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By Liezel Frick (Stellenbosch University, South Africa)

Professor Liezel Frick is a colleague in the Special Interest Group that focuses on doctoral writing. She has long considered the dimensionality of the candidate and their text and adds South African experience to our generally Australasian perspectives.

Unlike the traditional monograph style of thesis (a collection of sequential chapters, each reporting on a specific aspect of the project in a linear fashion), a publication-based format has greater variation in form. For example, it may consist of an introductory and conclusive chapter that explain the logic of the dissertation, and a number of publishable and/or published works that may include articles, book chapters and/or published conference proceedings (see Mason and Merga, 2018 for a multitude of options this format might take on), or a hybrid of the above-mentioned formats (see Odendaal and Frick, 2016 for a conceptual frame on this hybridity).

Often students do not have (or feel they have) control over deciding on the format of their doctoral dissertation – institutional policies, disciplinary practices, and supervisor preferences may govern their decisions. The publication-based doctorate is gaining more impetus internationally and across disciplines, yet both students and supervisors are increasingly being confronted by this choice without having the necessary pedagogical knowledge or tools to make an informed decision.

In addition, the forces that drive the push to publish have not always originated from the noble intention of developing PhD students into responsible scholars. Adherence to quality assurance mechanisms and addressing slow and low completion rates at the PhD level underlie many managerialist policies and practices. However, what is often not explicit in these debates is whose interests are primarily served by publishing during the PhD – institutional stature and ranking, the supervisors’ academic credentials, or the scholarly development of the student?

In a recent article (Frick, 2019), I have argued that institutional and supervisory imperatives should not be given precedence over students’ interests. Based on my own experience, the literature, feedback I received from colleagues on my work (thank you!), and the lively discussion on the topic during the recent videoconference of the Doctoral Writing SIG interest group, I offer the following questions for supervisors and students considering the PhD by publication format:

  • Why publish? Increased demands for shorter doctoral completion times, requirements to show greater accountability as governments and industry expect a return on investment by means of rapid and public dissemination of research results, and the delivery of employment-ready graduates all drive the push to publish. Beyond these institutional reasons, publication also holds potential benefits to the student, supervisor/research team, university, and doctoral education as a whole. Research dissemination through publication schools the candidate in essential communication skills and the publication process that is key to a further academic career. Publication makes doctoral research work accessible to a wider academic audience beyond the dissertation, and such exposure serves to build the scholarly reputation of the candidate, the supervisor(s), (where appropriate) the research team, and the university. Publication can serve as a comparable standard of doctoral excellence across disciplines and national systems, which is important given the mobility of doctoral graduates.
  • Are you familiar with the publication-based format? It might help to look at examples of completed dissertations within your discipline, and speak to other doctoral students and supervisors who have used this format – even those in disciplines other than your own. It should give you an idea of what is acceptable (also to examiners!) within the particular field of study. There is a lot to learn from others’ pedagogical approaches, as the work of Claire Aitchison and her colleagues (2012) have shown in their investigation of pedagogical practices when using this format. Mason and Merga’s (2018) recent article also offers an array of potential options that are worth considering. A further consideration is whether the nature of the project lends itself to this format, and whether the timelines associated with the type of project would facilitate or hamper completion should a publication format be followed.
  • What are your institutional guidelines and policies related to doctoral dissertation formats? There is a need for explicit guidelines to be provided to examiners of PhDs by publication, outlining the institution’s definitions and requirements, for example the requisite number of papers; status of papers (published, submitted for publication, publishable); handling of co-authorship; bridging sections and appendices. Many institutions now have specific guidelines for a publication format, but these may differ across (and sometimes even within) institutions.
  • Are you aware of the demands of a PhD by publication? There is a myth that the publication-based PhD is an easy (or easier), quicker option to completing a PhD than the traditional monograph dissertation. This thinking has been shown by Håkansson Linquist (2018) to be flawed.
  • What makes the publication-based dissertation worthy of a PhD qualification? There is the risk that it may be a series of descriptive studies rather than a process to develop and reflect “doctorateness” in the sense of rigorous and sustained scholarship. The introductory chapter (beautifully called a kappe [cape] in Norway) is a particularly important consideration as it could help to establish coherence, and make the contribution and originality of the work explicit (see Frick, 2018). During our recent DoctoralWriting SIG online discussion, there was a likening of papers in the PhD by publication to creative works in a Creative Arts PhD. In the Creative/Performance Arts, the exegesis shows the transformation of the artist into a scholar, which was a really useful way to think about how the PhD by publication format in other disciplines could also make this transition clear to the reader.
  • What support mechanisms do you have in place? The PhD by publication implies a shift in the power dynamics in the student-supervisor relationship, in which the traditional apprenticeship model of supervision may no longer be appropriate. Supervisors need to be actively publishing themselves and provide appropriate support and advice from the outset, including writing support; scaffolded reading; journal selection; citation practices; possible financial implications (for example page fees); the institution’s policies and expectations; and care in choosing examiners. Thein and Beach (2010) add four supervisory practices that would support such an approach: mutual engagement of both the student and the supervisor in collaborative research; co-authored research, which provides opportunities for mentoring writing development; reciprocal review and evaluation; and networking. Paré (2010) makes a strong case for the development of language skills (both reading and writing) and whether we provide students with the space and opportunity to fail before exposing them to the scrutiny of journal editors and reviewers. Such opportunities include doctoral seminars (Lee, 2010), writing groups (Aitchison, 2010; Paré, 2010), writing retreats (Murray, 2010), and working paper collections (Casanave, 2010). We developed an online writing boot camp as another way of supporting our students (see Rule et al., 2018 [link to blog]).
  • To whose benefit will publication be? Some supervisors may see PhD by publication as an easy way to increase their own publication record, but it can come at a high cost to the well-being of the student. Considering that this route to the PhD might actually take longer (especially if the institutional requirement is that the included papers need to be published), there needs to be benefits for the student to offset the probable disadvantages.
  • Have you discussed the ethics of publication? Issues such as determining publishable units, possible journal selection, as well as author inclusion and order have ethical implications and relate to the question on whose interests are being served by publishing the work. The sooner these issues are discussed and negotiated, the less room there is for conflict later on in the process.
  • Are you ready for the feedback? In the publication-based doctoral dissertation, the supervisor roles include visible authorship (Paré, 2010) and publication broker who mediates reviewer comments (Kamler, 2010). Doctoral students (and their supervisors) may benefit from peer review during the publication process as formative assessment. Eventual publication may serve as an impartial indication (through blind review) of the originality and merit of the work. Yet reviews are not always favourable or kind. Supervisors need to carefully consider how to mediate such comments and support students to make sense of required revisions, as well as manuscript rejections (which can paralyse a student’s progress).
  • What is the role of the examiners? If a doctoral dissertation presents published work, then the question arises as to what role examiners play in the process. Are they merely there to put a rubber stamp of approval on the work presented towards a degree? Or can they still offer critique and suggest changes?

The PhD by publication is a viable dissertation option, provided that both supervisors and institutions understand the implications of choosing this format and offer the necessary support to doctoral students choosing this dissertation format. I maintain that the student’s interests need to be considered foremost – not the stature of the institution, nor the contribution possible publications would make to the academic standing of the supervisor(s). Careful consideration is necessary before formalising a particular doctoral format by means of institutional policy, as some students, projects and supervisors may be more suited to particular formats than others.


Aitchison, C. (2010). Learning together to publish: writing group pedagogies for doctoral publication. In: C. Aitchison, B. Kamler & A. Lee (eds), Publishing pedagogies for the doctorate and beyond. Oxon: Routledge.

Aitchison, C., Catterall, J., Ross, P., & Burgin, S. (2012). ‘Tough love and tears’: Learning doctoral writing in the sciences. Higher Education Research & Development31(4), 435-447.

Casanave, C.P. (2010). Dovetailing under impossible circumstances. In Aitchison, C Kamler, B. & Lee, A. (eds), Publishing pedagogies for the doctorate and beyond. Oxon: Routledge.

Frick, B.L. (2018). The original contribution: Myth or reality in doctoral work? In E.M. Bitzer, M. Fourie-Malherbe, B.L. Frick & K. Pyhältö (Eds.). Spaces, journeys and new horizons for postgraduate supervision. Stellenbosch: SunMedia.

Frick, B.L. (2019). PhD by publication – panacea or paralysis? African Education Review. DOI: 10.1080/18146627.2017.1340802

Håkansson Lindqvist, M. (2018). Reconstructing the doctoral publishing process. Exploring the liminal space. Higher Education Research & Development, 37(7), 1395-1408.

Lee, A. (2010). When the article is the dissertation: pedagogies for a PhD by publication. In Publishing Pedagogies for the Doctorate and Beyond (pp. 12–29). Edited by C. Aitchison, B. Kamler and A. Lee. London: Routledge.

Mason, S. & Merga, S. (2018.) Integrating publications in the social science doctoral thesis by publication. Higher Education Research & Development, 37(7), 1454-1471. DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2018.1498461

Murray, R. (2010). Becoming rhetorical. In C. Aitchison, B. Kamler & A. Lee (eds), Publishing pedagogies for the doctorate and beyond. Oxon: Routledge.

Odendaal, A., & Frick, L. (2018). Research dissemination and the PhD thesis format at a South African university: the impact of policy on practice.Innovations in Education and Teaching International , 55(5), 594-601.

Paré, A. (2010). Slow the presses: concerns about premature publication. In Publishing Pedagogies for the Doctorate and Beyond (pp. 30–46). Edited by C. Aitchison, B. Kamler and A. Lee. London: Routledge.

Rule, P., Frick, L., & Fourie-Malherbe, M. (2018). Getting graduates to publish from their theses- an online writing bootcamp. Doctoral Writing SIG blog, June 12.

Thein, A. H., & Beach, R. (2010). Mentoring doctoral students towards publication within scholarly Communities of Practice. In Publishing Pedagogies for the Doctorate and Beyond (pp.117–136). Edited by C. Aitchison, B. Kamler and A. Lee. London: Routledge.