What is a PhD by publication?

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This post is from Dr Karen Campbell (@karencampbellWP) . Karen is an education researcher based at Glasgow Caledonian University. She completed her PhD by publication in May 2020. She  blogs about her research on GCU’s Academic Development and Student Learning blog site. Karen has published widely in journals such as Higher Education Research & Development, the Journal of Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning. Her paper, ‘How can universities contribute to the common good?’ won the Association of University Administrators’ essay prize in 2019.

What is it?

The PhD by publication is awarded to someone who has carried out extensive research over a significant period of time and who has a number of publications on related topics arising from this work which have been reviewed in high quality journals. It is a part-time route which involves a critical review of the articles by the author. The submission has to:

  • Demonstrate that the papers, when taken together, constitute a coherent whole
  • Show originality
  • Exhibit a sound command of established knowledge in the area
  • Make a significant contribution to the field

The point is that when analysed in such a way the papers become more than the sum of their parts. I see the PhD by publication as the topsy-turvy route to doctoral success. It is a degree awarded in recognition of an existing body of work, rather than at the end of a completely new research project. Effectively it’s a doctorate by RPL except instead of developing a portfolio you produce a thesis around your published research. To reference my own particular field, the process allows people who have not followed the traditional route towards a PhD to obtain recognition for the research they have done and the subject knowledge they have developed throughout their career. Thus it widens participation to doctoral level study. The route has a relatively long standing tradition in Europe, Australia and Canada but is less recognised in other parts of the globe although this is reportedly changing. Indeed in Northern Europe (e.g. Sweden, Finland and Estonia) it’s the norm for doctoral studies where candidates are required to publish three articles in peer-reviewed journals before being allowed to proceed to the viva stage.

Different universities have their own requirements but generally the submission will be made up of a collection of peer-reviewed books, articles or chapters which together form a coherent contribution to research. Joint publications are acceptable, subject to a clear statement as to the nature and extent of the relative contributions of each author. The submission must be of the same quality and research effort as that expected of a PhD by Research. The author is required to evidence that the body of work has a theoretical underpinning, is thematic, cohesive, contextualised to the wider literature and points to further research. It’s also about charting the research journey to highlight the development of key ideas over time and as such requires a significant element of reflection.

Is it a lesser doctorate?

Absolutely not, would be my response. Publishing from a thesis has always been an expectation of PhD level study. Yet, how many academics do we know who have completed doctorates via the traditional route but who have subsequently published little or nothing? This route allows both objectives to be achieved. Moreover, there is strong evidence that the model not only develops important skills such as writing for publication, responding to reviewer feedback and developing a research identity  it also offers a mechanism for universities to enhance their own research productivity by mobilising their PhD candidates to contribute more meaningfully to the research productivity of the university. The PhD by publication also positively reshapes what it is to be a doctoral student.

How many and which publications to select?

The straightforward answer is to select those papers that allow you develop your ‘golden thread.’ The outputs you select should show the development of your research over time, how and why the ideas emerged and the connections between them. It means stepping out from the detail of each paper and considering how the ideas and findings can be synthesised to create an original research question that relates to the body of work as a whole. For an excellent overview of how to review your outputs with the synthesis in mind read Susan Smith’s practical guide.

As to how many published outputs to include, there is no correct answer! Regulations vary from institution to institution and between countries. However, the rule of thumb is that quantity of published works submitted should be similar to the number of published works expected to result from an equivalent PhD by Research thesis in the subject discipline. Typically this may consist of either one or two books or six refereed journal articles, depending on the subject discipline and the length of the papers.  Seek guidance from your graduate school and other colleagues as to how many and what to include in the way of published works. In my case I selected five published papers based on three research projects two of which were automatically linked as one was a follow up study from the first.  The paper I selected as my starting point for my ‘golden thread’ was one which provided the context to the key argument – that immersion prior to entry enables widening participation to higher education. My contextual paper examines the role of widening participation for social justice and the common good. Subsequent papers were chosen to introduce the specific questions around widening participation my research addressed, each underpinned by a different theoretical perspective.  Developing my golden thread was, for me, the most important aspect of the entire process since, once I had it, I knew I was on track to demonstrating the triple whammy: coherence, originality and contribution.

How long does it take?

I’ve heard it said that the PhD by publication route is much shorter than the traditional one as all the research has already been done. I beg to differ. Consider the time required to complete the research, write it up into draft papers, submit these, address reviewer feedback and publish. Then there’s the time you need to reflect on the thesis’s originality, coherence and contribution as a whole to the body of knowledge. You need to develop your thesis research question and plan and write your critical review. The process also requires you to show the impact of your research and must include a significant element of reflection on the research and your findings; something else to factor in terms of time.

From the point of your proposal’s acceptance you are generally limited to a year’s registration to complete. If you count the time taken to carry out the steps above, however, and factor in work and other commitments the overall time is significantly increased. In reality it takes several years’ effort and, time-wise, often more than a traditional full-time equivalent.

Is it worth doing?

Absolutely, would be my response. If you are an expert in your field with a significant portfolio of publications under you belt or are working towards developing such a portfolio, why not write for publication and complete a PhD; hitting two birds with one stone? I took a prospective approach and worked to produce and publish academic papers around my area of work with a view to the end goal of a PhD. The advantage here (over the retrospective route) is that this tactic provides a focus for your research outputs. I found it helped my motivation to write thus avoiding the trap of always pushing publication to the side. For me, the PhD by publication provided a framework, a way forward from which I could see the path to submission.

3 thoughts on “What is a PhD by publication?

  1. Thanks for this detailed explanation on PhD by publication, i am currently working in this. I have already published two co-authored articles in peer reviewed journals and three conference presentations. Three more awaiting reviewers comments.

    Area of focus is on Africa’s ability to meeting the Sustainable development goal via entrepreneurship.

    The challenge here is the search for supervisor, the probability of getting one after putting all the efforts in writing and publishing seems on the low side as most would tell you no space.

    Still working on it and with high expectations to get a supervisor and get admitted.

    Thanks once again, the article was assuring that the path is worth it.


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