the PhD and publication/by publication – a very peculiar practice? part one

It is now increasingly common in parts of Europe for PhDs in the humanities and social sciences to be awarded on the basis of publication. The norm seems to be three, but sometimes four, papers in international peer reviewed journals. At least one paper, but sometimes more, can be written with a supervisor. However, this is not the only way to incorporate publications into the PhD, and there are other issues at stake besides simply writing papers.

About eighteen months ago some colleagues and I decided to get together a symposium on the PhD and publication, and the PhD by publication. We were from Norway and the UK and were a group made up of supervisors and early career researchers. Our group represented some of the diversity of what the PhD by/and publication currently means. Norway has recently embraced the PhD by publication whereas in the UK the monograph still reigns. The UK PhD by publication is relatively uncommon – except for staff members (see this piece in the Times Higher on the state of play). Here is our group – a Norwegian and a UK supervisor plus:

Norwegian researcher 1: PhD as monograph in Norwegian. Published a book in Norwegian while doing the PhD, plus articles in Norwegian. Now working to convert PhD into English language articles for peer reviewed journals.

Norwegian researcher 2: PhD by publication, three papers published in international peer reviewed journals, written in English. Now doing postdoctoral work to extend research.

English researcher 1: PhD as monograph in English. One article in English published during PhD with supervisor, but two more single authored during PhD were subsequently published. Book from PhD.

English researcher 2: Academic staff member doing PhD by publication. One book and ten peer-reviewed articles in international journals plus ten thousand word exegesis were submitted for examination.

It is clear that there are very different experiences of doctoral research and publication distributed over just these four people in two countries. As a symposium we had to ask the question about parity between them.

It was pretty obvious that the UK model for staff PhD by publication was much more demanding than any of the other three. We understood that the UK PhD by publication had developed as a way of recognizing and rewarding staff who came into the university from professional backgrounds and then took up scholarly work in the same way as colleagues with PhDs. The publication route meant/means that they are able to aggregate these publications into an award. But these publications also of course contribute to institutional research performance, for example the REF, in a different way to PhDs.

But the career and post doc competition in both countries meant/means that thesis by monograph researchers were also writing articles and even books, as one of our symposium had, at the same time as producing the Big Book. While this wasn’t a requirement for the award, it was still an increasing practice. How would researchers with PhDs by publication fare in competitive contexts when compared with the PhD-with-the-lot? And is the unofficial ratcheting up of the PhD requirement fair – and what effect does writing other publications have on the monograph itself?

The language question was writ very large for the Norwegian PhDs. Writing in English was an additional requirement and was potentially more difficult than writing in mother tongue Norwegian. And it accelerated the international trend to move scholarly work into the English language, away from the plethora of European languages and their different modes of scholarship and genres of writing.

Our symposium was also interested in the differences between writing a journal article and writing an extended monograph of up to 100,000 words. The sheer challenge of constructing a sustained argument over this many words clearly prepared the PhD for the book in ways that writing journal articles might not. So was there also something here, we wondered, about the PhD by journal publication being a way of preparing the audit ready scholar, already primed to turn out articles for high status journals, as opposed to what might appear as the increasingly less audit valued process of producing a monograph?

It is important to put on record that our symposium wasn’t suggesting that the solution to this increasing diversity should be some kind of monolithic pan-European doctorate, an extension of the Bologna process that would involve massive amounts of moderation, record keeping and audit. This would be the simple knee jerk bureaucratic response to emergent diversity. We did think that there might be a set of questions to discuss about the criteria used to evaluate/examine doctorates, and some work at the edges of what were reasonable expectations and what were not. We were very clear that there ought to be a conversation among the scholarly community at large about diversity and equity – it wasn’t something just for national policy-makers to think about.

The changes we were addressing are of course not the only changes in the doctorate. There are also increasing pressures on narrow nineteenth century definitions of the thesis by monograph brought about via digital and arts informed scholarship, and these too need to be taken into account in any discussions.

At the time we presented our symposium we were thinking about a special issue of a journal, but we were unable to get any Editors interested. It was telling, we thought, that the ‘gateway’ to the academy was changing but it seemed to be of so little interest. We had something to talk about, but no venue. So I’ve decided to put a few of the key issues we talked about into blog posts, so at least some of them have an airing.

Next week I’ll post about the relationship between PhD by publication and the refereeing and publication process which – as you can imagine – is not straight forward.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in English language, Europe, monograph, parity, PhD, PhD by publication, publishing, thesis and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

41 Responses to the PhD and publication/by publication – a very peculiar practice? part one

  1. fred6368 says:

    Thanks Pat!. Interesting how limiting, and REF related, the UK model is. On the WikiQuals project we are examining Ph.Ds by self-publishing as a self-accrediation model. More info here;


    • pat thomson says:

      That’s really interesting. Ill check it out and get back to you perhaps..


      • fred6368 says:

        I’m giving a paper on WikiQuals and the Romainian CROS alternative university at ELSE in Bucharest next week, I’ll provide a link to that when it is up as it is a more considered review on the process.


    • Thanks for putting this up Fred. I have recently published an academic monograph (which is not quite ‘self-publishing’ but can be seen as that to some degree, and am seeking to submit for a PhD by publication (if possible). Do you have any more information on that part of the WikiQuals project at all?


    • Soumendra Nath Maitra says:

      I possess published independent research work in about 45 different journals at home and abroad without having any PhD degree and am now eager to be considered for award of PhD degree by publication with nominal fees.Please suggest me.
      Retd Prof and HoD Mathematics,National Defence Academy,Pune,INDIA


  2. Danny Hills says:

    Thesis by publication is the norm where I’m doing my PhD. I think many Universities in Australia are actively supporting candidates to do it this way. You need a track record to attract post-doctoral funding here, so it is perfect for the candidate (thesis pretty well peer reviewed prior to examination) and great for the School (government funding for research output).


    • cmm21 says:

      Hi Danny, good to hear of such a positive experience. I’d be interested to know where in Australia you’re doing your PhD.


      • Danny Hills says:

        Monash University School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine. Interesting topic that indeed rages in Australia (I work elsewhere, where thesis by publication is not embraced).


  3. macademise says:

    I’m doing a PhD by publication (in Norway, coincidentally), and for my part it has been a very positive experience. While there are certainly a range of challenges with that format, I greatly appreciate getting several publications to my record before completing my PhD, co-authoring with my supervisor (which I did for my first article) was a fantastic learning experience, and the review processes with journals is also a great source of learning (even in cases where reviews are ‘difficult’). Publishing articles also really forces you to sharpen and focus your message at a quite early stage, and to think very carefully about how to ‘cut the cake’ of your thesis and how the different parts contribute to a broader whole. I don’t think it’s a one size fits all and it’s perhaps better suited for some disciplines than others, but my point of departure is that I’d warmly recommend it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Soumendra Nath Maitra says:

      I have hitherto published independently about 225 research papers,articles,notes,problem-solutions in 45 different refereed journals at home and abroad without going in for a PhD degree and am now eager to be considered for award of PhD degree of a recognized University with nominal fees.Please suggest me how I can proceed for the same as you are an experience person.
      Soumendra Nath Maitra
      Retd Professor and HoD Mathematics,National Defence Academy,Pune,INDIA


  4. Thomas de Lange says:

    Dear Pat, thank you for informing me about this and great that these experiences are being used for the benefit of other PhD-students. I also really like your “Patter” site and impressed about all the work you put down in this!

    Best, Thomas


  5. Cally Guerin says:

    Like Danny Hills says above, thesis by publication is increasingly the norm in Australian universities across all disciplines, and is generally designed for current research rather than a collection of already published papers. It is often a requirement that all the research was undertaken during candidature, and the thesis must constitute a unified, coherent whole – not just a series of loosely related papers. In many instances it is a case of dividing up the project into publishable chunks, as stages/phases of a research project, or a series of papers exploring the project from a range of perspectives. This means that the concept of a maintaining an extended argument across the whole project is not lost.

    There seem to be very few downsides to thesis by publication in this form, apart from the challenge of dealing with negative reviewers’ comments and the possibility of premature publication (as Anthony Paré has pointed out). However, this can be mitigated by supervisors working alongside students to help them prepare the articles (often as co-authors – which can introduce some further complications, of course!), and many of the conventions and expectations of academic publishing can be learnt through practical experience. Most of us will only write one thesis, so learning that particular skill may not be all that useful in future careers, but many of us will be expected to continue to publish journal articles as part of our jobs. Perhaps peer-reviewed journal articles are also more likely to be read than book-length manuscripts published by small presses with limited distribution (even as electronic versions) – a benefit if we want doctoral students to enter the conversations and debates of their disciplines.

    The variety of forms of ‘thesis by publication’ suggests that our focus needs to be on how we make this work best for new researchers, so that we can identify which forms are most useful and therefore to be encouraged. I’m all for it!


    • pat thomson says:

      Thanks Cally. The UK is pretty conservative about theses in general and theres not been much discussion here about the by publication route. Its a rarity as the THE article I linked to suggests. And I was pretty gobsmacked by the prof doc when I arrived and its still very genteel compared to the Oz approach.


  6. Thank you for another interesting posts. Some of the the doctoral students I mentor are working towards a monograph-style thesis; others are working towards the ‘sandwich’ model. I too have noticed the lack of discussion of the relationship between such models.

    I should say straightaway here that I’m very relieved that you wrote “It is important to put on record that our symposium wasn’t suggesting that the solution to this increasing diversity should be some kind of monolithic pan-European doctorate”. We live in such standardising times that, the moment you even raise the question, there is a risk that some bores will set about producing a monolithic standards.

    What strikes me much more strongly than the lack of comparison between models is the lack of comparison within models. Someone writes a thesis; two people examine it in the viva (the two people, including the external, appointed by the host institution). The two people come to a view. That, pretty much, is it. In the academic world, at least, huge weight is accorded to doctoral qualifications, yet the whole process of awards is so unaudited, so open to arbitrariness, so lax in its procedures: it beggars belief. People treat the doctoral award as some sort of universal standard but I can see no grounds to support that assumption.


    • SheriO says:

      Based on your incisive comment, both Ph D by publication and Ph D by thesis are peculiar practices. The Ph D by publication qualifies as a less peculiar test of ‘doctorateness’ being less arbitrary, less lax, more audited, and more useful. Why make the doctoral candidate write a doctoral thesis as an academic exercise when it does not serve the career of the writer or the scholarship community? Instead doctoral education that assists the student to make contributions to scholarship would better serve as training.


  7. pat thomson says:

    Yes. I can only recall the late Diana Leonard’s research about baguaries of the examination process. She argued strongly for some kind of moderation process but again was worried about the hefty hand of audit and the tendency to turn everything into a giant form filing process.


  8. Yes, I had qualms when I wrote ‘audit’ that the word perhaps had the wrong associations. And, in any case, giant form-filling exercises rarely even do the job they’re supposed to do. A better solution may be simply to increase awareness that the doctoral qualification isn’t standardised and shouldn’t be treated as though it were. With some forms of qualification – the award of doctor of medicine, for example, or professional accountancy exams – it seems there does need a be a guarantee that certain standards have been met. But perhaps that is not the case the academic doctorates?


  9. PS I’ve just acquired a copy of a useful book that is relevant here: “How to prepare a scientific doctoral dissertation based on research articles” by the admirable Bjorn Gustavii (CUP, 2012). Which leads me to a question re.’venue’: if not a special edition, why not a book?


  10. pat thomson says:

    Yes. We had thought of this but the Norwegians got very busy and couldn’t edit. Still some interest from UK folk in book option.


  11. As a books person, I think “Go on, do it!” Confident there would be venues available.


  12. Pingback: PhD by publication or PhD and publication – part two | patter

  13. Simon Crook says:

    Thanks Pat! I’m doing a PhD thesis by publication in Physics Education Research at the University of Sydney. I believe this the exception rather than the rule around here.

    You may be interested in a blog post I wrote on the ordeals of trial by review


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  18. kpl says:

    I am in the humanities & did my PhD by publication following the English reviewer 2 model, although I was not staff at my institution. I’m based in the US, where hardly anyone has heard of this method of obtaining a doctorate. I’m spreading the word and hope that this will change, as there are many scholars here who could benefit from this option.


    • berzelius says:

      Fortunately we not live on a planet where we can communicate to anyone very rapidly, and we here in the USA no longer need to rely on American professors and universities with their antiquated methods.


  19. A short while back I went on a search for a place that offered PhD by publication. I was note able to find anything (other than institutions that offered them to their own staff). So I’m wondering where you’re finding these.


    • All over the place. In the UK alone there are well over a dozen. A partial list: Warwick, Middlesex, Manchester Metropolitan, Stirling, Bolton, Winchester, Westminster, Brighton, Glasgow Caledonian, Sunderland, Kingston.


  20. Danny Hills says:

    Following on from my comment in 2013, I think it can be said that Australia is really embracing PhD by publication now and I certainly advocate for this approach to be taken by doctoral candidates.


  21. Richard says:

    I am actively searching for a PhD by publication programme (European model) but by distance mode as I am unable to afford the expense of actually studying abroad. I am from the West Indies and have a B.A. (local), B.S. (US), LL.M. (UK), and M.Phil. (local). I work in an academic environment and have published a few articles and an online book but that was a few years ago. Surviving in an academic environment requires a Ph.D. Some pointers in the right direction would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.


  22. SheriO says:

    This discussion underlines that the model of research training rests on the premise that the student comes to training as empty slates. Yet, out of high school, Jack Andraka, a winner of the national science fair in the USA, produced research worthy of a PhD; a biomarker for pancreatic cancer. (I hope that he can get a PhD by publication) Doctoral programs need to consider that research methods are taught in highschool, in undergrad, and in master’s level programs, and many can dive in without waiting to complete a PhD, like Andraka, Downes, Jenison. Indeed a Canadian high school in Edmonton started a research journal for student research last year (Strathcona School).
    For the many people publishing research without a doctoral degree, university research training departments need to rethink doctoral programs to account for pre-existing research acumen. Why don’t research training programs/universities also advertise their PhD by publication routes to the degree? Would that mean that the degree granter develops a clear idea of achievement represented by the training? The primary assessment instrument for PhDs the viva, lacks rigour; meaning that both examiners and candidates lack clarity as to evidence that represents valid and reliable measures of doctoral achievement.
    One commenter in the discussion here, Stephen Downes, pioneered the MOOC. His achievement without a PhD eclipses many with the degree. Academia is full of people without PhDs who have made significant and impactful contributions, Vygotsky, Erikson, Turing…etc.
    Western Governors’ University does not teach courses; it assesses achievement. Students submit evidence of their achievement for credit. Too bad, Stephen couldn’t take his publication record, his ongoing work, even his answers to his fictitious viva, to a Western Governors-like institution for PhD by publication. Research training needs a rethink, that is why this blog post is still getting comments two years later.


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