Presenting the thesis as a series of publications

Increasingly theses are submitted in the form of a series of publications, or a mix of traditional chapters and publications.

The following notes on this format have been compiled from workshops facilitated by David Marsh (ANZSIG), Simon Foster, Joëlle Vandermensbrugghe and notes from Wayne Hart.

Why present a thesis as a series of publications?

  • Is an alternative, not a requirement
  • Generates publications as well as a PhD
  • Publications are mostly journal articles
  • Strengthens career prospects/generates track record
  • Develops journal writing skill – fosters publication practice
  • Helps disseminate research
  • Increases University’s output
  • Allows flexibility?
  • Reduces Boredom?
  • Divides big project in smaller units
  • Leads to a more concise thesis
  • Generates on-going evidence of progress
  • Helps develops research culture
  • Strengthens feeling of belonging and recognition by academic community

Why not present a thesis as a series of publications?

  • Not all research lends itself to progressive publication
  • Not easy for students who never published
  • Need to go public at an earlier stage (too early?)
  • Easy way out, lacking depth & engagement? (Niven & Grant 2012). Perfectionists may want more depth. In some areas the book has higher credibility. If students are working on a big monograph the thesis is better presented as a traditional PhD.
  • Potential for theoretical, conceptual or methodological incoherence (Niven & Grant 2012)
  • Research has to be designed for output for two audiences
  • Work needs to be adequate for a PhD, as well as useful for publication & impact
  • Two types of documents need to be produced: one stand alone and sections that can also stand alone
  • Synopsis – integrative material at heart of the thesis and key to coherence and originality (Niven & Grant 2012)
  • If multiple authors: uncertainty about contributions
  • Authorship issues may arise if publications have multiple authors
  • Copyright for articles is transferred to publishers – this needs to be negotiated with them
  • Requires supervisors understanding publications and who can support drafting

What makes a thesis in the form of a series of publications different from just a few publications?

  • They need to be joined together by an introduction and a conclusion (David Marsh’s analogy: a sandwich but with filling that seeps into the bread).
  • The introduction:
    • how the inputs link (subject matter, theoretical approach, methodology)
    • how inputs are related to existing literature – this has to be value added (how is it different to what others say)
    • suggested length: 10,000 words.
  • The conclusion:
    • Reflects back on the overall contribution made
    • Way forward?

 Points to keep in mind when contemplating a thesis by publication

(notes provided by Wayne Hart)

  • Make the decision to develop your thesis in that format early
  • Plan your 3-5 papers early and synchronise with natural order of your project and finish/publish as you go along
  • Identify the new contribution of each paper
  • The option is easier for part time PhD students as they have more time, which may be needed to allow for the publication process. Publication from submission through review to publication typically takes 18 months for a well ranked journal – or more.
  • Can be hard to choose which journals suit your timelines and your topic
  • Check whether published or ‘in press’ papers can be included
  • ‘In press’ papers risk being rejected by your 1st choice journal. You may also be asked to (substantially) modify these papers after you submitted them as part of your thesis. thesis
  • Risks for published papers are an overlooked error etc that is only picked up by your supervisor
  • Put only the abstract in the electronic copy of the thesis to address copyright issues and allow hyperlink listing

Copyright issues

Publishing a thesis as a series of publications may raise copyright issues. While copyright laws apply to and protect all theses, choosing to present a thesis as a series of publications raises additional copyright issues due to the involvement of commercial publishers and the rights they claim to exploit your work. Becoming knowledgeable about copyright and planning early to manage your rights is an important part of completing a thesis by publication.

Copyright issues when presenting your thesis as a series of publications mainly stem from the fact that if you publish in a subscription access journal, you will be required to sign a copyright transfer agreement, transferring some or all of your copyrights to the publisher. It is important to understand what rights you will retain and what rights you will forfeit. Information on these rights is generally available from publisher websites, individual journal websites, or the SHERPA/RoMEO website for information on publisher copyright policies and self-archiving. Some publishers make available a standard Copyright Transfer Agreement online.

readFurther reading


Aitchison, C.; Kamler, B. & A. Lee (eds) (2010). ‘When the article is the dissertation’, pp  12-29 in Publishing pedagogies for the doctorate and beyond. New York: Routledge.

Brien, D.L. (2008). ‘Publish or Perish?: Investigating the doctorate by publication in writing’. Creativity and Uncertainty: AAWP 2008.

Kamler, B. (2008). ‘Rethinking doctoral publication practices: writing from and beyond the thesis’. Studies in Higher Education 33/3, 283–294.

Niven, P. & Grant, C. (2012).’PhDs by publications: an ‘easy way out’?, Teaching in Higher Education 17/1, 105-111.

Robins, L. & Kanowski, P. (2008). ‘PhD by Publication: A Student’s Perspective’. Journal of Research Practice 4/2.

Sharon Sharmini, Rachel Spronken-Smith, Clinton Golding & Tony Harland (2014), ‘Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education : Assessing the doctoral thesis when it includes published work’, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2014.888535.

Starrs, B. (2008). Publish and Graduate? Earning a PhD by Published Papers in Australia. M/C Journal 11/4.

Wilson, K. (2002), ‘Quality assurance issues for a PhD by published works: a case study’. Quality Assurance in Education 10/2, 72-78.

Useful Links

  • Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), is an international alliance of academic and research libraries working to create a more open system of scholarly communication. The SPARC website includes an Author Rights section containing useful information about negotiating and retaining author rights when negotiating a copyright transfer agreement with a commercial publisher.
  • The Copyright Guide for Research Students produced by the Queensland University of Technology provides a range useful copyright information, example scenarios and templates.
  • The Copyright and Your Thesis document prepared by University of Melbourne contains in-depth copyright information pertaining to traditional format theses but also worth consulting for those completing a thesis by publication.