Proof of the PhD is not in the reading

August 17, 2007

The purpose of the 21st- century doctoral degree has changed, says Alistair McCulloch.

Two research students are studying for PhDs under the same supervisor. Both are preparing to submit. One asks a friend to proofread his thesis before submission. The other hires a professional to do the same job. Each tells the supervisor what he or she has done. She must then decide whether to report the second student under the new university regulation outlawing professional proofreaders.

This scenario is not far-fetched. A recent survey by Joanne Cooke of De Montfort University's research office found that a number of institutions are actively considering introducing such policies.

There seems to be a general distaste for the use of professional proofreaders by research students. This is misplaced and ignores two important issues - the purpose of the doctoral degree at the beginning of the 21st century and equity between students.

The nature of the PhD has changed fundamentally over the past 25 years. When its purpose was the production of a thesis, it was reasonable to expect the student to have undertaken all the work that went into it. But now that its purpose is to demonstrate that the candidate is a trained researcher, this is no longer necessary.

Trained researcher - that is, those who exhibit all the transferable skills required of today's research student - should be able to identify an original question and a robust way of addressing it. They should be able to put together a bid for external funding to secure the resources to undertake the research, organise the work itself and associated necessary activities and disseminate the results in a form that is suitable for academic publication. This is what we expect academic staff to be able to do, but we no longer expect them to be able to do all this alone. We provide them with research assistance, help to develop funding bids and, increasingly, with expert staff to check those applications. We also encourage them to have colleagues both from inside their university and around the world to read drafts of their work before publication. Put simply, we expect trained researchers to be able to manage a process.

Why should we expect more of our research students? If we are using PhD study to train researchers, we should expect candidates to be able to organise resources in such a way as to produce appropriately high-quality outputs, not necessarily to undertake all aspects of the work themselves. Employing a proofreader is analogous to a student using paid assistance to input empirical data, or using samples collected by other people, neither of which we would object to.

The second part of my argument, on equity, relates to the ability of different types of student to access assistance. My own experience is relevant. I obtained my PhD and then, in the years after, my wife studied for hers. Before submitting my thesis, I had it proofread twice by a secondary-school English teacher I knew. Before my wife submitted her thesis, I proofread it. I was by that time a professor. I'm fairly professional at editing, and the teacher who read my thesis was certainly a professional in the use of English. What my wife and I did was acceptable.

However, hiring a professional proofreader would have been frowned on. What seems to be at stake here is not whether the proofreader does it in a professional way, but whether he or she is paid to do it.

All supervisors encourage students to get others - their peers, academics, even family members - to read their work. This is fine if the individual has easily accessible contacts, with good English, to call on.

But students who are British, popular or outgoing are much more likely to have such connections than counterparts who are from overseas, unpopular or shy.

Legislating against the right of all students to call upon professional proofreaders is likely to have a differential impact. Sensible students will always get someone else to read their theses before submission. Some will pay, others will not, and in practice, little can be done to prevent it. If institutions seek to regulate proofreading, what is actually being objected to is the "professionalisation" of the PhD. Regulation would be an attempt to maintain its status as an "amateur" activity, a truly class-based British approach reminiscent of the old cricketing distinction between "gentlemen" and "players". The key issue is whether "proofreading" is all that's being done, or whether the thesis is written by someone other than the candidate. And that is why we have a viva.

Alistair McCulloch is dean of research and knowledge transfer at Edge Hill University and a member of the executive committee of the UK Council for Graduate Education. He writes in a personal capacity.

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