I often get asked whether it’s a good idea to publish papers during your PhD. The answer is a bit of a no brainer:  Yes.  You should. But I feel like a bit of a fraud when I give this answer because I didn’t publish very much during my PhD. I was too busy trying to finish it in 3 years and writing papers seemed like a distraction. I wanted people to use my work of course, but I only wrote one paper after I finished then put the thesis in the online repository before I turned my attention to back my job – and building this blog.

On reflection, I wish I had not taken such a laissez faire attitude to publishing during my PhD. Sure, I got my degree quickly, but the chickens are coming home to roost now that I want to get into the grant application game. I think there would have been at least  seven papers in my PhD if I had really tried – seven more than I have now. It wouldn’t have been ‘extra work’ because I could have just used them these papers in my PhD anyway.

In fact, if I had my time over, I would just compose my PhD out of published papers; the so called the ‘PhD by publication’ method. In some countries, such as Sweden, or in some disciplines, such as the sciences, doing a collection of papers instead of a ‘big book’ is a common way to get your PhD. I’m not sure about the UK, but in Australia many universities have a ‘PhD by publication’ stream – but people are usually warned not to enrol in it because it is not a ‘proper’ PhD.

Many people don’t realise there is a difference between doing a PhD with published papers in it and the PhD by publication. There are historical reasons for this confusion in Australia. Before research degrees were supported by government funding in 1999, it was relatively rare for anyone to do a PhD. In many practical disciplines, such as teaching, nursing and architecture, you just didn’t need a PhD to get a job as a university lecturer or to do research (those were the days eh?).

However, as PhDs became more common, we ended up with the curious topsy turvy situation. Some senior members of academic community, who often had very large publishing and research records, did not have a PhD, whereas their younger colleagues, with almost no record, did. With the increasing number of people wanting to a PhD, we needed these senior researchers to be qualified somehow. The PhD by Publication became a kind of ‘recognition of prior learning’ degree. To get one you just put all your published work together and wrote a covering essay, up to about 20,000 words in length.

There has been a fair bit of, in my view, un-warrented snobbery about this mode of getting a PhD. This, in addition to some confusion about how copyright works, has meant that including whole papers in a PhD thesis, which enables the author to graduate with an already populated resume, is not as popular as perhaps it should be. I believe – but check this with your supervisor first please – that anyone should be able to do a PhD which includes publications – in full or in part. I talk about how to do this in some of my workshops and here are the three most common questions I get asked:

How many papers do I need?

This is a ‘how long is a piece of string’ question. The answer I always give is: as many as you can, but not more than eight. At RMIT we set a maximum of 90,000 words, with no minimum. Most examiners will have to read a PhD in their spare time, so I always advise to aim for as few words as you can get away with. It’s far better to have a dense, rich 60,000 or 70,000 word thesis than a 90,000 word one with a lot of padding.

You can have up to eight papers of 7000 word papers in such a thesis with room for a decent introduction and conclusion. But don’t let this large number put you off. If you only have one paper that’s ok – just write the rest as normal. In the introduction you should explain the role of each paper and how they answer questions and / or build and contribute to your argument.

What if I have co-authored the paper, can I still include it?

Yes – although I think it’s preferable if you are the first named author on most, if not all of the papers. In the introduction, where you should have a synopsis of each chapter anyway, include an explanation of your role in the paper and the nature of the contribution from others.

Personally I would be happy to examine a thesis where all the papers are co-authored and some of the papers show the examinee as the second author because I think the conceit of the ‘solo author’ is one of the main flaws of the PhD as a qualification. Demonstrating that you can play well with others is a key part of being an effective researcher, even in the humanities. In the ‘real world’ we all need to work with colleagues – even if it’s only discussing and debating ideas.

However, you need to temper this view with advice from your supervisor. Disciplinary conventions should always be challenged of course, but not too much at once. It’s likely that most examiners would want to see predominately solo authored papers in a PhD. Even I would be uncomfortable if all the papers were co-authored with the supervisor because I would start to wonder how independent the student really was.

If it’s been published in a journal, can I still use it in my thesis?

Yes – but you need to get permission. When you write a for a subscription journal you are essentially giving your work away for free (I’m not going to get into what I think about this system right now, but suffice to say, I’m not a fan). From what I hear, journal editors are happy to give you permission to put a paper in your thesis, but don’t quote me on this. Always check with the journal editor before you sign if you intend to give up your copyright and keep copies of all correspondence. Usually receipt of an email is sufficient, but if in doubt consult the copyright specialist in your institution.

So this is one of those cases where I urge you to listen to Aunty Thesis Whisperer and do as I say, not as I did. Get those papers published! Stick them in your PhD and grow your resume as you go. I could say far more about publishing during your PhD, so feel free to ask questions in the comments section.

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