PhD by publication, i.e. PhD presented as a dossier of published papers with varying degrees of coherent writing, is an increasingly common dissertation format. However, as Lynn P. Nygaard And Kristin Solli Please note there are significant differences in how these parts are put together. Describing these differences and providing a checklist, they show the key questions students should be asking when aspiring to a Ph.D.
PhD by publication becomes an increasingly popular choice in the social sciences, especially in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Scandinavia, as well as in other countries. This kind of thesis is no longer “new” in the places where it has taken root, but remains an unsettled genre with striking variations across geographical regions, disciplines, and institutions. For example, there is no consensus on what to call it (thesis by publication? article-based thesis? compilation thesis? anything else?), let alone what it should look like. Institutional guidelines that explain to doctoral students (as well as those who supervise or evaluate a dissertation) are not always easy to find. If you feel left on your own to figure this out, you are not alone. Research “What is expected of me?” there will always be a good time. But first you need to know what questions to ask.
Sandwich or two-component model?
The publication of a doctoral dissertation consists of a series of individual articles plus a kind of narrative (also called a synthesis, an integrative chapter, or many, many other things). But it is not always obvious how these two parts fit together. For example, in the “sandwich model” that is common in Australia and New Zealand, articles are treated as chapters and are “sandwiched” between two descriptive chapters (usually an introduction and a conclusion) that attempt to tie different threads together. . Doctoral students go to great lengths to ensure the transition between chapters (including perhaps adding additional descriptive text between chapters of the paper) so that it reads like a book (i.e. a traditional monograph). This model is perhaps more attractive in a context where there is still some skepticism about publishing a Ph.D.
In Scandinavia, where “article-based thesis” is the default format in most social sciences, we use a two-part model. Here the narrative is separated from the articles and is written with its own beginning, middle and end. The articles themselves appear as a separate second part of the dissertation – similar to the appendices in the sense that they are separated both from the first part and from each other. Although the candidate must demonstrate strong thematic links between articles, the text itself is not expected to read as a whole.
Publications form the backbone of dissertation after publication, and there are huge differences between institutions when it comes to what constitutes a “publication” and how much is required. The main idea is that the publication should be aimed at scientists (who are not on your committee). This of course excludes blog posts and coursework (so no, you can’t submit a literature review you prepared in one of your classes unless you’ve completely revised it to be journal-ready). Journal articles are the gold standard here, but book chapters and conference proceedings are also acceptable in some contexts.
But how much do you need? Do they all need to be published? Are co-authored articles allowed? What happens if an article is rejected? These are all reasonable questions, and the answers to these questions depend a lot on where you are.
In Scandinavia, three articles written by the same author can be considered as a starting point. If you include co-authored articles (regardless of whether they are co-written with a supervisor or someone else), then sometimes more articles are expected or there are limits on the number of co-authors.
In many places, most (and sometimes all) papers are expected to be published prior to abstract submission. In other contexts, usually only one (or even none) is published or accepted for publication. Instead, papers should be considered “eligible for publication” in the opinion of your supervisor or doctoral program. In fact, in some places it is possible to submit a dissertation through publication without any published papers. When the emphasis is on “publishable quality” rather than publication status, the journal’s rejection does not matter much, as the article will simply be classified as “not yet published”.
Beyond the basic difference between the sandwich model and the two-part model, there are huge local differences in what is expected of storytelling. In some departments, we have noticed a move towards minimalism, where articles should speak for themselves, and the narrative is getting shorter and shorter (eg 5,000-7,000 words in some doctoral programs in economics). However, about 20,000–25,000 words are expected on average.
Sometimes the narrative is nothing more than a cover letter summarizing the articles. In our work, we argue that storytelling should do not limit yourself to summarizing your articles and highlight the main themes at a higher level of abstraction, aiming to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. This is because the narrative serves to showcase various aspects of your “doctorate” that may not be visible in articles written for an audience not interested in your candidacy. This allows you to show how your various articles are linked together, how (if you have written with others) you have been able to exercise common sense and independent thinking, and how (if you have drawn from different disciplines) the work you have created reflects the values the academic community that will award your degree. And if you’ve encountered some setbacks along the way to earning your PhD — like having to change your research plan halfway through because the pandemic made face-to-face interviews impossible — storytelling allows you to show how you’ve adapted to your situation.
Your unique situation
Writing a good dissertation through publication means thinking about how best to meet the expectations of your department given the unique dissertation you write: the breadth and depth of articles, how much you co-authored or drew from other disciplines, and the changes to your project that you, may have done throughout the journey.
Fig.1: What are the dissertation publishing requirements in my PhD program? Checklist
Adapted from, Nygaard, L.P. & Solly, K. (2021). Dissertation Writing Strategies by Publishing in the Social Sciences and Humanities. Routledge, 119–120.
Specific guidelines or implicit expectations in your institutions are not accidental. They usually reflect how research is typically conducted and evaluated in that context. However, when you’re new to an institution, it may not always be easy to know what “normal” is because these practices and ideas are taken for granted by those who are already insiders in that context. If your department does not provide you with clear guidance, we hope this blog post has given you an idea of what you should be asking about. We’ve also included the checklist above for you to use as a starting point. The better you understand what is expected (and why) at the institution you are part of, the more likely you are to be able to write a successful dissertation through publication.
Lynn Nygard and Kristin Solli – Authors Dissertation Writing Strategies for Publications in the Social Sciences and Humanities.
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