By Cally Guerin

Book Review: Lynn P. Nygaard & Kristin Solli (2021) Strategies for writing a thesis by publication in the social sciences and humanities. Insider Guides to Success in Academia Series. Routledge.

I was delighted to come across Lynn Nygaard and Kristin Solli’s Strategies for writing a thesis by publication in the social sciences and humanities; sensible advice on this topic from such well-informed scholars is welcome and timely. This book is the first one I’ve read in the series edited by Helen Kara and Pat Thomson and it makes me keen to see other publications in the series.

The primary audience for Nygaard and Solli’s work is doctoral candidates, but it is very useful for supervisors, writing teachers and researcher developers. It takes a straight forward, practical approach to the thesis by publication, outlining the challenges and offering implementable strategies to produce a document suitable for examination. The text is up to date with current thinking, cites extensively from recent literature and is clearly in tune with the discussions occurring at institutions around the world and in a broad range of disciplines.

The book starts with a good overview of the rationale for the apparent increase in interest in the thesis-by-publication format: “the push for increased measurable output, increased relevance, and increased emphasis on collaborative research” (p.30). This context effectively sets the scene for how and why doctoral writers in the social sciences and humanities might choose to go down this path.

The authors honestly and directly address the specific challenges of writing for publication as a novice researcher:

  • the tensions between taking time during the PhD to undertake more lengthy fieldwork or professional development opportunities might be subsumed by the need to get on with writing up the articles;
  • the discipline (and therefore supervisors and examiners) may be unfamiliar with a thesis that appears to divide the work into discrete sections;
  • the work must be written for the sometimes quite disparate audiences who will read the separate articles and also for those who will read the full thesis;
  • and the pedagogy of supervision shifts to accommodate different timelines and requirements for publication and possibly co-authorship.

Of course, these are not insurmountable challenges, and the book provides lots of practical advice on how to overcome them, including reminders to check institutional guidelines about what is permitted for the final thesis document. We have written about some of these issues on DoctoralWriting previously (see posts by Guerin, Frick and Filippou) and it’s always interesting to see how others approach the topic.

One thing I really like about this ‘can-do’ approach is that it encourages the PhD researcher to think about the overall structure and arguments of the thesis from early stages in order to make decisions about how to divide up the work into publishable items and where to submit them. The focus on attending to the overarching narrative of the thesis remains front of mind from the start, belying the claim from some quarters that the thesis-by-publication format works against the display of a sustained argument throughout as in a traditional monograph.

The chapter on ‘demonstrating doctorateness’ offers wise advice on how to show examiners that this research meets the criteria of publishability, disciplinary belonging, cohesiveness, originality and independence. Demonstration of independence, the authors explain, can be included in the overall narrative sections where it is possible to make direct claims about the doctoral writer’s achievements; this is particularly useful if the papers are co-authored.

The section on establishing good writing habits for preparing a thesis by publication (overlapping with those that usually apply to all doctoral writers) is very helpful. One of the major challenges is the need to work on multiple papers simultaneously (p.67), separating out material for different articles, revising text as co-authors offer feedback and then reviewer comments come in later, which in turn may have implications for other sections of writing. The timeline models (p.53) also point to the complexities of overlapping writing tasks. Doctoral writers are better prepared for the job ahead if able to accept that these iterations are part of the process.

Exercises and diagrams throughout the book are useful in prompting readers to apply the ideas to their own specific projects. For example, ‘Draw your thesis’ (pp.95-97) is designed to help doctoral writers think about how their research questions will inform different publications, so that the overarching thesis narrative remains firmly in place.

The small book format made it slightly harder to see where to look for information in terms of how it is structured. A Contents page does tell us the basic structure of the book, but a bigger format with more text on each page or an online version would highlight the subsections in ways that help readers to dip in and out when looking for specific information. While it is, of course, good to read this book through from start to finish, returning readers might like to remind themselves of the specific suggestions in different sections. It’s a very minor quibble, and the eBook version might easily solve this.

This extremely helpful guide addresses many of the crucial issues that face doctoral writers, supervisors and researcher developers in the social sciences and humanities who are grappling with producing high-quality theses by publication. It’s easy to recommend it to anyone who is working in this area and is bound to become a classic in time.