Dr Sprint

dr-sprint1A COLLEAGUE asked me for my thoughts on PhD by publication the other day — which set me thinking.

I like the idea far better than the ‘new route’, ‘taught’ PhDs some UK universities now offer. And why not? If a PhD is an ‘original contribution to knowledge’ accessible to scholars around the world, surely publications are a better way of doing that than a conventional thesis, which, very often, dies its life out on dusty academic bookshelves?

Arthur Georges, a professor at the University of Canberra in Australia, makes a case for it:

Publication in peer reviewed journals is the currency of science. Under this model, the arduous task of reorganizing and rewriting the thesis for publication is avoided, and the work is much more likely to see the light of day. There are much tighter constraints on what can and cannot be included in published articles, leading to a more concise thesis, with savings in effort all round. The thesis will be short (less than 200 pages), a blessing to examiners. The standards and expectations for the quality of published work are well-established, universal and unambiguous, enforcing a defacto standard across the sector that is currently lacking. The research itself is likely to be more focused on those activities likely to lead to conclusive and publishable results. And importantly, the candidate will be competitive for postdoctoral fellowships and employment at the time of graduation.

Fair logic, but PhD by publication is not without problems. One issue, as Steve Draper of the Glasgow University points out in this paper, is ‘comparability’. A conventional thesis is fairly standardised. There is a consensus among most universities on how long it should be, what it should contain, how it should be structured, etc. Not so with the publication route. As Draper puts it, there is much “divurgence in regulations” among awarding bodies.

What most universities do agree on are a) submission should contain published work, b) submission should contain a context document to introduce/support/pull together the published work and c) and there be a viva voce to decide on the award.

What universities do not agree on span more areas, mostly the nitty-gritties  (check out the guidelines at Stirling, Edinburgh, and East Anglia). For instance:

How many published pieces would make for a PhD?

Should these be peer-reviewed papers (what would happen if, say, a practioner who has written a how-to book decides to take this route)?

Should the publications be undertaken within a specific timeframe (for instance, during the time the candidate is registered as a doctoral student)?

How long and substantial should the contextual document be?

Issues, yes, but certainly not of depth to undermine the original logic. So why am I still reluctant to climb on to Georges’s – and, as it happens, Draper’s – wagon?

I guess my reservations arise out of a more fundamental – and perhaps old-fashioned – concern. For me a PhD is an exciting journey, undertaken not just to get from point A to point B quickly, but to look around, explore, absorb the landscape, seeing your destination only on the distant horizon; it is a training in not just producing original knowledge, but a test of endurance and ability to persevere with and manage larger projects.

The publication route, I fear, cuts into this. Gone is the romance, the adventure – the destination is too near, the path too flat and straight and blinkered to produce anything but ‘normal science’. As for endurance, this is a collation of short-term efforts, a series of sprints, not a marathon. Which, though impressive and a valid demonstration of academic sportsmanship, is a different kind of training — less foundational, more ephimeral.

Am I being a pedantic, old git? Tell me below.

Illustration courtesy: fotosearch.com


  1. phil macgregor · July 25, 2009

    I don’t see the reason to believe it has to be ‘normal science’ Especially given the range of acceptable styles in journals – nobody said PhD by pub. had to be achieved within a social science discipline. In fact one interest could be the demonstration of a range of approaches, methods and disciplines chosen.

  2. dan hogan · July 27, 2009

    Sreedharan manages to make the PhD through publication sound more terrifying than doing the traditional route. I like the idea of someone hammering out loads of books and articles and this being able to count for something. it doesn’t have to be a fast process – it can be slower than a glacier. I think it is great that a PhD is about detail and drilling down deep. But maybe it doesn’t reflect a different kind of intelligence – an omnivore who consumes loads of different stuff and writes lots of different things. The problem with the publication model is loads of people might be able to go for a PhD and it will make the club less exclusive. I guess their real reward is it is better to have books on the shelf – rather than having a PhD that no one, apart from the marker, will ever read.

  3. Chindu Sreedharan
    Chindu Sreedharan · July 30, 2009

    Phil: Yes, certainly, PhD by publication can be interdisciplinary. But the chances of revolutionary science in research aimed at getting x number of papers might be lower. Not that a traditional PhD would mean good and solid research always, of course — but by and large it encourages that opportunity more, I think.

    Dan: Absolutely agree. PhD on its own is not much good — unless the ‘knowledge’ can be disseminated… Talking about books, I guess the question is what kind of books would qualify for a PhD, with what kind of supporting documentation. An issue: is the PhD only about being research active yourself? Or does it involve a training in supervising research activity as well — and if so, a ‘non-academic’ book, will that provide for it?

  4. Barry · August 3, 2009

    A series of publications over a period of time, even a long one, can involve the same kind of sustained attention to a problem that a conventional PhD involves, a ‘marathon’. A key issue at present is whether the publication route can be prospectively chosen. Hitherto it has been retrospective only, for those few who have been doing doctoral-level work but for some reason never got around to registering for a PhD. I am with those who want to keep it that way, on the grounds that if you haven’t done much of the work yet but know you want a PhD then there is no reason not to do it in the usual way.

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