Authorship- who has actually written the dissertation?

For many research degree candidates, the skills of writing a dissertation are not innate. They are acquired across the course of the research student’s candidature, using a predominant learning model that involves the research student providing samples of their academic writing to their research supervisor and receiving feedback on them. This feedback both advances the research student’s understanding of this genre of writing and of the criteria by which their dissertation will be examined.

This practice of giving feedback has its provenance in the Master and Apprentice relationships of the medieval guilds, predecessors to the Medieval universities, and in pedagogue relationships from Ancient Greece. Although contemporary universities have embraced research supervision models that include multiple supervisors for a single student, multiple students for a single supervisor, and the supervisor and student located in different geography and connected only by technology, the nature of the relationship between supervisor and student has remained consistent, and relies on a dialogue between the supervisor and their student. Part of this dialogue is the provision of feedback. As I have elaborated in a separate blog, different types of feedback serves different purposes in advancing a research student’s writing ability.

Feedback on a student’s writing is proffered predominantly as comments written on the text that has been provided by the research student. While some supervisors will provide feedback orally, it is generally felt that written feedback provides a record of the teaching such that a student can later read and contemplate the comments from their supervisor. The written feedback also provides an audit trail of the advice a research supervisor has provided for their student.

While in the past, some research students may have complained about the legibility of comments written on their dissertation drafts, new advances in technology now provide both electronic forms of writing and the facility to electronically make comments on that writing. Two tools come to mind when I think about providing comments on student’s work.

The track change facility is one writing device which facilitates discussion about the text and feedback from a reader to the author of a text. It allows a reader to suggest changes in the text so that the writer can read these comments and accept them or make new alterations. The electronic facility provides for an historic record of what has been written back to the original text.

The comment function similarly facilitates feedback giving, and allows a comment, often likened to a sticky label note, to be inserted into the text, to make a comment about that specific piece of text. This note appears in the subsequent electronic versions of the document and when printed out can appear either in the margin or at the end of the text.

Both tools enable a reader of the text to make comment on the text. I would argue that they serve different purposes and that track changes is suitable for readers working as co-authors while the comment function is suitable for a reader providing feedback to another author, without an intent for the reader to be recognised as a co-author.

When two or more authors are working together, the final document will acknowledge all authors and as such is the effort of their joint work. In the case of a dissertation, the work is intended to be the sole effort of the research student and (except for dissertations which are multiple publications) only acknowledges the single author. Where a research supervisor has used track changes and has changed the text, it can be argued that this is a case of them writing the text and as such tampering with the effort of the sole author. Should the research student simply accept the changes without considering why the changes have been made, it begs the question about the authorship of the work.

That is not to say that using the comment function avoids this sort of problem. Within the comment function a research supervisor can suggest rewording of a sentence and a student can simply copy and paste the rewording over the original. The difference for me is that the comment function requires some decision making on behalf of the student in order for them to undertake the change.

Feedback giving is for me the ultimate form of teaching associated with learning academic writing. I therefore see the comment function as an opportunity to open up a discussion with the student about a range of issues associated with their academic writing and the particular genre of academic writing in which they are working. When it comes to a single sentence not making sense to a reader, there is a difference between correcting that sentence and pointing out what the problem is with the sentence. The later requires that the research supervisor has knowledge about grammar so that they can describe the particular writing problem which they believe lies at the heart of what they see as the problematic piece of text. The supervisor and student can then discuss ways in which the problem could be rectified.

Not every research supervisor has come into their craft with exposure to the range of grammatical issues associated with writing. Some have had the benefit of a research supervisor who is particularly gifted in that area and so have benefited from receiving this type of feedback before they then adopt the practice into their own supervision. While there are adequate writing texts, some writing programs also provide assistance. The Word program that I use for my own writing has both a spell check and a grammar check, and while the spelling sometimes suggests a word is inaccurate when my Australian dictionary tells me it is correct, the grammar comments will often lead me into new realms of understanding text and remembering or discovering some of the rules of grammar from primary years.

Adopting this style of feedback giving may take some time and reading of grammar texts and it is acquired over time. Each time you read and comment on a student’s work you build up your own repertoire of comments that help explain writing and dissertation problems.


About the (research) supervisor's friend

I work at a university helping university academics who are supervising research students. I am a research supervisor myself and also work as a research coach for people undertaking their research I was originally in a Management Faculty and when I completed my doctoral studies on 'doing a doctorate' I started working with research supervisors to help them improve their practice.
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