I finished my PhD recently. In the last few days before submitting, I made over 400 corrections. It turns out I had never properly proofread my thesis at the time I submitted it in a rush. My supervisor hasn’t read my full thesis and my examiners didn’t pick up on that many things (but wanted some quite annoying “administrative” changes to make). I was already working so I procrastinated for a whole month not doing my final revisions and in the end realizing I had an unreal amount of work left to do in just a week. In a way, this was a testament to the power of procrastination because I totally achieved what I thought was impossible. Though it did take me a whole week to recover from that effort. Ultimately it’s inevitable that every thesis will have several mistakes, but I’m so glad that there are 400 less inaccuracies (about 2-3 per page) than I might have left in there.
I just wanna take this chance to moan about how it’s literally impossible to do two things properly: referencing and permissions for reusing images. Freaking references. I’m pretty sure no one knows how to do them correctly, and even if people could really agree on the correct interpretation of the rules, it would still be practically impossible. As an example, there are semi-well-known conferences that don’t have a proper online records. You might need to cite a paper from that conference but there are five different variations of its title/subtitle. Even if you know what you’re meant to be doing, every online database has a different record of those conference proceedings and there’s no way to verify which is correct. Heck, sometimes you can’t even find out where the conference took place!
Getting permissions for reusing other people’s images was almost nightmarish for me. I wrongly assumed that I could use images under fair use and I also didn’t keep a record of where I adapted my images from. Anyhow, there’s so many things to think about if you want to do things by the book, and frankly it’s not worth it. The goal instead is to put in enough work to protect yourself probabilistically. Here’s an example where you’re technically breaching copyright even though you’ve done your due diligence. You saw a nice image in a journal paper with two authors. The policy for this journal is for authors to hand over copyright to them, so it seems you can just ask the journal for reprint permissions (usually a fast, painless, and automated process) and then you can reuse the image as long as you reference it correctly and use the acknowledgement message they requested. Although this seems like the right thing to do, it doesn’t mean you’re safe.
What if the author had published that image in an earlier conference paper and neglected to make that acknowledgement in the journal paper? (Because no one knows to do that…) So technically, you, the journal, and the author themself have all done things improperly, and it’s the authors fault. Does the fact that the author was sloppy mean you can’t be fined for their mistake? There are also weird traps to do with different copyright laws with different countries. For example, one can argue that figures that simply plot data are not copyrightable in the US. So if a non-US citizen publishes in a US journal, the author may unknowingly retain copyright if plots are copyrightable in their country. So there are times when you should ask the author, times when you should ask the journal, and times when you’d have to look up every single publication an author made to try and track down when they first published an image that everyone else is reusing without permission anyway.
Things I probably should have done differently
I don’t really have many regrets yet, not because things went smoothly or anything but more because I’m trying to just forget about everything. I’ve definitely been bracing myself for the inevitable PTSD that often comes with a PhD. Anyhow:
- I wish I had been more aggressive with asking my supervisor for funding. It really wouldn’t have hurt to do this and there’s no shame in wanting money that’s available.
- I wish I had known from the start that I needed to obtain image permissions than left it to the last week where I couldn’t track down all sources and had to redraw a lot of things or just cover my ass barely enough.
- Writing 150 pages is much more efficient the sooner you accept you have to just put things on the page, even if it doesn’t all make sense and seems like your worst writing ever. My natural style of thinking about things for ages and finally only writing when things make sense in my head, it’s not good in terms of overall productivity in this context.