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PhDs by publication

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By Stephen W. Draper,   Department of Psychology,   University of Glasgow.


Relatively recently, many UK universities have introduced a new mode for awarding a PhD -- "by publication". The idea is, that a researcher who has published at least as much as would go in a conventional PhD should be able to apply for the award of a PhD. I have recently (January 2003) acted as external examiner for two of these at two different universities, and naturally have also looked at my own university's regulations on this. This document presents my resulting personal opinions on the issue.

What seems clear is that the idea or spirit behind all of these is essentially the same, but the regulations are presently (in these early days) markedly different. Furthermore, reflection on the issues suggests that perhaps all universities should reconsider their regulations as it is easy to imagine and indeed often to find actual cases they cannot at present cover sensibly.

Now (in 2012) I realise I should point out that this page discusses the UK retrospective model of PhD by publication: where the candidate has done a lot of research and wants to have their capability as a researcher certified by a PhD. Scandinavian countries have now got a considerable history of a different model, where young researchers do their PhD by accumulating publications with the purpose of constructing a PhD: the prospective model. I have read one or two of these, but not been involved in examining or supervising them. They require a rather different model of supervision from either the retrospective model or the traditional model of PhDs unrelated to publication. (Planning work to turn into publications; and advising on what journals to aim for.) This model is however attractive in some ways, training candidates even more directly as researchers, and boosting the host department's publication record.

Australian universities are debating which model to go for.

(Current regulations about this at Glasgow University can be found via this page.)


A simple first symptom of the divergence in regulations is to look at the required length of the accompanying document the candidate writes especially for the submission (called such things as "context document" or "critical essay" or "explanatory essay"). The four universities I have encountered required:
  1. 2-5 thousand words
  2. 10-15 thousand words
  3. 10-25 thousand words
  4. No limit in the regulations, but the first candidate was more or less forced to write 30,000 words.
Remember this is not four universities chosen to make this point, but 100% of the accidental sample of four I have been concerned with. More examples (and more diversity) are in the References section below.

A closer look comparing different university's regulations reveals a second more fundamental area of variance and a real, unresolved, latent difficulty: there is not only no consensus on length, there is no real agreement on purpose or format. The confounding issue is whether the accompanying document is meant to be an application form, i.e. a bureaucratic document, written as a communication to the examiners, directly arguing about the worth of the submission (even though there is nothing comparable to this in a conventional PhD submission), or whether it is meant to be an academic document that goes in the library as a communication written for other scholars.

One of the underlying causes of this confusion within and between attempts to write regulations for this new mode of PhD constitutes the third problem. It applies much more widely than to this topic, but has particular importance here. It is apparent that in drafting the regulations the authors were thinking about what the examiners would need and find convenient, and were not thinking about what would be lodged in the library as the permanent contribution to knowledge by the candidate for other scholars round the world. I interpret this in turn as a case of specifying one possible process (in fact an arbitrary and probably non-optimal selection of one) when the actually important thing is to specify the properties of the end product, and to use the examiners to make a judgement and certification on whether those properties were achieved in each case. This is particularly important for a higher degree in research (in contrast, say, to a road driving test); and particularly important for a new mode where the people drafting the regulations have no experience of the ways the intention might in fact be satisfied. In the light of this failing, I will next discuss the issues from first principles. We do not know if the regulation authors failed to consider first principles, but their failure to state them has demonstrably led to bad regulations; and, I shall argue, has furthermore left their universities unable to cope with cases they almost certainly would wish to cope with. In fact universities seem not to publish anything about the purpose of PhDs by publication. This can only slow the evolution of regulations to better forms, while leaving candidates at the mercy of divergent interpretations by examiners and supervisors.

First principles

What does the university really want, academically, from this new mode of PhD?
  1. Comparability: Does the work presented satisfy all the essential criteria of a conventional PhD, though by different superficial means?
  2. Will there be a permanent library record, accessible by scholars round the world, in some way of comparable utility for those scholars to conventional PhDs?

Here I offer one way of expressing the essential properties of a conventional PhD. The regulations in each university, and the forms examiners must use, express these in various slightly different ways, as you may verify for yourself. However I perceive there as being very widespread consensus in the academic community (at least in the UK and USA) as to the real essential requirements.

We might note in passing that there is an implicit divergence in aim between the new mode of PhD by publication on the one hand, and on the other the new tendency to require explicit coursework training on research for PhDs and the "new route" PhDs by coursework. The former is about judging by results alone, while the latter are tending towards judging by training not research contribution.

Second principles

What does this mean in practice for an examiner asked to make the judgement about a submission for a PhD by publication? There are probably three main implied issues: quantity, quality, and integration over a large scope of work.

Reference cases, real and imagined

In my view, more thought should be given to the range of submissions that might appear. In this section I will sketch some cases that could be used to indicate the range that should be considered. The response should be to change university regulations. This might be to change the regulations for PhD by publication; but it might instead or in addition be to introduce additional modes for awarding a PhD. At one extreme there might be a proliferation of modes; at the other, a single general set of criteria and more onus on examiners to deal with each case separately and the power to make rather different demands on candidates. Here are four kinds of case, the first in three variants.

1a. "Dear sir, I have been awarded the Nobel prize, and, as the citation mentioned, largely on the basis of my paper [ref]. I therefore hereby apply for a PhD by publication." Any university that turned this down would lay itself open to ridicule on the front pages of newspapers. Why should such a researcher have to write a 25,000 word essay when the argument, giving overwhelming reasons for the award, can be expressed in one sentence?

You might say that this is very rare, and that in such rare cases the university might immediately and reasonably respond by awarding an honorary DSc or some such. However essentially similar cases may be less dramatic, but still compelling.

1b. "Dear sir, my paper [ref] has become the most cited paper in the area of X in the last 5 years, and is widely regarded as having created a new field of research. I therefore hereby apply for a PhD by publication."

1c. This is a real case. David Huffman invented in 1952 what was soon called "Huffman coding" as his final year undergraduate project. (Try typing "huffman coding" into a search engine, or look here or here. Huffman coding has a variable codeword length, allowing text compression; but despite this, no codeword is a prefix of any other, so simple unambiguous decoding is still straightforward.) It became adopted in engineering practice, and taught in undergraduate texts. Should he have been eligible for a PhD by publication without further work?

These three scenarios raise several issues. Impact on a field is not a relevant criterion for a conventional PhD because impact cannot have emerged when it is submitted, but it is clearly of possible relevance to a PhD by publication. If the impact is clear and large, is it appropriate to demand a large essay, when the compelling argument for impact can be made in a sentence or a page? And if there is impact, then the need for critical self-appraisal seems of little importance since others have clearly done this. Do we want a PhD by publication that would not be automatically awarded to the most important research contributors? Should we insist on candidates jumping through academic hoops, even in cases where that has no value at all for their contribution to knowledge?

2. A conventional PhD is often turned into a book. If a published book is submitted, should this be eligible by itself? It seems clear that it should be, without any accompanying essay (contrary to many current regulations). On the other hand if but only if the examiners demand it, it should be open to them to demand after all an accompanying essay to cover any academic deficiencies they perceive, particularly if the book were aimed at an audience that wasn't essentially academic. This seems a clear argument that the minimum size of the accompanying essay should be zero, that a single book should be quite enough in quantity, but that it might (or might not) require a substantial accompanying essay or commentary.

3. A set of articles published in refereed journals, plus an essay providing a critical overview discussing their relationship to an overall theme or research programme. This seems the only case current regulations clearly envisage. Such a case does NOT really need any argument about why this constitutes a PhD: that would be clearly carried implicitly by the set of academic documents submitted, which would also make a coherent submission to the library.

4. A set of papers that have been published, but which are not academic (enough) in nature. I have heard secondhand of a case of this being submitted. (Secondhand i.e. I spoke to someone directly involved in such a case.) This is quite likely to occur in fields such as marketing, business, or perhaps school teaching, where there are many publications for practitioners. The examiners might feel in many such cases that there were a significant set of publications, there was useful empirical work, there were novel ideas and a contribution to knowledge, there was impact on the field -- but the writing reporting it was not academic e.g. it was not self-critical, or did not adequately relate the work to other published literature. One reasonable response to this type of case might be to allow another new mode for a PhD, where the candidate had to write a full thesis (say 80,000 words) but did not have to satisfy the time and fee requirements (i.e. take at least 3 years etc.). Such candidates would have already done all the practical work, and had all the ideas: they would just need to do much MORE writing than the currently foreseen "explanatory essay".

One candidate's experience


  1. Enrolled.
  2. Successfully completed viva 18 months later.
  3. Summary document of 30,000 words was required (supporting books and journal papers 300,000 words).
  4. "Summary" document structured as conventional PhD thesis.


  • First among my peers to obtain degree by this route.
  • Lots of peer apathy to deal with
  • Managing the end-to-end process is essential (do not leave to the management: do it yourself)
  • Get the politics right (find supervisors who share your views and aspirations)
  • Undertake supervisor sessions outside working hours (quality time and beer go together)
  • Do not accept verbal agreements: get things in writing
  • Provide citations to back up your work

    Although my summary document was based on 5 written books and 16 journal papers I was required to write it as a conventional thesis - I guess because we are a new University, legislation plays a part and managers do not like being exposed.

    Another candidate's experience

    I am currently enrolled as a PhD by Publication candidate at one of UK's new universities. I agree to a large extent with your views about the requirements and rigour of a PhD via this alternative route. I am now at the tail end of the research programme and I must say it's harder than I originally imagined. I've been doing research in Management over the last 10 years or so and without a PhD, it's difficult to move "up" within academia - more so in my country where academic standards are very strictly governed by international accreditation bodies.

    I didn't want to go through the conventional PhD as the thought of a formal research training programme in addition to writing an 80,000 thesis simply deters me. Somehow, the pressure of not having a PhD led me to shop around for a PhD by Publication. Although there are a number of Australian universities offering PhDs via this route, their registration fees are far too high. So, I decided to check out UK universities. Unfortunately most UK universities only offer this type of degree to their own teaching members. Only a handful new universities offer this route. When I first registered, I was rejected by three universities, one citing that my publications lacked "newness" in terms of knowledge, another rejected without reasons while the third felt that my publications were not "good" enough, lacking a strong empirical dimension. So, 2-3 years later, now with more publications, I applied to the third university. And they accepted my application. I didn't have any published book to begin with but I will be submitting 12 single-authored refereed papers published mainly in UK mainstream journals.

    Well, to cut the story short, writing the synthesis or contextual statement, is another challenge. Our requirement is 8,000 words but the entire portfolio, including publications, should amount to circa 80,000 words as with a conventional PhD thesis. Mine does meet this requirement. I must agree with you that, at the end, I will have learnt a lot more compared with perhaps a conventional PhD. I have demonstrated in my publications a range of research and data-analysis methods. What's useful is that I have developed critical thinking and writing skills during the process. Also, I am glad to have found a team of supervisors in my field of study -- it's not always easy to be able to find the right supervisor(s).


    Here I will summarise my suggestions for change. Even if you completely disagree with them, that alone shows that current regulations do not express your views and communicate them to the candidates and examiners, and so that the regulations need substantial change.

    In the light of the above considerations, I myself now think regulations for awarding PhDs by publication need to be made much more flexible. Furthermore they should consider more carefully and explicitly the two functions of producing a document for the library, and perhaps a separate and additional document for the examiners. These reflect the two actual needs: producing academic content for scholars to use later, and producing an argument about why this particular set of documents should be taken as adequate for a PhD award, allowing arguments such as impact evidence that do not themselves belong in an academic document but which will certainly and rightly influence examiners, and which necessarily have no precedent in the process for awarding conventional PhDs.

    Both these documents should be allowed to be almost any length (though of course example cases with example lengths would be very useful). Thus both the Nobel prize case and the prototypical four articles plus substantial critical essay linking them into a unified research theme would require only a one-sentence covering letter, while other cases might usefully have a longer document addressed to the examiners. For the accompanying academic document, both the case of huge impact factor and the case of a book being submitted might require zero length, while at the other extreme research published non-academically would require a full thesis-length document.

    At least some universities only offer this route to employees, not to outside candidates; and several only to either employees or graduates of that university. This doesn't seem sensible. Firstly, it creates the impression that this is a fix and lower standards will be applied for "our" people. Secondly, and on the contrary, all of the examples I've seen so far are far above the average PhD in terms of research contributions to their field: it can only add to a university's reputation by raising the average standard of their PhDs.

    On the other hand, someone suggested to me they'd like to get a second doctorate by this route. This, in contrast, seems to me to be something that should be barred by the regulations but usually isn't. Any practising researcher is likely to generate enough publications for a PhD every few years: it doesn't make much sense to award strings of doctorates to the same person. The point of a PhD by publication, it seems to me, is to give formal university recognition for research to those without any.

    More than in any other area in universities, PhDs by research should surely be about recognising attainment: about judging the outcome and product, regardless of the means and process by which it was arrived at. The regulations should reflect this, and allow a wider range of cases.

    Further points (Aug 2007)

    A few somewhat different points have emerged.

  • THES (Times Higher Educational Supplement) 17 Aug 2007 p.2 reports that Stirling are going to allow "normal" full-time PhD students to qualify by publications, rather than dissertation.

  • Reported comments on this revolved around the point that it needs to be required and enforced that the candidate was the major or leading contributor on the essential publications included. This interacts with differences between disciplines. Those like Sociology that put a high value on different "voices" of researchers are unlikely to be keen on allowing group publications at all, while those in big science where all work revolves around hugely expensive equipment and hence collaboration, this is simply acknowledging the collaborative reality behind current PhDs.

  • THES (Times Higher Educational Supplement) 17 Aug 2007 p.13 has an opinion piece discussing whether candidates should be allowed to hire professional proof readers or editors of their writing.

  • Should we worry about plagiarism in PhDs in general? The usual examination arrangements of a viva are well placed to detect copying without attribution from published sources. However perhaps we should worry about someone who is generally able, but in fact has not done the research, hiring someone else (or more likely, using a family member) to do the research and write it up; while they read and master the content. They would be able to perform excellently in the viva, and would have the research skill of understanding others' research in the area in depth; but would not have shown the ability to create original research themselves. The current arrangements are not likely to detect this. A PhD by publication is somewhat better defended against this than a traditional PhD (more pieces of work, more referees), except that in a traditional PhD, informally the research group is likely to know what practical work has been done by whom. However there is nothing in current PhD regulations that enforces and tests being the main intellect or decision maker in the work.

  • Thus we should perhaps ask ourselves again what a PhD is, and is not, meant to certify; and in doing so, dwell on an argument mentioned in the THES pieces above: that a PhD candidate is essentially a manager of a process (of producing and publishing research). They are not required to do everything themselves: make their own pens, assemble their own word processors. So what is it essential that they do themselves? Firstly, to understand, and be able to present, the research work. The writing and viva are well designed to test this, in both traditional and by-publication PhD processes. That is one requirement for managing the process. But do we require them to be able to make the main decisions? We don't directly test for this; and it might be hard to reconcile with big research teams where collaboration is an absolute pre-requisite even for the most eminent scientists. There are two problems here: firstly articulating how much freedom and originality is required, given that outside constraints are equally part of research life. Secondly, assuring ourselves that someone else didn't do the "important" part of the work for the candidate.


    A few example University Regulations for PhDs by publication. (These were put together 11 January 2003.)

  • Edinburgh. "Critical Review" at least 10,000 words, but not more than 25,000 words.

  • Glamorgan "overview" (no length mentioned). [Now here 23 Aug 07] Allows either employees or graduates of the university, but not others. [4 Aug 08]

  • University of Glasgow. [cf. ] The requirement was an "explanatory essay of 2-5,000 words". Allows either employees or graduates of the university, but not others. [4 Aug 08]
    By 2010 you need to find the current online "Calendar"; you want the part about "Degree of doctor of philosophy"; Then "Schedule B: Degree of Doctor of Philosophy by Published Work"; (Download this PDF document, and go to page 64 of this electronic document (as counted by Acrobat).

  • Lancaster "a supporting paper" no length mentioned. Allows either employees or graduates of the university, but not others. [4 Aug 08]

  • Sheffield Hallam University "5,000 word critical appraisal" [Jan 2003.] [Aug 2008: no trace on the web.]

  • A newpaper article

  • "Diversifying and transforming the doctoral studies terrain: A student's experience of a thesis by publication". This is a relevant paper by a so far anonymous author, under review for the journal Alternation To appear late 2011?

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