An ethical issue

A few weeks ago, I was asked to act as an external referee for a PhD thesis. This thesis involved some improvement upon standard statistical methodology and applications to another field. When I eventually got the PhD document, I discovered that it started with a preface (written by the PhD student) containing claims that the student’s work has been used by co-workers, incl. the PhD supervisor, and published in a refereed journal without the student’s name nor agreement, but also with some fabricated data… This was quite a shock as I had not been made aware of this super-delicate issue a priori. And I had not information on the published piece of work,  which seemed to be in the other field (I have not been able to find it since then). When I complained to the university, I got transferred to the dean of graduate studies, who almost immediately withdrew the demand for a PhD evaluation [by me]…

I find the whole affair quite bizarre. and somewhat perturbating. Indeed, when I recontacted the university to mention my concerns, I got the following [edited and possibly translated] email

As I’m sure you can appreciate, this is an unusual case. [We were] not able to alert you to this when nominating you as  examiners, as it is important that we follow our University process and allow examiners to reach independent conclusions as to the value of the work before them.  [We are] bound by our PhD Statute and would be prejudicing the examination  process if [we] provided additional information to examiners. [We] would also be providing a route for the candidate to appeal the outcome of the examination process.

This does not make any sense to me given that any referee of this thesis is going to hit the same case when reading the first pages of the thesis… Either the PhD student should remove this complaint from the PhD document (but this does not seem right, given that there is a published paper containing some of the results claimed in the thesis, even though referees from Statistics are very unlikely to be aware of it, as, again, I could not find the corresponding paper), or the whole information should be provided to the referees of the thesis so that they can judge the matter in full light… I do not see how I could pursue the matter any further, but the whole story left me feeling quite uncomfortable.

2 Responses to “An ethical issue”

  1. Radford Neal Says:

    This is indeed bizarre.

    The only way asking you for an evaluation of the thesis makes any sense is if you are to evaluate the thesis conditional on the truth of the student’s claim that the other published work is plagarised and fabricated. You obviously are in no position to assess whether that claim is true, regardless of how much other information they sent you. I would have thought that they would make clear that that is what they are expecting.

    Of course, the university in question and the journal that published the paper ought to be investigating this claim. I would have thought that the actual awarding of a PhD would have to wait for this, since if the student’s claim is false, and the research was actually done by these other people, it obviously undermines their thesis.

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