PhD by publication or PhD and publication – part two

After my first post about the changing nature of the PhD and the move to PhD by publication I was contacted by a number of people who were doing the by-publication doctorate. They were enthusiastic about it. One group were epidemiologists who noted that this may be a route which suits science in particular; they also suggested that they found writing the commentary/overview/exegesis pretty boring compared to writing the papers. One of them, based in the UK, was not required to have published the papers but rather to have produced papers that were, in the eyes of the examiners, publishable. The different between published and publishable may be important.

Another person commented that they felt that their PhD by publication had given them a head start on scholarly work. Rather than producing a tome that no one would ever read, they would complete their PhD with already published papers. Rather than a text produced for examiners only, they were writing with a real scholarly purpose for a real audience for a real publication – something that, as one Australian comment noted, is the norm of academic work. (It’s perhaps worth saying that one of the Australian doctorates by publication that I have examined did have, as the last of four publications, a paper for a professional readership and not a refereed journal, so a different real audience – this made the claim for potential contribution very strong.)

It’s probably not too hard to guess that, since I’m happy to examine PhDs by publication, I’m generally in favour of them. But it’s also important to note that my argument here is not about favoring one model or the other – I’m actually arguing for more discussion and more thinking about the equity implications of diversifying the doctorate. I’m also arguing for more discussion of the changes that are happening …

I’ve recently encountered more by-publication researchers in my writing workshops and had some discussions with some colleagues in mainland Europe who run Humanities and Social Sciences centres like I do. Putting all of this information together with the conference symposium on the diversifying routes that I referred to in the last post, I’ve come up with a starting list of four issues that seem to me to need a much greater scholarly airing.

(1) which journals to publish in?

None of the PhDs in arts, humanities and social sciences I’ve encountered on the by-publication route were writing for open-access journals. A minority were very concerned to publish in the highest status journal in their field – citation indices were held to be more important than readership. But it seemed that there had been little formal conversation in their institutions about where to publish – this decision remained something between supervisors and doctoral researchers. Unless they encountered them elsewhere, the by-publication doctoral researchers were largely sequestered from current debates about (a) open access versus commercial publication, and (b) the relative merits of different ways of counting citations and how these might/might not matter. Given that scholarship may well be their future, it seems important that the research training provided for all doctoral researchers does include something about the future of academic publishing.

It also seems that at present there is no way of knowing where by-publication route PhDs are choosing to publish. At some point, when someone does the numbers, we will get an answer to the question about who, if anyone, profits from their decisions. We may know if journals have noticed an increase in submissions. We will also have some idea about the distribution of the hidden costs of reviewing, and which peer reviewing communities have done the unrecompensed work of supporting the by-publication route. Sounds like a nice little research project to me!!

(2) are journal articles a better evaluation measure than the book?

Not all disciplines have given up on the book. While there may be debates about open and digital publication versus traditional commercial print publication, the production of the extended and evidenced argument still has value. It is even still ‘counted’ in the UK for audit purposes, although perhaps not as heavily weighted in some disciplines as some academics might think is desirable. The symbolic implication of changing the ‘test’ of scholarship from an extended monograph to the article does concern some disciplines more than others – although all of us ought not to let it pass unnoticed and without consideration.

On a practical level, some academics are concerned that the by-publication route does not include the possibility of a book (except for UK staff members, see previous post) and, more contentiously perhaps, some maintain that researchers will not be adequately prepared for scholarly work if they have not had the experience of producing a long monograph as their PhD. But equally, it could be argued that the monograph does not prepare researchers for writing high quality journal articles and that this also is important. However, there has to date been little discussion and debate about the various affordances of each doctoral genre and the parity between them.

The compromise seems to be – in the UK at least -that many doctoral researchers now find that they have to do both! There certainly has not been nearly enough discussion about the increasing press on the UK doctorate, where there is an expectation of engagement in a range of training modules and involvement in more career training including interning and writing for publication and producing a monograph within a three year time period. This performative creep certainly deserves widespread scholarly discussion.

(3) what are the three papers about?

One of the most important issues at stake in the by-publication route is the decision about the focus of the three papers. In most instances of the by-publication route (saving the UK staff member by publication process), doctoral researchers are still expected to produce a proposal for a research project. They must still do the literatures work and the methodological and methods work in the same way as the PhD by-monograph researcher. Their research might then be staged, with a paper emerging from each of the stages. Or the research might be one larger project from which three distinct papers are taken.

However, I have seen researchers come adrift is in trying to make one paper about literatures, one about methodology and methods and the other about the actual research. Troubles have arisen because the researcher simply didn’t have enough reading and enough experience to write with sufficient depth about them, and didn’t know the fields well enough to be clear about the contribution their literatures/methods paper would make. But this example may not be widespread (and how would I know given the lack of systematic research in the area?). But the example does make me wonder if there are better or worse, easier or harder, ways to sort out the focus for the papers. It seems to me that it would be helpful if there were some kind of forum where by-publication doctoral supervisors and researchers could simply share experiences about the process. There is probably, as is the case with doctoral education more generally, all kinds of wisdom currently locked up in individual supervision relationships and institutions. And it’d be very helpful to make that more public.

(4) the perils of the writing for reviewing process

The most hazardous part of the by-publication – as opposed to publishable papers – PhD opportunity, is obviously bound up with the writing and reviewing process. By-publication route doctoral researchers all have to assume the textual identity of expert and write with the commensurate scholarly authority quite early in their candidature. This is not easy for any doctoral researcher – the imposter syndrome is alive and well – and it would be interesting to know if assuming the expert position is easier, the same or harder for by-publication route candidates.

And it does seem that many of the European PhD by-publication institutions do not offer doctoral researchers additional support for the text work/identity work of journal publication. While they do offer training courses in research methods, less attention is paid to the writing/thinking/identity work of publication. Science doctoral researchers typically get this support in lab settings but this is not the case for most arts, humanities and social science doctoral researchers. This lack of attention to writing is not confined to the by-publication route of course, but it is perhaps something that one might expect institutions espousing the by-publication route to take a lead on, given the critical importance of writing in the journal article route.

The press for completion that is now increasingly the norm right across Europe, not just in the UK, also may have the down-side of leaving candidates no option but to publish quickly, in a timeline which may not match their actual thinking time. The notion of slow thinking/quick writing does not map easily onto any of the current doctoral paths and it remains to be seen which route finds it more of an issue. Perhaps asking in depth questions about publication is something that institutions need to do – they could be routinely talking with doctoral researchers and supervisors about writing and publication, not simply reporting whether it has occurred.

Finally of course, there are the vagaries of the reviewing process. That will be the topic of a future post. I’m going to introduce one of the Norwegian researchers from our symposium. His story of being peer reviewed is not about a cruel reviewer, quite the opposite – and indeed that will be part of the point. However the next post is by Katie Wheat who reflects on her experiences of the UK doctorate in the light of seeing the mainland European by-publication route close up.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in Big Book, dissertation, doctoral education, doctoral research, equity, Europe, PhD, PhD by publication, publishing, research education, research project and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to PhD by publication or PhD and publication – part two

  1. Michael says:

    In my institution, publishing papers and thesis is (or supposed to be) the norm, and I think it is the right way to do it. As a scientist, you should be able to communicate your research through peer-reviewed lilterature and produce a coherent thesis summarizing your work. Which thesis, by the way, is more than just stapling your articles together! Difficult – yes. But no one said science is easy.


  2. rcayley says:

    At my university, the practice–for those departments that have adopted it– is definitely publish-able papers (usually three) rather than published papers. In practice, this means that the first paper is often already published and the second is somewhere in the pipeline by the time the final paper is complete. My sense is that this practice is spreading, although it seems to be following from the pre-eminence of the article rather than driving it. What interests me is the great variety that exists in the degree of integration of the three papers. For some departments, the demands of integration is slight; in others, the demands are high. The latter cases are interesting to me because the highly integrated papers-style thesis seems a curious and challenging document to produce. I look forward to reading more of your posts on this!


  3. Regarding the ‘impostor syndrome’ you mention, I’m wondering if it is not easier to overcome this via the publication route (?). One is not an ‘impostor’ until having been published. At the same time, one ceases to be an impostor when published. -There’s no middle ground and that might be helpful. But it may be that I don’t quite understand the true nature of this ‘impostor syndrome’ you alluded to (?). I know a bit about perfectionism though and I think students of that profile can easily be put off by the thought of writing a thesis which cannot be quite as polished as a published article. Another dimension regards fear of disappointment (i.e. my problem having frequently disappointed due to weaker skills in writing). I imagine supervisors are involved in the ‘by publication route’ so I’m not suggesting students would all of a sudden be free of any pressure to impress. Yet, I’m wondering if the ‘thought experiment’ of having to write towards a publication might not work favourably for those students who would rather not be known/exposed until having demonstrated publishable writing… – Just a couple of thoughts that came to mind when I read your post – 🙂


  4. macademise says:

    Very interesting post, thanks.

    As to the question of where do we publish: I’m not sure this question is any different from other researchers? My experience, and that of my colleagues, is that which journal we target is generally decided based on which scholarly conversations we want to engage in, and which journals that allow for the theoretical/ empirical debates and methodological orientations within which we work. Some people are oriented towards impact factor, but my sense is that there is a cut off point – it’s not necessarily an aim to publish in a journal with the highest impact factor, but rather the journals have to be seen as ‘good enough’ to qualify as a peer reviewed journal of decent quality [I’m writing this recognising that the ‘good enough’ criteria here obviously is very vague, but I’m using the term in ‘common sensical’ way].

    Thankfully, I’m someone who has benefitted immensely from a lot of workshops and courses where the question of how to write (and have published) a journal article has been addressed head on, and where senior researchers have helped us debunk and make explicit what is expected, and how we go about getting there. In my opinion, this is craft apprenticeship at its best – because research is very much a craft in addition to intellectual activity, and I believe that many senior researchers at my institution treat it as such – to great benefit for those of us being supervised by them.

    On the book versus publications: my impression from UK based colleagues is also that they do twice the work – they are expected to produce a monograph and also publish on the side. Given the choice, I’d rather just publish during the PhD, and consider writing the book later. One piece of advice often given to PhD students where I’m based when they are faced with the question of going with a monograph or a PhD, is that it’s much easier to convert a series of articles to a monograph later, than it is to convert a monograph to a series of articles. I don’t know if this is true, but it’s something to consider.

    I personally see no reason why review processes should be framed as a problem. I think you learn so much from them, and my article drafts always improve massively after a review, even in cases where I (or my supervisors) might think that the reviewers didn’t quite hit the nail on the head. Peer review is the quality assurance mechanism that lies at the bottom of all our academic work. As PhD candidates, we should learn the dynamics and craft knowledge of this process sooner rather than later, as it is an integral part of academic research. We are all told that we need to expect rejections. I think that’s OK – it’s just part of academic work in general.

    The point about open access is really important. I’ve not encountered a single conversation at my institute about this issue – ever…

    I also identify with the point about thinking slowly, but I don’t actually think that predominantly has to do with the format – it’s more about managing your process, as well as managing your supervisors.

    Sorry about the looong comment – but your post generated a lot of thoughts for me 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. M-H says:

    One thing no-one has addressed is that the thinking you do for one kind of writing can be repurposed for another kind of writing, and this is an important academic skill in many disciplines. So the writing of the long monograph doesn’t exclude taking chunks of that and reforming them into a conference presentation or an article or a book chapter as you go along. It’s not writing from scratch; it’s editing and representing your ideas in another package. I think it helps develop your thinking in the writing of the thesis too, because you’re forced to look at what you’re writing through another lens – a more tightly focused one.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m using the PhD by Publication for an entirely mercenary purpose – I need to a PhD to advance my (non-Academic) career trajectory. A PhD by publication allows me to get a research background, an academic familiarity with the topic and a peer-reviewed publication history in one fell swoop. I can incorporate work that I have published previously, and I look forward to writing the linking narrative. At the age of 40 I don’t have time to stuff around with a PhD that may take 3, 4,5, 6, 10 years before I can consider publishing. I am not going to be an academic at the end on my PhD (employment markets if nothing else will ensure that!). Having said that, I have come into the PhD with a clear idea on topic and papers to write, which is making this a much easier process than perhaps if you came into this mode with no preparation.

    The main issue I find is that although my institution allows the PhD by publication, many potential supervisors are a bit frightened of taking on a student in this mode. I am definitely a bit of curiosity to many academic staff here!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Jeffrey Hall says:

    Thank you for an interesting post. The ‘three article approach’ to PhD’s in the field of education has increasingly become common here at our institution. One of the first questions I was confronted with was ‘Monograph or articles?’. I’m currently writing my first research article, and am sometimes quite envious of colleagues who have a ‘book’ to show for their hard PhD work. However, some of my ‘hardened’ professors have told me the opposite; “Going from monograph to writing articles – that was real tough!”.

    Well, soon ‘one down (hopefully) and two to go’. No turning back now:-)

    Jeff, U. of Oslo


  8. Anonymous says:

    As a current (australian) PhD Candidate working towards a PhD by publication in an environment where nobody has any idea what that might look like, the glimmering light in my tunnel is the fact that it is easier to mark a PhD by publication – the majority has already gone through peer review, thus its quality is less questionable.

    Food for thought.


  9. Linda says:

    I’m in the final stages of a PhD by Publication (in Australia). I’ll have 6 papers in total (1/2 published and 1/2 ready for review). The hardest thing for me has been balancing what think I need to report about my research study to satisfy PhD examiners, and the focus that the journal reviewers have pushed for my publications. However, overall it has been a very valuable experience, especially in learning how to identify target journals and how to respond to reviewers’ feedback.

    Liked by 1 person

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  11. BS says:

    Interesting articles. As a student in the final throes of the PhD by published work in the UK (oral examination in 2 days time) it is certainly not an easy option. In my case as an experienced clinician it is a sensible choice as opposed to taking 3-5 years out of practice and career. The work presented has already demonstrated evidence of scientific knowledge and as part of the narrative its place in international subject knowledge has to be justified.
    One thing which is still not clear in the UK is whether this route will be as acceptable to funding bodies (as the Professional Doctorate is clearly not), or whether doctoral graduates will not be explicit as to the route pursued, with presumption being it is same as standard monograph route


  12. Sumon says:

    I had a horrible experience of having my PhD rejected in a UK university in 2012 because of my supervisor’s hostility as well as my long detachment from the university due to my location in India as an academic in an Indian university. But I have a strong feeling that my thesis was a novel and original one in social science and would have passed if I was given a re-writing time, which was refused. Since all my options are simply gone, can anyone tell me whether it is still possible to recieve PhD by publication ( anywhere) and with a single published book which I am presently working at.


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  17. gbinspain says:

    Thanks for these posts – parts 1 & 2 – they’ve been really helpful in raising the issues to be considered for someone considering a PhD.


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