PhD by Publication: What You Need to KnowNov 27, 2023
When it comes to pursuing a PhD, the traditional approach is to write and submit a dissertation. However, another path is the 'PhD by Publication' route, which is starting to become a more popular approach globally. In this blog post, I delve into what a PhD by Publication entails, its advantages and disadvantages, how it differs from a PhD by dissertation and what global differences exist in this approach. We will also answer some frequently asked questions about the process, such as how the PhD is assessed and who this option may be suitable for. If you are considering a PhD or curious about the different pathways to obtain one, read on to learn more about this option.
Understanding PhD by Publication
You a earn a doctoral degree by making a substantial contribution to research. Traditionally, you demonstrate and communicate this contribution in one extended written piece called a dissertation. However, because of the significant role that peer-reviewed journal articles play in advancing research, and because the ability to effectively write and publish journal articles is a critical skill for academic researchers, more and more programs are introducing an alternative to the traditional dissertation: PhD by Publication.
In this case, a PhD is awarded based on portfolio of published work, demonstrating significant contributions to the research field. The portfolio must exhibit an in-depth understanding of the research area, and most commonly consists of several published (or 'publishable', see below) journal articles accompanied by text that explain how the articles integrate with each other to advance knowledge. In this way, the alternative process still aligns with the traditional PhD goals with an emphasis on making a significant research contribution.
What is a PhD by Publication?
A PhD by Publication is doctoral degree granted by evaluating a collection of published materials that showcase a noteworthy advancement made in the field of research.
PhD by Prior Publication: A Different Thing
The phrase 'PhD by Publication" can mean slightly different things depending on context. In some cases, universities award doctorates to individuals with a prior record of publication. This approach allows individuals who have already contributed significantly to their field of study to obtain a doctoral degree. The requirements for this kind of PhD vary depending on the university and the specific program, and while this approach can be an alternative pathway to earning a PhD, it is not widely offered nor common. In this blog post I am primarily discussing PhD by Publication where the publications are produced during the period of enrolment.
How does it work?
In most respects, a PhD by Publication works the same way as a traditional, standard PhD programme. The application form and entry requirements are usually the same. You still generally work with one primary supervisor, and a team of co-supervisors or committee members. You still carry out original research and communicate your results in written form. This final written document is assessed by your supervisor, committee, and sometimes external examiners. You still usually have to pass a 'defense', 'viva', or other kind of oral examination, at the completion of your research degree program.
The main difference is exactly how you communicate your results in written form. A traditional PhD dissertation is one long written document. While different programs have different requirements and guidelines, in most cases you still prepare a single document for PhD by Publication; the difference is that this document contains your publications, plus some sort of narrative or synthesis to explain how the stand-alone papers work together to advance knowledge.
There are different approaches to presenting the papers and synthesis, and the method required or preferred is largely dependant on where in the world you are based (see below).
One method is to "book-end" or "sandwich" the publications with Introduction and Conclusion chapters that explain how everything ties together. In this approach sometimes there is additional narrative text between the individual publications to create a coherent flow so that the document reads more like a dissertation, book, or monograph.
Another method can be described as a "two-part" approach where the narrative and the published papers are in separate sections, usually starting with the narrative section, and with the published articles following.
The traditional route toward earning a PhD degree includes submitting a dissertation. Many programmes now offer an alternative route that focuses on multiple academic publications rather than one large monograph.
Advantages and Disadvantages
There are pros and cons do doing a PhD by Publication. Prospective doctoral students should carefully consider these pros and cons, taking into account their own work style and career goals. Additionally, seeking advice from mentors in their specific field and understanding the specific requirements of the chosen program is crucial in making an informed decision.
- Real-world impact and visibility: This approach emphasises the importance of research that has been published in peer-reviewed journals, showcasing the real-world and impact of the candidate's work and increasing it's visibility
- Skill development: Writing, submitting, and revising journal articles are all important skills for a successful academic career
- Structure: A well-planned PhD by Publication can provide more structure to a doctoral program by breaking down the research programme into more manageable segments
- Feedback: The reviews received during the publication process can help improve the research
- Streamlined evaluation: The material has already undergone peer review, meaning the evaluation of scholarly rigour, subject knowledge, and quality is more straightforward. The published papers have already been assessed by members of the academic community.
- Networking and collaboration opportunities: Engaging in the publication process with co-authors for collaborative, multidisciplinary projects provides opportunities for connecting and working with other researchers, academics, and professionals in the field.
- Evidence of productivity: A collection of published research papers demonstrates a candidate's productivity and contribution to their field, which may make them more competitive on the job market
- Lack of cohesion: One criticism is that a PhD by Publication may lack the cohesion and integrated narrative that a traditional dissertation provides, as the papers may cover different topics or themes.
- Quantity bias: The pressure to publish may lead to a bias toward quantity over quality, with a focus on getting papers out rather than thoroughly investigating and developing a single research question.
- Concerns about originality: There may be concerns about the originality of work if the candidate has co-authored papers or if the work is part of a larger research group effort.
- Impact of negative feedback: Negative and/or conflicting feedback, and rejection, during the peer review process can derail plans and productivity
- Unpredictable timelines: Papers are not always accepted by journals in a timely manner, which can lead to potential delays and heightened stress levels. (Due to this, some programs require "publishable", or submitted papers, rather than fully published papers.)
- Varying perspectives: Not all parts of the world or fields embrace the approach favourably. This diversity of opinions can introduce challenges in terms of recognition within certain academic circles.
There are many pros and cons to consider when deciding whether to pursue a PhD by Publication. One pro is that academic publishing is an important and valuable skill to develop during a doctorate program. One con is that extended timelines during the peer-review process can potentially cause delays and stress.
Perspectives on and approaches to PhD by Publication vary across the world. Here I summarise some of the broad patterns, but this is an ever-evolving landscape, so make sure to also consult with your supervisors, mentors, and peers for deeper insights.
PhD by Publication: US and Canada
The PhD by Publication is becoming more widespread across the US and Canada in many fields. The 'book-ended' or 'sandwich style' format is the most common, but it depends on institution (Paltridge and Starfield 2023).
PhD by Publication: Australia
Australian universities and researchers, in general, have really embraced the PhD by Publication model and it is common doctoral pathway in Australia. This is especially true in STEM and Medicine, but continues to become more common in the Social Sciences and Humanities.
PhD by Publication: Europe
There is quite a bit of variability across Europe when it comes to PhD by Publication. In some regions, including Scandinavia, PhD by Publication has nearly become the default format in many fields. The 'two-part model' is the expectation when it comes to assessment of the final written work.
In the United Kingdom, however, the traditional thesis is still preferred for those enrolled PhD programs. At UK universities, the term "PhD by Publication" more often refers to degrees awarded retrospectively, based on already published body of work.
Opinions on the value of a PhD by Publication, and the relevant expectations and requirements for earning a degree on this pathway, varies significantly across the world
Frequently Asked Questions
How is the PhD by Publication assessed?
The assessment of a PhD by Publication is generally very similar to the assessment of a traditional dissertation. It involves the submission of a written document that contains both the published academic papers and a narrative the explains how the papers together make an original contribution to advancing knowledge. Depending on the country and institution, this document will be assessed by your supervisors, committee members, and usually at least one external assessor.
How many papers?
There is A LOT of variability in terms of how many papers are included in theses submitted for PhD by Publication. A broad-brush generalisation is about 3-6 papers, however this varies by discipline, country, and institution.
An Australian study in 2018 found that the mean number of papers published that were included in Humanities and Social Sciences "Theses by Publication" was 4.5, with a large range from 1 to 12 (Mason and Merga 2018).
How long does it take?
In general, the duration of a PhD by Publication is the same as a traditional doctoral degree. Program lengths vary significantly across the world; PhD programmes in the UK, Australia, and South Africa, for example, are generally 3 years in length. In the USA and Canada, PhD programmes include a significant coursework component and are rarely shorter than 4 years, with many PhD candidates taking 5-7 years to earn their degree.
What should the word length of the submitted publications be?
Journal article length varies greatly depending on the type of article and the journal. In general, journal articles tend to be between about 4000-7000 words.
Who is the PhD by Publication suitable for?
Many potential applicants and students will find this route suitable for them. This is especially true for those wishing to seek an academic career after their doctoral program because having published papers on your C.V. often helps with career progression in academia. However, whether this route is a good idea for you will depend a lot on where in the world you are doing your PhD and where you hope to find work, the subject area of research, and your personal ability to handle negative feedback and juggle multiple responsibilities. It's a good idea to talk to your supervisor or potential supervisor in advance of making this decision, as well as seeking guidance from others wherever possible - the head of department, other members of academic staff, current PhD students, and recent PhD graduates.
What does 'publishable' mean?
Most postgraduate programmes recognise the timeline challenges inherent in academic publishing. There can be delays outside the control of the candidate. In response, rather than having an official requirement for a certain number of 'published' papers, there may be a requirement for 'publishable' papers.
Using this term introduces subjectivity into the process, but in general a 'publishable' paper will be one that makes an original contribution to research, clearly states a main argument that is supported by evidence, and has an appropriate format (usually IMRaD for original research articles). A 'publishable' paper may or may not have already been submitted to a journal and currently be under review.
Based on an Australian study of Humanities and Social Science PhDs by Publication, 87% contained at least one published paper, 16% contained papers 'in review', and 34% contained prepared manuscripts that had not yet be submitted (Mason and Merga 2018).
What kind of publications are accepted?
The kinds of publications that can be included varies depending on the specific requirements of the programme. Peer-reviewed journal articles are universally considered acceptable components of this kind of portfolio of work. Other kinds of publications that may also be considered appropriate include published conference proceedings and book chapters. In some fields, other works might also be considered as part of a PhD portfolio.
Can I still publish papers if I do a traditional PhD dissertation?
Yes. Many doctoral candidates in programs around the world submit a traditional dissertation for assessment, while also publishing their research in journals over the course of their candidature.
In order to account for uncertain timelines during the publication process, many universities who award PhDs by Publication will accept 'publishable' manuscripts as part of the requirement.
In conclusion, pursuing a PhD by publication offers several advantages such as increased visibility, and a more practical approach to research. However, it is important to consider the potential disadvantages such as the timeline concerns, and a portofolio of work that may be considered less cohesive than a traditional dissertation. It is also crucial to understand that the attitudes toward, and the requirements for a PhD by publication may vary globally, so it is important to research and consult with your mentors, supervisors, and peers. Ultimately, choosing between a PhD by Publication and a traditional doctorate by dissertation depends on your personal goals.
Starting to plan your research publications? Check out my First 7 Steps Checklist to learn how to get started productively and focus on the most important considerations.