Friday, November 10, 2017

The Collaborative Dissertation

Soooo many authors...
Yesterday, I completed the drudgery that is teaching undergraduates how to cite their references in APA format. As we went through all the little details, commas here, periods there, I found myself marveling at how many papers had multiple authors. I always knew this to be the case for papers in the sciences and social sciences, but as I wrote all those names and "et als" out on the board I thought, "Why are scientists expected to write their own solo dissertations? None of these people are writing alone!"

Writing the dissertation can be the loneliest time in an academic's life. In the case of the humanities, it actually does reflect much of the work we will do once we get a job someday (please, please, please...). But in the case of the hard and soft sciences, that isn't so. Researchers in the fields most often work in teams. The American Sociological Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science both offer extensive articles and blog posts on collaborating. Everyone is doing it!

So it seems that no one person can or should handle all the moving parts of a major experiment, be it conducting gene therapy on mice, or surveying survivors of assault. Science and social science require objectivity. Placing an experimental project meant to add original material to scientific discourse -- dissertations must be original contributions -- into the hands of an amateur scientist (the doctoral student), no matter how brilliant, seems like a recipe for existential and experimental trouble. Results could be compromised and things could be overlooked or fall through the cracks, when a researcher has to plan it all, do it all, document it all, and write it all up.

More importantly, for the students' sake, placing such a weight on the individual is not indicative of, or good training for, collaborative work that they will eventually engage in. It does them a disservice to expect such a strangely isolated project of them, at a time in their lives when pressure is high, pay is low, and finishing the project is the only thing that lies between them and their career. Weathering this experience as a team, or even as a partnership, could make it far more bearable and fruitful.

Looking at tissue cultures is more
fun with friends!
This is not to say that every science dissertation writer is actually going it all alone. Certainly, collaborative research feeds into students' dissertations and into professors' papers all the time. But no one but the writer is given top billing. Usually, only one student gets the Ph.D. for that dissertation. And where does that leave the others who put long days and nights into the scientific work that created it? Should working on other students' doctoral research grant a junior grad student a master's degree? Or should senior students simply plan and execute the entire project together, as equals?

A search for collaborative dissertations comes up thin. They are catching on in education, where all kinds of collaboration are non-competitive, daily occurrences (give me that lesson plan, eh?). Collaborative dissertations are, according to a 2015 paper, a "disruption" in composition studies. This is odd considering Comp teachers are teachers too. And in the sciences, the co-authored diss is still highly uncommon. However, some researchers and universities hope to change this.

NIU Chemistry students make one of
their colleagues disappear.
In 2014, two students at Saybrook University completed an important study on diabetes -- together! -- as their dissertation.  The dual-authored document is a far better model and far better practice for writing scientific papers for publication. Charlene Conlin and Carlene Phelps offer some awesome insight into the basic requirements of doing such work as a team:

  • Mutual agreement on what the researchers intend for their dissertation, both in process and in outcome.
  • Ego minimization when necessary to achieve the greater good.
  • Organization in the form of intentions, goals, and timelines.
  • Resiliency in the form of drive to keep going until both get to the finish line. (It seems particularly important to have someone else relying on to you to get done!)

You can read the rest of their advice and more about their study here.

Why collaborative dissertations have not caught on, seventeen years into this new millennium, I can't say. We've rethought every kind of document we create, from music to film to the news. But we still think of a dissertation as a monolithic monograph and a rite of passage, rather than a learning opportunity that will prepare students, especially those in the sciences, for a long life of collaborative work and collaborative writing. Why do you think we cling so tightly to an outdated dissertation model?

For more on the future of the dissertation, keep reading!

"I'm not sticking my hands in there unless someone else does it first!"

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