Graduate researchers and digital assistance tools

Digital assistance tools (DATs) such as generative AIs, machine translation tools, and editorial assistants are developing rapidly. In the context of research, DATs can be used to create descriptions, plans, responses to questions, summaries of literature, and many other similar kinds of material. ChatGPT is a widely used tool of this kind but there are many others.

The use of DATs at the University of Melbourne by graduate researchers is not prohibited. However, use of these tools does carry risks, as explained below, and for this reason they should only be used within the following guidelines.

  • Where text that has been produced or substantially altered by a generative AI or other digital assistance tool is included in a paper, proposal, review, or thesis, it must be identified as a quotation and the tool must be identified. If a prompt was used it must be provided.
  • The same requirement applies to communications such as emails between graduate researchers and supervisors.
  • In a thesis, editorial use of digital assistance tools must be acknowledged and be limited to the level of assistance permitted by other parties in the Graduate Research Training Policy.
  • Confidential information or unprotected intellectual property must not be entered into an online digital assistance tool unless that tool is operated by the University.
  • Use of generative AI or other digital assistance tools in theses and publications must be consistent with research integrity guidelines.

These guidelines rest on a range of concerns.

One concern is research integrity and integrity of assessment. Use of a DAT in a graduate research thesis must be acknowledged. Please read the statement on research integrity in theses and publications to help you understand your obligations under the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research. Use of a DAT to rewrite plagiarised text to make it appear non-plagiarised is research misconduct.

As one of the purposes of examination is to assess your ability to communicate in English, use of a DAT for editorial assistance in a thesis must be limited to grammar, clarity, and spelling. This means that – in a thesis – a DAT cannot be used for drafting, substantial redrafting, or for producing an English translation of text that you have drafted in another language.

Another concern is unreliability. The summaries that a DAT generates can appear knowledgeable and plausible, but nonetheless the content can be inconsistent, wrong, misleading, or absurd. Similar issues apply to use of machine translation to understand material written in languages the DAT user may be less proficient in, including English.

A further concern for restricting the use of DATs is honesty and transparency in communication with supervisors and that their use can impede development of writing skills and of understanding.

Writing skills are far more than the capacity to describe ideas in text. Writing is intimately linked with cognition and the ability to organise concepts into a coherent form, hence the slogan ‘writing is thinking’. The process of grappling with how to precisely express concepts in written form is critical to development of them into research contributions. You are expected to be able to undertake all of the stages of research from development of concepts to communication of results, which includes not just authoring of individual sentences and paragraphs but structuring of arguments, development of complex descriptions, and so on. Likewise, summarising a paper or field involves reading and understanding.

Skipping of this activity – use of a tool to write initial drafts, or to translate them into English from another language – means that you may be failing to learn skills and knowledge that will be critical to your career. This applies not just to theses but also to use of generative AI for material such as emails, literature review, proposals, and progress reports.

The visibility of this struggle with authoring of text is critical to good supervision. Assessment, review, and critique of your writing is a key way in which supervisors support your development. Concealment of an inability to undertake such writing or of your understanding of research literature may mean that you do not progress towards success as an independent researcher.

A final concern is disclosure of intellectual property or confidential information. In particular, DATs such as ChatGPT by default keep the prompts that are entered and may do so even if you request otherwise. Confidential information should not be shared and, if the prompt entered into an online DAT concerns an innovation of yours, even temporary retention of the prompt by the DAT may mean that the IP is no longer owned by you or by the University.

These rapidly developing tools have the potential to transform how we work and study, and we recognise that there are contexts in which they can be an amplifier of skills. However, there are many other tasks for which they are too limited or unreliable to be genuinely of value and their existence has not changed our view of the capabilities required to be successful researcher. We seek that you only use these tools in research in consultation with your supervisors and that you follow the guidelines above.