University of Alberta doctoral candidate asked to resubmit thesis after inclusion of Arabic script

A University of Alberta PhD candidate is frustrated she was asked to resubmit a copy of her thesis because it included her name in Arabic script on the title page.

University says it is looking for ways to make practices more inclusive

Academia is often perceived as a space allowing for different forms of expression, but the sciences are heavily regulated by strict formats and the requirement to use the English language, says a University of Alberta PhD candidate. (David Bajer/CBC)

A PhD candidate is hoping the University of Alberta changes its practice on publishing theses after hers was rejected for spelling her name in Arabic script.

Sarah Shakil, a doctoral candidate in biological sciences and ecology, successfully defended her thesis in January — the culmination of years of hard work and the final hurdle for getting her PhD.

The next step was to deposit the thesis through an online system, after which it would be published and forwarded to various Canadian theses collections.

But the document previously reviewed by her supervisor and multiple examiners was rejected for including her name in Arabic script on the title page, with her name in Roman script in a smaller font just below.

The title page for the thesis included Shakil's name in Arabic script, which the university told her does not conform to formatting standards. (Sarah Shakil/Twitter)

"It makes me angry that such a small thing is so difficult for the university to do," she said last week. 

Shakil moved to Canada from Pakistan when she was two years old. Her name was given to her by her grandmother, who died during her studies.

She wanted to pay tribute to her by including her name in Urdu, which uses Arabic script.

Shakil petitioned administration to do so but was told the university needed to follow institutional policy and the title page as-is was divergent from formatting regulations.

The minimum thesis formatting requirements guide makes no mention of language script requirements. It says matters of style are for candidates to decide, subject to certain rules.

Academic identity

Academia is often perceived as a space allowing for different forms of expression, Shakil said, but the sciences are heavily regulated by strict formats and the requirement to use the English language.

Sarah Shakil successfully defended her thesis in January and submitted it for deposit in early February. (CBC)

She felt the thesis title page was the only place where she could present her identity.

This experience points to larger issues about what backgrounds are privileged, she said.

"It suggests that everybody else who's not a European identity is not welcome or they have to set aside their cultural background and conform to that university culture."

The university has been working to find a solution that fits "national and international research publication systems and copyright conventions consistent across more than 70 accredited Canadian post-secondaries," said Brooke Milne, dean for the faculty of graduate studies and research, in a statement Tuesday.

"We are always looking for ways to make our practices at the U of A more inclusive and will continue to explore ways to incorporate the languages of our highly diverse student community into the thesis publication process."

Shakil said Tuesday she had not received recent communication from the dean but that she knows her supervisor has been making her case to administration. She said the experience has made her question the university's commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion.

"This is such a small action so how are they going to address accountability for harassment that people face in their departments?"