by Cally Guerin
Some doctoral candidates come into their programs with extensive experience of writing for publication from their previous work or study. For most, though, it is a big jump from writing assignments for lecturers or a Masters dissertation to writing a formal article for publication in a high-ranking, peer-reviewed journal. There’s a lot of useful information out there about how to write for academic journals. In this post I want to focus on an aspect of this discussion that is rarely mentioned: how does article writing differ from thesis writing? Importantly, how can doctoral writers recognise and respond to the difference?
Doctoral writers develop valuable skills when they publish their research during candidature. Claire Aitchison and Gina Wisker outline these numerous benefits in their DoctoralWriting posts. Elsewhere, Hopwood (2007) explores the learning acquired when taking on the work of guest editing a special issue of a journal. And there is a wealth of important insights for supervisors and researcher developers working with doctoral candidates seeking to publish from their projects in Aitchison, Kamler & Lee (2010).
Research into the thesis by publication also considers what is to be gained (or lost) when doctoral writers choose to present their work in this format. On the whole, I’m a big fan of the thesis by publication. Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages in presenting research in this format, some of which I’ve explored in this post and more extensively here, as have Mason, Merga & Morris (2019). DoctoralWriting has also published blogs on the topic by Liezel Frick and Kalypso Filippou. While much of the research and conversation is centred on science doctorates (for example, Jowsey, Corter and Thompson, 2020), there is also a lively discussion about the experiences and implications of writing a thesis by publication in the social sciences and humanities (Mason & Merga’s recent work has made a wonderful contribution to our understanding of this area: 2018a, 2018b).liter
While working with doctoral candidates preparing a thesis by publication, I’ve noticed significant challenges in conceptualising how a research article is different from their thesis. Anthony Paré (2010: 31) explains that, as a journal editor, he can readily identify a submission authored by a doctoral candidate:
The topics are far too broad for short papers, the research methodologies are extensive and longitudinal, the theoretical terminology is impenetrable, the parentheses are crammed with citations, and the reference list is half as long as the paper itself.
In drawing attention to the challenges faced by doctoral writers becoming article writers, I hope to demystify some of the underlying obstructions. Limiting the scope of the paper is an important first step—it can be tempting to try and include the whole thesis if it feels like the only chance to get the research out to the world. Here I want to focus on the literature review, the methods section and the audience for the article. What follows refers mostly to writing that reports on empirical research, but the general principles apply elsewhere too.
Firstly, it can be tempting to include an extensive literature review in the introduction to the article. This stems from the previous work in which candidates have spent months reading around in their field prior to data collection. It can feel like all that hard work should be represented now they have a chance to use it. Nevertheless, decisions must be made to include only those papers that bear directly on this particular aspect of the project. Keeping the main argument front and centre can be enormously beneficial when making those decisions.
It is very helpful at this point to remind candidates that this is not their only opportunity to use all that knowledge; while it certainly informs their current piece of writing, there will also be extended discussion of the existing literature in a separate chapter at the beginning of the actual thesis.
Given that the chapters in a thesis by publication all relate to the same overarching project, there is inevitably some overlap between the reference lists for each of the separate articles. This is simply part of the process. However, once a plan for the whole thesis is established, it is useful to choose which references will be assigned to each article; it can be reassuring for the writer to see that all that reading will not be ‘wasted’ (and, of course, nothing is ever wasted—all that background reading is essential for building a strong understanding of the topic and a clear sense of what is central and what is peripheral for the particular project).
It’s important to remember that there is a complicated juggling act going on in the background for a PhD candidate writing a thesis by publication in which they simultaneously need to keep in mind both the overall trajectory of the thesis story and what matters in the individual, stand-alone article.
As with the review of the background literature, the methods/materials and methods section of the article is likely to be very much shorter than one would expect to see in a thesis. Unless the method is actually a major contribution to the discipline and hence the focus of the article, description of the method can be fairly brief, using citations as shorthand to point to the legitimacy of the research design, especially if well-known, conventional research methods are used. Methods in an article are often more like a nod to the fact that this is established practice in the field.
In contrast, the thesis will have a much longer and more detailed account of the methods because its purpose there is quite different from the article. The methods section in the thesis is used to demonstrate a very detailed and thorough understanding of how research is conducted in the discipline, outlining a clear justification for the choices made and articulating reasons for the reliability and trustworthiness of the research findings.
Such details are more often implied in an article, given the limited word count available. Journal readers are generally more interested in the discussion, conclusions and recommendations—this is, after all, where the contribution to knowledge is usually located.
Finally, it’s important to understand the different audiences for an article and for a thesis. While a thesis addresses the criteria and concerns of an examiner, an article is speaking more broadly to a range of disciplinary readers. Of course, there is some overlap here—peer reviewers and journal readers are often also thesis examiners and look for similar elements in their reading. But doctoral writers can benefit from being reminded that their articles are joining a public conversation rather than offering a more private report to examiners.
This shift of focus also relates to authorial voice. The genres of the journal article and the thesis both require the doctoral writer to take on the voice of an expert or authority in the field. Both require a confident authorial voice with something to say that others should listen to. But it seems to me that there is a difference in addressing peers (the journal audience) and addressing a reader who is performing a rigorous examination to determine whether the degree should be awarded. Perhaps it goes back to the issue of purpose again—does the article expect to engage a friendly, interested reader who is simply keen to learn something new, while the thesis faces a potentially judgemental and more critical appraisal? And if so, what happens when the writing is aimed at both audiences simultaneously? I don’t have the answer to that yet, and would be very interested in how others see this dilemma.
Sometimes we underestimate the challenges for novice researchers writing their first journal articles. Even though they have read dozens, probably hundreds, of research articles, there is a big mind shift required before doctoral writers can start producing their own articles. That mind shift goes far beyond the usual advice on article writing that focuses on choosing the right journal and clearly articulating the research’s contribution to knowledge. I’d love to hear from you about what else we need to help new research writers understand about what’s different when writing an article for publication.