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By Stephen W. Draper, Department of Psychology, University of Glasgow.
Up until about 2002, UK universities awarded PhDs by research on an "Anglo-traditional" model: often three years full time work (and fees), doing some original research, and writing a dissertation of perhaps 80,000 words reporting that research written as a coherent piece of work for the examiners. Subsequently, as a separate activity, the students might (or might not) rewrite parts of it into one or more external publications such as journal articles or books.
Meanwhile universities in Scandinavia and some other north European countries had a different model (which I will call the "Nordic" model), where research students published journal articles, and their PhD thesis was comprised of several "chapters" which were un-edited copies of those publications, plus an unpublished literature review, and an unpublished introduction to discuss the connections and relationships between the parts that made it a connected and coherent piece of work on a larger scale.
Perhaps starting with the University of Stirling in 2007, UK universities have more recently allowed both formats (the university of Glasgow by about 2017). The Nordic model is better for the careers of intending academics in disciplines where journal publications are the main measure of value. The two models differ in the specifications for the content of the document submitted; but are identical in expectations about the length of study expected, allowed and required, and in the fees. They are also both "prospective" models, where the student has not done either the research or the writing in advance.
The rest of this web document concerns another model for PhDs – PhD by prior publication i.e. based retrospectively on research completed and published in advance by the candidate, before they considered qualifying for a PhD. This latter model was also at first called (like the Nordic model) "PhD by publication", but is actually significantly different from both Nordic and Anglo-traditional prospective models.
The underlying motivation for universities was that they wished to push towards all academic staff having a PhD without losing mid-career staff, especially those who had an established track record of published research. Consequently their modified regulations generally required the candidate to be a staff member.
This, then, was a change in both the format of the submitted writing AND in the time, registration, and fees requirements.
The following material was mainly put together in January 2003 in the early days of this new format, when I had already acted as external examiner for two of these at two different universities, and naturally had also looked at my own university's regulations on this. What seemed clear was that the idea or spirit behind the regulations of various universities was essentially the same, but the details, in those early days, differed markedly. Furthermore, reflection on the issues suggested that perhaps all universities should reconsider their regulations as it was easy to imagine and indeed often to find actual cases they could not at present cover sensibly.
In the discussion that follows, it may be worth remembering that there are other types of doctorate already on the books: DScs; and course-work based doctorates.
A closer look comparing different universities' 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 Anglo-traditional 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.
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.
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. Here 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 was 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".
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.
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).
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 competence 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.
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