The PhD by Publication: Another Cause for Canadian Grad Student Unions to Champion

(Swedish academic, Jorgen Carling, published the basis for this post on the LSE Blog May 30, 2017, CC 3.0 license.  The license allows for me to share, copy, redistribute the material in any meduim or format; adapt, remix, transform and build upon the material for any purpose).

A PhD by publication requires doctoral candidates to submit a set of papers for peer-reviewed journals plus an integrating chapter, rather than the more traditional doctoral dissertation. This remains a less common, sometimes frowned-upon model, but Jørgen Carling outlines eight reasons why a PhD by publication might be a good option. It allows you to write for real, varied audiences, with differing levels of ambition, and can help you build a name for yourself in academia, which is important not only for your career but also as it affords you opportunities for vital intellectual exchanges that may benefit your research.

As a doctoral candidate you may have a choice between submitting a traditional doctoral dissertation and submitting a set of papers for peer-reviewed journals plus an integrating chapter. The latter option, known as a “PhD by publication” or an “article dissertation”, has become the norm in some contexts and is resented in others. I can’t decide for you, but I can give you eight reasons why I think the PhD by publication is often a good model.

First, writing journal articles constitutes professional training. It is what academics primarily do, and by writing your dissertation in the form of articles, you learn the craft. (If you abandon academia after completing a PhD it is even more important to know that your work is out there, potentially benefiting others, and not just stored in a dusty library.)

Second, writing journal articles ensures valuable feedback. Regardless of the quality of the supervision you get, the review process in a journal can be a valuable supplement. Having your article accepted in a journal also provides a tangible source of independent recognition, different from your supervisor’s assurances that your work is fine. The peer review process can be filled with disappointments and frustration too but living through that is, for better or worse, part of being an academic. Just make sure that you are not handling it all alone.

journalsImage credit: journals by Barry Silver. This work is licensed under a CC BY 2.0 license.

Third, writing journal articles means writing for real audiences. This is a point with several implications: it is a source of motivation during the writing process, it teaches you about attentiveness to the needs of your readers, and it ensures that the resources devoted to doctoral research flow back to society. By “resources” I don’t mean only taxpayers’ money but also the time and trust that research participants have contributed, for instance.

Fourth, writing a dissertation based on individual papers allows you to write for different audiences. In my field, most articles could be targeted to either a disciplinary journal (e.g. political geography), a thematic journal (e.g. International Migration Review), or a regional journal (e.g. African Affairs). Being able to see which parts of your research appeal to different audiences and, not least, to present those parts accordingly is a great skill to develop in the course of doing a PhD.

Fifth, writing journal articles allows you to write with different levels of ambition. This is a crucial point that is often ignored. The time available for writing a dissertation is limited, and writing 300 pages of brilliant prose might be beyond reach. But in a series of papers, there might be one that has great potential, deserves to be revised over and over, is accepted in a good journal, and is still being cited ten years after you defended your PhD. Other papers in your dissertation might fall short of such success, and that’s fine.

Sixth, writing a dissertation by publication provides you with good milestones in the process. The submission, resubmission, acceptance and publication of articles in the course of a PhD give you a firm sense of progress. Signing off on the proofs for a journal article is different from telling yourself that a chapter is finished but thinking that you might do additional work on it before saying that the dissertation is done.

Seventh, writing articles helps you build a name for yourself in academia. There are PhD candidates who do great work but because they are halfway through a traditional dissertation remain virtually invisible. Being visible is not only about being career-conscious, it is also about inviting intellectual exchanges that benefit your research. Conference papers help, of course, but they might not reach many people beyond the handful who were in the room. Writing articles alongside a traditional dissertation might be an ideal but it increases the workload at the cost of something else – be it your family, health or intellectual energy.

Finally, a traditional dissertation is not a book. It can form the foundation for writing a book but a lot of hard work remains. If a book is important in your discipline, then a traditional dissertation is probably the most promising route to follow. But it comes with considerable risk: unless you can secure substantial time for writing the book after the dissertation is submitted, you could be left with no articles and no book.

These are my eight reasons for pursuing a PhD by publication. The biggest counter-argument is a frustrating one but is real nevertheless: in some departments or disciplines a PhD by publication might be formally permissible but frowned upon. Pioneers are needed to swim against the stream and help change attitudes; but whether you want, or can afford, to be such a pioneer is a personal choice.

Beyond the decision to do a PhD by publication, there are many things to consider about the process if you go for it – such as the number of papers, possibilities for co-authoring, and implications for how you define what the dissertation is about. There are also many institution-specific rules and expectations that you need to explore. Some universities require that a certain number of articles be published, or at least accepted. Going through the review process is a valuable part of the experience but such requirements make me uncomfortable both as a supervisor and an examiner. For instance, I think a candidate should feel free to pursue publication in a top journal, even if it means a review process that lasts way beyond submission of the dissertation. The article in question might be just fine as a component of the dissertation even if the editor of a highly ranked journal demands additional revisions. Conversely, as an examiner, I want freedom to independently assess the quality of the dissertation. Good articles sometimes get rejected by journals while poor ones get accepted. So, while it’s useful to know which journals the articles were written for, I wouldn’t want to infer their quality from decisions made by reviewers and editors.

The PhD is, in many ways, an odd exercise – partly an introspective learning and qualification process and partly a piece of research that society has reason to value. Doing a PhD by publication offers a chance to bridge the gap between the two.

Is she is or is she ain’t cheating? When EFL academic writing far exceeds speaking ability

Difference between EFL oral and written language skill raises ire of suspicion. Image by hobvias sudoneighm (2004).

When I was a doctoral student, an EFL classmate spoke English poorly.  I had difficulty understanding her.  I assumed she needed help with academic writing.   As I found myself wondering how she’d get through the program, I offered to help her with her writing.  I thought I’d  correct English language problems which were so clearly evident in her speech for her.

She gave me the first two chapters of her research proposal to check.  She wrote much better than me.  She wrote better than most of the students in the Ed D program, native and non-native speaker alike.  Her writing was so clear, flowing and economic, she had one, only one, misplaced sentence in the entire first chapter.  I couldn’t find much wrong with it.  Not only was her scholarship comprehensive, but she captured  lively scholarly debates in a compelling, authorial manner as befits a researcher with command of not only the literature, but the language.

Yet her spoken language skills so lacked fluency she told me she could not take up a problem with administration because she didn’t have the oral command in conversational exchanges.  Writing teachers assume writing springs out of a strong oral foundation for both EFL and non EFL writers.  Writers who speak to others about their academic writing, write better.

An emeritus professor of economics once remarked to me that Scandinavians speak the best English, in his opinion, better than the English of native speakers.  They derive a greater command of English than native speakers because of the advantage of studying English as a foreign language.  He assumed language study improved the quality of spoken English.

I’ve noticed the particular way an English professor speaks.  English professors somehow come to speak a vernacular of English related to their milieu as much as Eliza Doolittle does in the play My Fair Lady.

With this is mind, I wondered, was my classmate cheating?  Was she getting help or paying for help to ghost write her stuff?  On the other hand, knowing her limited finances, I don’t think she or 99% of students could afford to hire a ghost writer of the caliber represented in the research proposal.  Besides the topic of the research proposal was original, unique and specific to the literature.  So the writing just had to come from her.  This is baffling considering the supposed support oral language skill provides to writing.

Even though writing allows for endless revisions, edits and polishes unlike spontaneous oral language, oral language develops ahead of writing.  How many writers, EFL or native speakers, write many levels better than they speak?  Can a writer struggle with speaking English and still produce really good academic writing without cheating?

Some EFL writers, like Joseph Conrad who chose to write in English instead of his native Polish or  fluent French, write well enough to get studied in English lit courses.  Unlike French, Conrad spoke English with a heavy accent.  Bertrand Russel observed:

He talked English with a strong accent, as if he tasted his words in his mouth before pronouncing them; but he talked extremely well, though he had always the talk and manner of a foreigner..”

Conrad spoke English well enough to believe he could author literary works.  Like a truly consummate writer and linguist, he also appreciated the particular affordances of English in comparison to the other languages at his beckon.  Conrad proves literary greatness, or great academic writing for that matter, can come from an EFL writer who may speak a heavily accented English.

Even with his heavy accent, Conrad fails to explain the big disparity between oral and written expressive language ability in my classmate.  A mismatch between oral and written ability raises suspicion of cheating.  For example, a Latina college student got accused of cheating for using words like hence and unscathed in her writing.  She wasn’t cheating.  In this case, blame the instructor for prejudice and stereotyping.  Yet, if the use of a few words not considered by the accusing instructor to populate the lexicon of Latina English speakers raises suspicion, how can an instructor reconcile struggles with conversational expression and superb writing without suspecting plagiarism?

Some Canadian university teachers who responded to this tweet attribute problems with speaking to cultural differences, like submissiveness to teacher authority.   Clearly my classmate wanted to speak but knew she lacked the conversational ability to do so.   Besides, assumptions about cultural influences inhibiting expression, let instructors overlook the difficulties and questions well written work coming from a non-fluent speaker ought to suggest.

Do EFL students need encouragement to adopt Western cultural teaching norms when speaking?  Does anxiety over spoken language ability keep students from speaking?  Should a student who writes well, but speaks poorly be admitted to a doctoral program?  Should admission criteria include assessment of spoken language if the program requires fluid speaking ability to achieve its outcomes?

In the Journal of Second Language Writing (March, 2017 ), a study entitled Writing Academic English as a Doctoral Student in Sweden concludes that it is important to support doctoral students in their journey into bi-literate academic writers, rather than focus on the notion of the privileged position of the native speaker.  Agreed.

It is important not to make assumptions to constrain or lower expectations of the quality of writing an EFL academic writer produces.  It is also important to support doctoral students in their journey into first-rate, bi-literate academics by also addressing the expressive, oral language acuity necessary to thrive in a program and in an academic community.  It is important to assess in congruence between academic writing and speaking ability as easy, fluid, dynamic speaking ability seems like a necessary prerequisite for academic writing, and a red flag for difficulty which may lead to cheating.  But maybe not.  Maybe EFL academic writers in doctoral programs glean their writing models from academic texts.  Maybe academic writing flows from the study of writing in academic texts, not from oral command.