Monday, April 15, 2013

Open/Closed, Part II

Despite my best effort to relocate the conversation to a digital venue that is more conducive to longer-form discussion, it continues on Twitter:

And once again, I have more to say in response than can fit into a reasonable number of tweets:

Don't get me wrong. I have no illusions that the American academy is squeaky clean. Every once in a while we have a college admissions officer resign because of having falsified a CV.* I mean, hell, I even have an academic, not administrative, colleague who falsifies her CV and is pretty darn cavalier about it. And just look at the sex-and-hiring scandal unfolding at my own dear alma mater.*

But I also wonder whether (overall and notwithstanding these exceptions, none of which actually has to do with a plagiarized dissertation) there isn't less incentive to cheat in some way in a doctoral dissertation here because it's nothing but an academic credential. We don't have, by and large, politicians who hold PhDs. In fact, people with "too much" education pretty much don't' stand a chance in politics. When Barack Obama was running for his first term in 2008, the fact that he had taught at the Chicago law school was a liability for him in certain circles.*

At least in the humanities, you don't get anything but entrance into the academy with your PhD. (Though there is starting to be talk about how this could or should change.*) And so if you're the sort of person who's going to do a PhD, it's because you value what it stands for and because it's exactly the kind of work you want to spend your life doing. I suspect that if our system tolerated scholar-statesmen, that is, if politicians could derive some benefit from having a PhD, things might be different.

As it is, the academy is and sees itself as the only bastion of intellectualism in this country. It shouldn't be that way, but it is. And given that position, I think its members and participants (the vast majority of the ones I know and all of the ones I respect, anyway) see it as their responsibility to uphold basic standards.  In Part I of this conversation (that's really turning into more of a monologue) I suggested that my interlocutor was operating with an idealistic view of things. And perhaps this is where I am being idealistic about the realities on the ground. But this is how I see it.

*I'll try to update these with links later.


  1. My American university doesn't have a dissertation embargo option, it just goes straight into UMI. I do consider dissertations publications, although I would never choose to read someone's dissertation over their articles/book on the assumption that the latter will be better developed and more concise.

  2. Huh. I had assumed that the embargo option was universal because it was just a tick-box on the UMI form that I had to file along with my other paperwork. There must be different versions of the form; or is it possible you didn't think or know to look for that option? In any event, my point really just was that I don't want some random guy tweeting about my dissertation, I know I"m not the only person out there with that preference, and given the limitations of the literary form, I don't think that's an unreasonable request. The almost-mock horror from the Germans was more than I was expecting.

  3. I'll just add, Shedding, because I'd been wanting to mention this all along and you'll understand, that in my grad program, faculty always told us "this is just your ijazah." For me and my cohort, the diss was never seen as a publication or as a final thing and more just a license to practice. And now having seen job searches from both sides, the impression that I have is that there are some unis that see it that way, and tend to hire people from like-minded institutions, and some that see it more the way that your program did, and hire people, again, from the like-minded places.

    But really... "Is their PhD regarded as existent?" Sheesh!

  4. There is no embargo option at my university (I looked after a friend at another university mentioned it, out of curiosity). The UMI options depend on the agreement your university has with them. Both my university and my program consider the dissertation more if a beginning than an end, but for me this is why the embargo isn't important--any subsequent publications will be different (and hopefully better) than my dissertation.

  5. I know this comment comes late, but I hope it does not come too late. (BTW: I'm hckGGREN over there at twitter.)

    Unfortunately #plagiarism is not a "politicians only" behaviour. We have more than enough such cases in academia too: see Volker RIEBLE's "Das Wissenschaftsplagiat : Von Versagen eines Systems" (Frankfurt am Main 2010, mainly on German jurisprudence) and in my own field the case of Martin Stone (;start=all ).

    My fear is that fraud will be committed by some if they see a chance to commit it without being found out; and the chances that plagiarism (or other types of fraud) will be detected are greater for published texts (potentially) seen and examined by both the dissertation committee and the colleagues in the field than for texts visible to the dissertation committee only.
    This is one of the reasons why we here demand that PhD theses are published. The other reasons is that PhDs are awarded to scholars; and scholars should be generous, and hence publish their findings/results.

    And, yes, of course any reader should take into account the genre of the item read.

    re: "
    But really... "Is their PhD regarded as existent?" Sheesh!
    We here have "must have a PhD" as (quasi) the only "inflexible" requirement for applicants to a professorship. Now: if an applicant comes from an institution the standards for granting a PhD we do not know (or accept already for formal reasons), and hence do not now whether the applicant's PhD is "equivalent" to one of ours: we'll try to find out by having a look at the applicant's thesis. If we can't have a look at the applicant's thesis because it is not published, well, ahem, yes, there *is* quite some room (and reason, IMO) to ask "Is this PhD to be regarded as existent?". Sorry.

  6. I hope you've not gotten the impression that there are *no* external checks here, even when a dissertation is embargoed. Certainly when applying for jobs, the dissertation (or a good part of it) is submitted as part of the dossier, and this is also the case when applying for grants, fellowships, external funding, etc. So people do see it even when there is not wide distribution. And people do write and ask for a copy of the dissertation; the difference is that in sending it to one person to share results, the author can lay out a set of caveats, explaining the ways and extent to which it will be improved for the published version (with publication here not being as automatic here and certainly never of an unrevised MS).

    In any event, my understanding is that within Germany, no foreign PhD is considered equivalent, regardless of whether the dissertation is available or not, so perhaps that's an unmeetable standard in any case.

  7. Concerning your first paragraph: Thanks for the clarification! Now I can sleep withought nightmares. [:-)] (I had - wrongly - assumed that an "embargoed" thesis would be completely invisible to everybody before the end of the embargo period.)

    Concerning your second paragraph: We accept any EU PhD as equivalent (sometimes just because we have to), and we accept USA PhDs available via UMI as equivalent, and we accept Swiss PhDs as equivalent. I guess that in most other cases a committee might want to have a look at the thesis (even if it's old) to form an opinion.