PhD examiner reports

PhD examiner reports for submitted doctoral theses were collected from six faculties in the University of Helsinki during 2011-2012. These are public documents submitted to the Faculty Council of each university faculty. The examiners provide a fairly substantial evaluation (typically several pages) of a submitted thesis, together with suggestions for improvement before the final submission and public defence. The examiners are also to make a recommendation with regard to the readiness of the candidate to defend the thesis in public, which in effect means the examiners regard it as acceptable.

This preliminary examination is carried out by two external examiners for each thesis. After the defence, a final report is submitted, but these are usually shorter, and written by the examiner acting as opponent in the public defence, who is usually one of the preliminary examiners. They therefore overlap with the preliminary reports and were not included in the corpus.

The six faculties fall into a convenient separation into the Sci categories (faculties of Medicine, Agriculture & Forestry, and Mathematics & Science) and SSH categories (faculties of Arts, Social Sciences, and Behavioural Sciences). In the sample collected from 2011-2012, 57% of the examiner reports were written in Finnish (n=743), with 40% written in English (n=531). The remaining reports are written mainly in Swedish (n=26, 2%), with 11 reports in either French, Russian, Spanish, or Italian.

Out of the 531 reports in English that were submitted during these two years, the authors of 524 reports could be contacted for permission to include their texts, with the authors of 330 reports granting their permission (63%). These 330 examiner reports are distributed as follows across the broad categories:

Distribution of the broad binary categories in the PhD examiner reports:
category no. of statements no. of words % of words avg. words/statement
Sci 195 183679 46% 942
SSH 135 218458 54% 1618
  150 402137 100% 1219

The broad Sci/SSH categories are further broken down by the six domains from which the statements were drawn:

The broad categories and their dubdomains in the PhD examiner reports:
category/domain no. of reports no. of words % of words avg. words/report
Sci 195 183679 46% 942
   agriculture&forestry 60 78311 43% 1305
   natural sciences 93 69385 38% 746
   medicine 42 35983 20% 857
SSH 135 218458 54% 1618
   humanities 57 97541 45% 1711
   social sciences 55 91097 42% 1656
   behavioural sciences 23 29820 14% 1297
  150 402137 100% 1219

As this is a hitherto unexplored genre of expert academic writing, we collected as many of the examiners’ statements as possible, including from L1 English authors. Even though these statements are not written by L2 English users, they are nevertheless written for a context where English is the lingua franca between a Finnish university and academics from 33 identified L1 backgrounds.

As for the examiners’ L1s, English emerged as the largest group with 29% of words. This figure reflects the distribution of L1 English authors among individual reports, which is roughly 28% (i.e. 148 of the 524 reports in English were written by L1 English authors). Altogether 33 L1s are represented, and the ten largest L1s by word count make up 85% of words in the subcorpus:

The ten largest L1 categories in the PhD examiner reports:
  author L1 no. of reports no. of words % of words
1 English 84 115472 29%
2 Finnish 47 61671 15%
3 German 35 50426 13%
4 Swedish 30 34527 9%
5 French 16 21382 5%
6 Dutch 14 15608 4%
7 Norwegian 12 14521 4%
8 Italian 10 10842 3%
9 Danish 6 8281 2%
10 Estonian 10 7120 2%
  total 264 339895 85%
  other L1s 66 62242 15%
  Examiners total 330 402137 100%

As a reflection of the expert role of the examiners, senior academic staff (i.e. professors) are most prominent in this subcorpus, with 61% of words. In addition to junior and senior academic staff, about 9% of words come from authors tagged as junior or senior industry (i.e. who are employed outside academia but retain active ties to research):

author role no. of reports no. of words % of words
Senior staff 193 244691 61%
Junior staff 100 114787 29%
Junior industry 23 27147 7%
Senior industry 9 9183 2%
(joint statements) 5 6329 1%
  330 402137 100%

For a more detailed description of the examiner report subcorpus, see the ELFA project research blog.

Suggested citation

WrELFA 2015. The Corpus of Written English as a Lingua Franca in Academic Settings. Director: Anna Mauranen. Compilation manager: Ray Carey. http://www.helsinki.fi/elfa/ (last access).