By Cally Guerin
While the thesis by publication is very common in some disciplines and in some national doctoral systems, debate continues to rage about this model. On the whole, I’m in favour of the article-based/compilation format reporting on research done during candidature, but with some important caveats. Here I outline some reasons for and against presenting doctoral work as a series of publications.
Motivations: A key factor for deciding whether a PhD by publication is appropriate for individual projects and doctoral writers is determined by the candidate’s reasons for undertaking the degree. For those who are keen to go on to academic positions, a strong publication record is essential; without it, they are unlikely to be considered for long-term or full-time contracts in the vast majority of western countries these days. The publication format increases candidates’ employment options on graduation—and is not likely to detract from their desirability as employees beyond the academy.
Feedback from the discipline: Receiving feedback from beyond the supervisory team can be reassuring for candidates. After presenting their work for review by experts in their discipline, candidates report feeling more confident about submitting their work for examination when the time comes (Guerin 2016). Constructive feedback from journal reviewers can strengthen the argument and help the candidate understand what is valued in the discipline more broadly.
Academic publication practices: Engaging in the processes of article publishing provides authentic learning about the expectations and norms of academic publishing (Aitchison, Kamler & Lee 2010). Candidates can be guided by supervisors through the complex path of submitting articles via online websites, dealing with journal or book editors, responding to reviewers’ comments, understanding copyright regulations, page proofing and finally promoting their published work.
Maintaining momentum: For some candidates, submitting work for publication provides a sense of progress, and successful navigation of the process can be rewarding and motivational. By creating moments of completion along the way, candidates can draw a line under that section of the research and move onto the next part of the project (at least until reviewers’ comments arrive and require revisions). This model that divides the project into discrete chunks can be particularly helpful for part-time candidates who work intensively on their doctorates between longer stretches of time where they are unable to focus on the research.
Researcher identity: Publishing research in serious academic journals can provide doctoral writers with an important boost in the knowledge that their research is reaching the audience who shares their intellectual interests. Such validation of their work by the discipline goes a long way to ‘feeling like a researcher’.
However, there are some situations where writing a thesis by publication can be problematic.
Project shape and logic: Some projects simply don’t chunk up into article-sized chapters; instead, the overall thesis relies on a cumulative argument that doesn’t make sense without the preceding chapters. This is frequently—but certainly not always—the case in some Humanities disciplines.
Authorship: There are concerns in some quarters that co-authored papers in a PhD mean that it is not really the candidate’s work that is being examined. This can be resolved through the careful recording of contributions to the article, and with supervisors broaching authorship issues early on.
Feedback can be harsh: Candidates with limited confidence may be deeply discouraged if they receive negative responses from reviewers. All academics who have been involved in research publication know that some reviewers can be unfairly harsh in their criticisms; sometimes those opinions are expressed with little care for the feelings of authors. There is a risk that candidates can lose confidence in their work and themselves if facing such feedback. They may also lose confidence in supervisor’s expertise if the supervisor had believed the paper to be ready for submission.
Overall, though, I think that the advantages of writing a thesis by publication outweigh the disadvantages in many situations. As a supervisor, it is well worth discussing the pros and cons of this format with doctoral writers early in candidature. It is crucial in those discussions to be well informed about your own institution’s regulations around eligibility and format, as there are huge variations. For example, institutions differ in expectations regarding the number of papers; whether or not papers need to be published or only submitted; and whether examiners can require changes to already-published material (Jackson 2013).
What has your experience been in this area? What are the key advantages and disadvantages for doctoral writers when preparing a thesis by publication?
There is a growing body of scholarly literature on this topic. See the following as useful starting points.
Frick , L. (2019) PhD by Publication – Panacea or Paralysis?, Africa Education Review, DOI: 10.1080/18146627.2017.1340802
Guerin, C. (2016) Connecting the dots: writing a doctoral thesis by publication. In Badenhorst & Guerin, Research Literacies and Writing Pedagogies for Masters and Doctoral Writers(pp. 31-50). Leiden: Brill. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004304338_003
Jackson, D. (2013). Completing a PhD by publication: A review of Australian policy and implications for practice. Higher Education Research & Development, 32(3), 355-368. DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2012.692666
Lee, A. (2010). When the article is the dissertation: Pedagogies for a PhD by publication. In C. Aitchison, B. Kamler & A. Lee (Eds.), Publishing pedagogies for the doctorate and beyond (pp. 137-155). Abingdon: Routledge.
Niven, P., & Grant, C. (2012). PhDs by publications: An “easy way out”? Teaching in Higher Education, 17(1), 105-111. DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2012.640086.
Plus two useful blogs:
Pirjo Nikander & Nelli Piattoeva, Writing a coherent integrative chapter is crucial for a successful PhD by publication