Thesis by publication in education: An autoethnographic perspective for educational researchers
Margaret K. Merga
Despite its growing popularity, the thesis by publication is a less conventional format for doctoral dissertations in the field of education. The author successfully undertook a thesis by publication in education from 2012, to submission in 2014. This paper draws on both the literature in the field and the experiences of the author through an autoethnographic approach to explore some of the strengths and limitations of thesis by publication. Key reasons for adopting the thesis by publication mode are outlined, as well as consideration of which types of educational research are most suited to this mode. Institutional support mechanisms and personal attributes that can improve the likelihood of success in this mode are also explored, in addition to the challenges and issues that are particularly significant when producing a thesis by publication. A possible structure and organisation of a thesis by publication in education is also proposed, though this will be determined primarily by institutional policy. This paper will be of interest to prospective doctoral students and higher degree by research supervisors in education seeking to extend their knowledge and experience in this area.
A TBP usually involves a collection of research papers, preferably published in well-regarded, peer-reviewed journals, as well as binding materials, such as an introductory chapter and/or discussion section, which bring together the ideas explored in the papers into a cohesive whole. While within Australia, institutional guidelines vary in the types of publications deemed acceptable for inclusion (Jackson, 2013), recent research suggests that examiners are likely to be favourably influenced by publications in highly ranked international, peer-reviewed journals (Sharmini, Spronken-Smith, Golding & Harland, 2015). Generally, it is expected that all of the papers that form the basis of a TPB will, at the very least, be under review at the time of submission; in the context of TBP, publishing is typically viewed as "the submission and acceptance of works in a peer-reviewed outlet" (Jackson, 2013, p. 9).
The TBP model discussed herein does not include the "staff doctorate" or "PhD by prior publication" (Davies & Rolfe, 2009; Jackson, 2013), which is sometimes also referred to as a TBP. The PhD by prior publication differs mainly from the TBP in that it is a retrospective award consisting predominantly of peer-reviewed articles that have already been published prior to candidature (Davies & Rolfe, 2009), whereas in the TBP, all publications are written during candidature, and are directly relevant to the doctoral research questions.
I draw deeply upon my own experiences completing a TBP, as well as the literature in the area, in order to generate a discussion paper around the experience. As such, this paper adopts an autoethnographic perspective, using personal experience as a frame for description and analysis of a particular phenomena (Ellis, Adams & Bochner, 2010). To further refine the method, this paper could be characterised as an analytic autoethnographic contribution, in that I meet the requirements as specified by Anderson (2006), of being a member of the relevant research group or setting; visible as a member through contribution, such as published texts; and committed to furthering theoretical understandings of social phenomena. I am an active member of the research community who has produced the artefact in question, the TBP, and I now seek to contribute to collective understandings of the strengths and limitations of this thesis mode.
Doctoral candidates are expected to produce research articles that meet the standard of international peer-reviewed journals, with increasing levels of publication output expected during candidature (Catterall, 2011; Lee & Kamler, 2008). Choosing to complete a TBP is one means of meeting publication expectations, while still progressing directly toward a completed dissertation. While the traditional monograph still holds sway, a growing trend towards the TBP has been observed in Australian higher education since the late 1990s (Cuthbert & Spark, 2008), with the majority of Australian tertiary institutions offering this pathway (Jackson, 2013). Nonetheless, acceptance of the TBP is not universal, with both supervisors and examiners often holding reservations about the legitimacy of this mode (Dowling, 2012).
The period of doctoral candidature presents the opportunity to focus on research output, which may not be subsequently available. Recent doctoral graduates who are able to secure an academic position are often given a heavy teaching load, finding their research efforts somewhat frustrated as a result (Hemmings, 2012). In addition, while doctoral candidates who defer publication until after thesis completion may not only find that their data are dated, they may also discover that "the last thing they feel like doing after the examination process is complete is to return to their thesis and start to 'chop it up'and 'mould it'" for the purposes of publication (Wellington, 2010, p. 140). Engaging in TBP not only means that the candidate deals with the data while it is fresh and motivation is high, it also means that they are not forced to retrospectively shape their findings to meet the needs of publication; that process has been ongoing and iterative.
Embarking on TBP also allows the doctoral candidate to evaluate their personal suitability for the academic research profession. Stoilescu & McDougall (2010) contended that while publishing during doctoral candidacy is highly beneficial for securing a post-doctoral academic position, graduates should write for peer-reviewed journals "to see if they enjoy publishing and if academia is a suitable lifestyle for them", suggesting that doctoral students "should write just because of who they are and not because of external, social or professional pressures" (p. 79). This idea resonated with me, as not only did I wish to be responsive to an academic culture that places an emphasis on the importance of publication, I also wanted to see if this was a role in which I could experience both success and enjoyment.
The importance of research translation in academic research has considerable currency in the context of the doctoral research project, with Yates (2010) suggesting that "signs of external 'impact' of the work beyond the thesis" are increasingly a key component of measuring the quality of doctoral output (p. 304). I found undertaking the process highly conducive to communicating my findings beyond academia, to reach teachers, adolescents and parents. The coverage of my work in the newspaper The West Australian (Hiatt, 2014; King, 2014) led to it being picked up by ABC online (Wynne, 2014), social networking pages and online blogs and websites (e.g. Byrne, 2015; Costa, 2014). This led to a trickle down effect, with references to my work appearing in school newsletters both in Australia and in the UK, which was one of my ultimate translation goals. I was also interviewed for an audio podcast for JAAL and an audio/visual podcast for the Australian Journal of Education. The media opportunities have not only led to a dissemination of my findings; they have also increased opportunities for networking and collaboration in my field.
Starrs contended that one of the risks of TBP is that the process of peer review "can result in the rejection of new ideas that conflict with the established opinions of the referees" (2008). This risk is always present when submitting a thesis for examination, but it is compounded by the extent of peer review a TBP is exposed to. While arguably all theses should contain potentially insubordinate ideas, the reception of these ideas is not dependent only on the manner in which they are communicated; the culture that receives them can also significantly determine whether or not they will ever be heard. I also encountered difficulty when presenting quantitative findings in this field; overall, contributions were often rejected by journals that predominantly published qualitative research, and then subsequently published unchanged elsewhere where quantitative research was viewed more favourably.
In addition, it cannot be guaranteed that doctoral candidates will easily be able to locate experts in their field who are open to the prospect of examining a TBP. Moodie and Hapgood (2012) described being met with two "independent passionate responses" from otherwise "well respected, mild mannered colleagues" in the field of engineering as they viewed it to be an inferior product (p. 886).
In the context of Western Australian Recreational Book Reading:
|1.||What is the frequency and volume of current engagement in recreational book reading?|
|1.1||How frequently do adolescents read and how many books?|
|1.2||Is regularity and volume of recreational book reading significantly different for boys and girls?|
|2.||What are current attitudes of adolescents toward recreational book reading?|
|2.1||Do adolescents deem recreational book reading enjoyable?|
|2.2||Is attitude toward recreational book reading significantly different for boys and girls?|
|2.3||Do adolescents deem recreational book reading socially acceptable?|
|2.4||Have technological developments and media influences impacted on attitudes towards and preferred modes of engagement in recreational book reading?|
|3.||What is the influence of parents, English teachers, friends and peers on adolescents' attitudes toward recreational book reading?|
|4.||What changes in school policy and practice are implied by the findings, if recreational book reading is to flourish among WA adolescents?|
My research questions outline a broad field of inquiry, which was appropriate in my circumstances, as no study of equal breadth had recently been undertaken in my specific research area and context. I subsequent relate these research questions to my papers in Table 1, highlighting the connection between the inquiry and the paper outputs.
However, these rankings can also give insight into how journal article writing might be preferred to thesis writing, due to its comparatively compact nature, and the high level of exposure doctoral students will have with this writing form through their extensive processes of literature review. While addressing retrospective TBP rather than the defined model discussed herein, Grant's (2011) argument that TBP is a viable option for those "who cannot bear the thought of embarking on a great tome of work" (p. 261) is still relevant to this model, where papers are completed during doctoral candidacy. Thus breaking the thesis up into a series of journal articles, which tell the story of the research, may be more palatable, though writing for journals would certainly not be deemed an "easy" option due to the complexity of its demands, and the need to meet the requirements of diverse external journal reviewers. In addition, Frances, Mills, Chapman & Birks (2009) argue that choosing to complete a TBP can "encourage completion" as "students who publish throughout their candidature receive ongoing peer review, enhance their writing skills, and are scholastically affirmed as manuscripts are accepted for publication" (p. 99).
As a discipline within the social sciences and humanities, it can be contended that in education there is a "relatively individualistic writing and publication culture" which "may not be as conducive to discussions about the processes of writing for publication" when compared with "disciplines in which joint publications, including co-authoring arrangements between supervisor and candidate, occur more frequently" (Cuthbert & Spark, 2008, p. 79). As such, the explicit availability of institutional and supervisory support in education is essential, as it may not be a natural part of the education research culture.
My principal supervisor, who carried almost my entire supervisory load, provided ongoing support when needed, trusting me to work autonomously for sustained periods of time. This confidence in my autonomy helped to build my sense of self as an autonomous researcher. While it has been suggested that the TBP process may lead to a significant additional workload for supervisors (Robins & Kanowski, 2008), this was not the case for the WASABR project. I worked closely with my principal supervisor during the project-planning phase, and after I received confirmation of candidature, I adopted a highly autonomous role, to the extent that I only gave my supervisor the first three of my ten papers to review. Once my papers began to be accepted, I stopped expecting my principal supervisor, who had already been generous with his time, to look at my papers prior to submission, relying instead on reciprocal arrangements with peers to perform an internal reviewing function. It was also beneficial to find other partners to internally review my work, as my supervisor was already deeply knowledgeable about my study. I needed the discerning eye of a third party "unfamiliar with the area of study" where possible, to ensure that my work did not rely on assumptions, and that the manuscript was "clear, direct and understandable" (Saracho, 2013, p. 53). Hakkaraienen et al. (2014a) found that as doctoral students progressed beyond early achievement of publication, they required less supervisory support, though this remained important, with a supervisor found to request "doctoral students to submit one article without the supervisor's direct assistance so as to facilitate their academic independence" (p. 22). Writing alone can be considered "a major path to build academic personality" (Stoilescu & McDougall, 2010, p. 86), and I feel this idea warrants further investigation in the context of doctoral students attempting to function with higher academic autonomy. Though I recognise that the degree of relinquishment of didactic support and subsequent and increased student autonomy will be highly variable, depending on the individuals concerned and the field, amongst other factors, I cannot sufficiently stress how empowering it was to find myself in a position of high autonomy in my research journey.
In an article exploring published articles as dissertation, this ongoing critical feedback is likened to being hit regularly by projectile walnuts, with feedback for a traditional thesis post-submission comparatively likened to being hit in one session by projectile coconuts (Lee, 2010). My first paper was resoundingly rejected, and I was forced to become far more critical of my own work. Overall, I found Lee's analogy to be apt, and that while occasionally painful, regular critical feedback was preferable to the requirement of more substantial changes after submission. I hoped to mitigate risk by exposing my work to broad criticism from beyond the relative security of my dyadic interaction with my principal supervisor.
It is also noteworthy that embarking on the TBP journey can support resilience and foster commitment for continuance in the doctoral student, as publications can represent achievable milestones. Grant (2011) noted that "the student is tangibly rewarded, at intermittent stages during the doctoral journey, for work published", and that "even if the student elects not to complete the degree, aspects of her work which she published are recognized and rewarded accordingly" (p. 261). Publishing during candidature has also been associated with reduced attrition rates (Jackson, 2013).
While my work ostensibly did not have the issue of unclear contribution, in that all of my papers were sole-authored, my work did have a number of unacknowledged minor contributors, the most significant of which were the blind peer-reviewers who sometimes required very substantial reworking of my argument. While I tried to avoid doubling up in my reporting to avoid disturbance to the logical flow of my work (Sharmini et al., 2015, p. 96), external journal reviewers demanded a level of overlap that led to me undertaking a higher level of self-citation than I desired, resulting in unavoidable repetition. My discussion section thus played a crucial role in re-establishing the narrative of my thesis. Being a sole author was a significant responsibility as it meant that I had full autonomy and accountability for producing papers worthy of publication, however it also enabled me to avoid engaging in the somewhat contested space of author order negotiation (Cleary et al., 2012; Welfare & Sackett, 2011), can be problematic in the context of TBP, as ideally the doctoral candidate is expected to have provided the bulk of the effort, and therefore be positioned as the first author.
As previously highlighted, education journals have their own unique voices, and researchers preparing to submit to journals are in many cases explicitly urged to familiarise themselves with the voice appropriate to the publication of their choice. The result of catering to the requisite tone of these voices is that the journal articles that feature within my thesis had unique, independent voices, some of which preference a more dry, scientific approach, others of which were optimally accessible and humanised for an intelligent audience at the intersection of academia and industry, inclusive of English educators. As the thesis is generally expected to read as a cohesive unit, I highlighted this issue in the introductory material, so that the reader could make concessions based on the author's inconsistent adoption of voice that was potentially disruptive to the overall coherence of the thesis. It should also be noted that the expectation that the TBP conform to limiting conceptions of what is deemed to constitute a "cohesive unit" can also inadvertently restrict the potential of this mode to allow alternative avenues for demonstrating mastery of an area of knowledge, though this issue extends beyond the scope of this paper.
Reflecting the traditional thesis model to some extent, the thesis begins with an abstract, followed by acknowledgements, a table of contents, and a definition of key terms, which was added as a separate section at the request of the examiners. Due to the newness of TBP in my area, I subsequently included a brief rationale explaining why I chose to adopt the TBP format for presentation of my thesis, and how the thesis would tell its story within the constraints of its structure. I then included a substantial introduction which detailed the background to the project, theoretical and conceptual frameworks, an explanation of the method employed, research aims, research questions, as well as publications (as per Table 1) and the rationale employed in their organisation.
The papers detailed in Table 1 were then organised into four thematic sections, though a number of the papers could have been cross-classified. Each section was prefaced by a preamble that justified the inclusion of the papers within that thematic heading.
|Title of publication||Research|
|Publication status at|
time of submission
|Are Western Australian adolescents keen book readers?||1.1, 1.2,|
|Accepted in the Australian Journal of Language and Literacy|
|Peer group and friend influences on the social acceptability of adolescent book reading.||2.3, 3||Published in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy|
|Are teenagers really keen digital readers?||2.4||Accepted in English in Australia|
|Are avid adolescent readers social networking about books?||2.4||Accepted in New Review of Children's Literature and Librarianship|
|The influence of movie adaptations on adolescents' attitudes toward source books.||2.4||Under review|
|Exploring the role of parents in supporting recreational book reading beyond primary school.||3||Published in English in Education|
|What would make them read more? Insights from Western Australian adolescent readers.||3||Under review|
|Should Silent Reading feature in a secondary school English programme? West Australian students' perspectives on Silent Reading.||3, 4||Published in English in Education|
|"What would make you read more?" Opportunities for supporting an increase in teenagers' book reading.||4||Accepted in Asia Pacific Journal of Education|
|Western Australian adolescents' reasons for infrequent engagement in recreational book reading.||4||Accepted in Literacy Learning: The Middle Years|
The potential for TBP to test the palatability of potentially controversial ideas within the field is also underexplored, and this opportunity was of great value for me, as the resistance of some external journal reviewers to the validity of discussing what was perceived to be an outdated text type forced me to galvanise and develop robust supporting arguments to counter this contention. Thus, even critical feedback that I viewed as unjust offered benefit, acting as a catalyst to greater maturity in my expression.
While my principal supervisor was very supportive when I sought assistance, I preferred to be as autonomous as possible, and my institution, which provided a wealth of training and assistance, facilitated this. Without this support I would not have had the confidence to proceed with high autonomy as a self-directed learner of research. Greater emphasis on fostering the autonomy of doctoral candidates, rather than placing of high dependence on supervisor support, maybe appropriate in many cases.
I have one reservation about the degree of autonomy I achieved. My collaborative research skills were not well developed through this experience. Research in the social sciences often occurs as a collaborative pursuit, part of a process of "collective knowledge creation" (Hakkaraienen, 2014b). Brook et al (2010) strongly challenged the convention that the PhD journey be solely concerned with an individualistic pursuit of intellectual autonomy, contending that scholarship should also be about fostering with relationships, enabling collaborative pathmaking which is a relational, rather than individual process, through which creative possibilities emerge" (p. 657). While fortunately I have had previous exposure to collaborative research prior to my doctoral journey, this was outside the field of education, and thus to some extent, my doctoral candidature represents a lost opportunity to engage in a collaborative learning process with experienced peers.
While there is great value in examining the strengths and weaknesses of particular models for embarking upon the TBP, the uniqueness of my own TBP journey leads me to conclude that as our understandings of possible pathways to TBP progress, it is likely to be ultimately concluded that the journey needs to be tailored to unique individual circumstances, and negotiated between the individual, the supervisory team and the institution(s). My TBP structure is offered as a potential pathway, which can be used in conjunction with other scaffolding materials to support future attempts at TBP.
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|Author: Margaret Merga BA (Hons), GradDipEd, MEd, PhD is a lecturer in the School of Education, Murdoch University. She is keenly interested in adolescent literacy, and her research findings have led to a broader understanding of the role that teachers and parents can play in supporting teenagers to become life-long readers. She has also contributed to educational initiatives in health promotion and higher education.|
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Web: http://profiles.murdoch.edu.au/myprofile/margaret-merga/
Please cite as: Merga, M. (2015). Thesis by publication in education: An autoethnographic perspective for educational researchers. Issues in Educational Research, 25(3), 291-308. http://www.iier.org.au/iier25/merga.html