” and often sees “slightly different versions of the same work” submitted in lieu of a thesis.

The PhD candidate is often only “one of numerous authors and has not had a dominant role in the writing of the paper”, they have claimed.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Professor Alexander, professor of risk and disaster reduction at UCL, said that he had “misgivings” about the so-called “staff doctorate”, which is mostly used by academics to gain a PhD while working.

“I recently examined a ‘thesis’ with six papers in it and only two were published in kosher peer-reviewed journals,” he said, adding that all six articles were “minor variations of the same, rather limited argument”.

Professor Alexander added that a recent PhD examination, conducted by correspondence regarding a candidate in Australia, where there are no vivas, finished with the question: “Is the candidate good enough to pass?”

“I wrote that ‘if [your standards] are slightly below rock bottom, the candidate is good enough,” he said, adding that the candidate was “passed for the PhD immediately”.

Professor Alexander said that a good PhD thesis composed of published papers was possible, but it should have “at least four or five major, single-authored articles in it, all of them in leading peer-reviewed journals” and “a strong, 50-page introduction that provided a guide to how the papers tightly fitted together”.

About three-quarters of universities surveyed by the UK Council for Graduate Education in 2015 offered PhDs incorporating prior publication, although the traditional thesis route remained most popular.

However, Rosemary Deem, dean of Royal Holloway, University of London’s doctoral school, rejected the notion that PhDs by publication should be a cause for alarm.

“I took my PhD at The Open University in this way and, alongside a long piece written specifically for it, I had nine single-authored publications and a book,” said Professor Deem, who added that this format can “often show a much higher level of engagement with a discipline than a normal thesis”.

In a recent paper in Quality Assurance in Education, Professor Alexander and Professor Davis also claim that “nepotism” within universities, where PhD students are employed by their university or are married to staff members, and “corruption” involving insufficiently independent external examiners, were eroding standards.

But Professor Deem argued that these concerns were also “exaggerated”. When staff candidates are supervised by a colleague, it is normal to have two external examiners, she said.

“I do not dispute that we need to keep an eye on these issues, but there are regulations and I’m not convinced the system is as rotten as they make out,” she said.

The authors also flag other instances where advice to fail PhD students was ignored either at appeal or “summarily” and how many supervisors selected external examiners who “can be relied upon to yield to pressure to pass the candidate regardless of the quality of the thesis. When a student has paid very high fees for three or four years, there may be pressure to justify the expenditure by passing the thesis,” they state.

Chris Cowton, professor of financial ethics at the University of Huddersfield, was unconvinced by this argument, but said that the authors were right to raise the issue of “cliques and reciprocal examining practices”, in which supervisors seek out “people who they think will give candidates an easy time” and then themselves return the favour.

“It can be tricky because often there are not many academics in particular topics, but I don’t think we pick up on reciprocality enough,” said Professor Cowton, who added, however, that “cosiness between examiners” was worse decades ago when universities collected less data on this area.

Bruce Christianson, emeritus professor at the University of Hertfordshire’s Centre for Computer Science and Informatics, who led UKCGE’s review of PhDs by publication in 2015, said that there were “good reasons to encourage candidates to ‘publish as they go’, especially in STEM disciplines”, adding that there is a “huge opportunity cost [for requiring] students to spend a large chunk of time rewriting their outputs into a monograph-style dissertation that will not be widely read”.

“When papers replace a monograph like this, the way the viva is handled becomes even more important: examiners need to verify the candidate’s contribution, and their understanding,” added Professor Christianson, who called for “a more open process than it has traditionally been in the UK, for example by allowing attendance by other members of the department, as is common on the continent”.


Print headline: Reliability of PhD is under threat, warn professors

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Reader's comments (5)

Many of the criticisms are valid, but who knows in how many cases? It is best to see the PhD as part of a whole range of hoops and hurdles and evaluations, including participation in conferences, publication, teaching. These are relevant if a person remains in the academic field. The greater risk to institutions' reputation is when people brandish a PhD certificate in places where all this contextual information is unavailable and, having obtained a PhD by dubious procedures then take advantage in far-flung places, exploiting local ignorance.
I'm doing a staff PhD, but by research rather than prior publication, and my supervisor is pushing me just as hard as any 'regular' student... and I love it. When I get it, that PhD will be just as valid as anyone else's, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
I hope the thesis is not dead yet, being just about to submit mine. I agree with m.robertson8 I have been stretched way beyond what I thought I could do by a good supervisor and I enjoyed it immensely.
Standards of publications and what constitutes a good PhD vary quite significantly by discipline. Speaking about what I know, In AI/computer science, there are almost no paper with a single author on it, and certainly not PhD students. Most papers are published in competitive conferences with less than 30% acceptance rate. A single acceptance at a conference like NeurIPS or ICML per PhD is quite good already. It takes so long (>2 years sometimes) for journal papers to be accepted that we cannot require them for PhDs. I can say with confidence that I have never seen a PhD in AI/CS with 5 single-author good journal papers at defence/viva time. This is physically not possible in the 3 years of the European PhD funding (H2020 INT funding is 36 months). In mathematics (my 2nd field) it is possible ot achieve this, because there are no experimental requirements, papers can be short, and the field is boundless. Everyone is doing something unique, so reviewers pretty much only need to check that the paper is correct (which is not always easy to do !) PhD is a degree, no longer a gateway to an academic career. We still require a significant contribution to award the degree. I don't think the standards have slipped in recent years in my discipline, on the contrary.
I dispute the premise here that there is something fundamentally wrong in principle with doing a phd this route. In my experience as an External Examiner of normal route PhDs the standard can be appalling and there is alot of pressure to persuade the EE to pass it. Appalling especially because of choice of question/topic which is often irrelevant or way too idiosyncratic, or methodologically suspect. I feel the whole peer review process of external examining is not robust and is in some cases actually borderline corrupt, and the threshold for passing is way too low. There are far too many PhDs, far too many supervisors who are not experts in the field and who are unable to make a judgement call early on that the thesis is not good enough. This may be a social sciences perspective only.


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