B.I.S.S Research White Papers

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.