Thesis by Publication
This post is partially based on guidelines from the University of Western Australia, see: http://www.postgraduate.uwa.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/2930217/ThesisByPapers_160916.pdf
While there’s no worldwide agreement on PhD or Master’s thesis format, increasing pressure to publish is resulting in a move in Australia towards submitting theses as a series of papers (otherwise known as a thesis by publication). Although there is substantial variation in how a thesis by publication should be formatted (you should check your university’s current policy), here we summarise a typical approach, along with some potential benefits of and considerations when choosing this method of completing your PhD thesis.
How should I format my thesis?
Some universities in Australia have specific guidelines that stipulate that a thesis by publication needs to contain a set amount of published work. However, typically, students have the freedom to format their thesis in whatever way is most appropriate for their project and discipline. This may be as a traditional monograph, a series of papers suitable for publication (either a research article in a scholarly journal, which is typical for those in STEM research, or a conference paper or book chapter, which might be more relevant for those in HASS disciplines) or a combination of more traditional research chapters and papers. You should discuss with your supervisors early in your candidature what the most appropriate model is for presenting your PhD thesis, and how many publications are typically expected in your discipline.
Advantages of a thesis by publication
There are a number of advantages to writing your thesis as a series of papers. First, submitting your thesis as a series of already published work usually reduces the time required at the end of your candidature to compile your thesis. A thesis that consists of a series of publications may require some minor formatting changes for consistency, but otherwise you can typically present the papers as they were published. The thesis by publication will also require a substantial literature review in the introduction and a discussion chapter at the end to link the separate papers into a cohesive narrative and to place the papers in the context of the established body of knowledge. Of course, the ease with which this can be done depends on the nature of the papers to be linked; however, for the most part, the hard work has already been done (although this is not to diminish the extra work publishing requires!).
Second, submitting your thesis as a series of papers is efficient if the ultimate goal is to publish. Rather than writing the thesis and then revising this work and separately writing papers for publication, the papers are written and then reproduced in your thesis.
A third advantage is the increased mentoring and advice received through the peer-review process, which is excellent for your development as a researcher. Preparing manuscripts for publication generally requires substantial feedback from supervisors, and the peer-review process, while arduous at the time, is a great opportunity to hone your research and writing skills, and will greatly improve the quality of each subsequent paper. A thesis by publication also has the benefit of providing direct evidence to examiners that your work is of publishable standard, which is one of the thesis examination criteria.
Finally, publishing work prior to submitting your thesis offers advantages to career progression. It provides the means to create a track record of publications during candidature, which is often required for competitive post-doctoral applications.
Is a thesis by publication right for me?
While there are numerous advantages to producing a thesis as a series of papers, some factors need to be considered. First, not all projects divide well into publishable papers. Research consisting of one main study and an extended data collection period, for example, may be better suited to a more traditionally formatted thesis. Another consideration is that examiners may not be familiar with the thesis by publication format. This may be particularly true in the HASS disciplines. In this case, make sure to determine what the rules of your university are and, if permitted by your university, indicate this in your thesis introduction.
Possibly the main consideration though is that the peer-review process is time-consuming (see a Nature feature article about this topic last year (2016), Does it take too long to publish research?), and it may be difficult to get all papers published prior to thesis submission. Although not all papers need to be published, most theses by publication should contain at least one published paper. Hence, the time-consuming process of waiting for feedback on submitted papers and the time taken to undertake sometimes major revisions is a sacrifice. In addition, despite one’s best efforts, journals may not publish a paper even though the research presented is high quality. For example, in the sciences, null results can be difficult to publish (although hopefully the tide will begin to change on this, which would save researchers some serious time; see Why it's time to publish research “failures”). While previously, it was expected that a thesis by publication could only include published papers, many universities have updated their policies to reflect a more flexible format. Most theses by publication can now consist of work that is published, submitted for publication or in preparation for submission. So, in this case, papers that are difficult to publish can still be incorporated into a thesis and presented as manuscripts.
Ultimately, in the words of Professor David Pannell at UWA (see Prose, psychopaths and persistence: Personal perspectives on publishing), publishing in peer-reviewed journals requires, ‘fortitude, resilience and persistence’. Of course, it is the very nature of withstanding these knockbacks and the time-consuming revisions that are involved in the process of producing a thesis by publication that can both prepare you for future post-doctoral positions, and result in an outstanding thesis.