Thursday, October 20, 2016

Should you consider a 3-article dissertation?

The three-article format for dissertations is becoming more common in archaeology. In my proposal-writing class we cover some professional issues, and students were interested in discussing the 3-article dissertation. I am not an expert here, but I did supervise creation of a policy and guidelines for the three-article thesis in my unit, and I am sitting on committees where students have chosen this option. I found a nice blog post (from 2014) on The Thesis Whisperer, "Thesis by publications? You're joking, right?" (guest post by earth scientist David Alexander). The (many) comments on that post contain many good insights and ideas, and I'll quote a bunch of them below.

First, here is a brief summary of our requirements (in SHESC) for a three-article dissertation:
  • The dissertation will consists of an introductory chapter, three article-chapters, a conclusion, and a single bibliography.
  • The paper must be considered publishable by the committee. This includes evaluation of the appropriateness of the target journal.
  • If the student has gathered a significant amount of data that will not go into an article, then the data should be presented in an appendix to the dissertation 


  • Divides the thesis into manageable sections
  • Less of a big push at the end to get the thesis done
  • Professional critique and feedback at an early stage
  • Articles improve one’s CV, and gives you a head start on publishing from the thesis.

 Here are some positive quotes from the comments on the Thesis Whisperer blog post"

For mine, the greatest advantage is that I now don’t have to sit down and write publications associated with my thesis.
It would be fairly hard for examiners to say that your research is crap when it has already been peer reviewed. 
What this discussion raises for me, or reminds me of, is that too often PhD students spend so much time on this one research project that they end up having narrowed their vision of the field that they are in. In addition, their actual amount and breadth of experience with research methodology is quite brief, because the research methods utilised and analysis of data/results is limited in scope.   I would argue that a PhD by publication can not only be rigorous, due to the peer review process, whether internal or external, but it also likely demands that the student demonstrate a variety of research skills across a number of research studies.   The PhD by publication is much closer to the real life work of a career academic, where quantity of publications is a ‘fact of life.'


  • The format may not fit all dissertation topics
  • Can be looked down on by humanities-oriented scholars or disciplines
  • Can be looked down on by older, more traditional scholars
  • Can be a big delay if all of the articles must be PUBLISHED before the Ph.D. is granted.
  • The dissertation is less useful as a doorstop.

Here are some negative quotes from comments on the Thesis Whisperer post:"

I could imagine that a paper could possibly be produced from the lit review or maybe the discussion chapter from the end, but I can’t imagine how a chapter about theory, methodology or findings could function as a stand-alone paper??
I was strongly advised against it as the monograph plus 1 or 2 article is still the expected norm within English departments. I asked the same question, PhD by publication or PhD as monograph, at a conference a few months later where three scholars in my field (from UK, Australia and USA) gave a seminar for post grads on the job market, and was virtually scoffed at for even suggesting that a PhD by publication was a possibility in English.
I was incredibly surprised at the range of (often strongly voiced) opinions that academics and university administrators, as well as PhD students, have on the issue of PhD by publication. I’ve seen people having angry, loud arguments (particularly in the social sciences) about whether a PhD publication is a positive development for the academy.    I think the reason for the divergent opinions is that this issue goes to the very heart of what we think scholarship should be about. The monograph model suggests that good scholarship should be based on an ability to produce an in-depth, book length analysis of a given issue, whereas the publication model tends to correlate more closely to existing research evaluation frameworks, which value large numbers of papers more highly than other forms of research output (such as books).

So, here are some things to consider in making a decision about whether the three-article dissertation is right for you:

  • Check your university regulations. Some British institutions (based on the comments on the Thesis Whisperer post) require the three articles to be completely published before the thesis is accepted (obviously a potentially dangerous source of delay). Some institutions promote this form of dissertation, others try to restrict it. Check your options.
  • Is your archaeology more science- or humanities-oriented. The 3-article dissertation is definitely a development in the sciences, and it is more widely accepted in scientific disciplines. Humanities-oriented archaeologists, perhaps Classicists, who have spent their whole career on one type of building in one time period may be less likely to approve of the 3-article format. If you have such people on your committee, or if you intend to apply for jobs in programs consisting of such scholars, you may want to go with the traditional dissertation format.

Theses nailed to the wall in Uppsala
I wonder what they think about 3-article dissertations in Sweden, where they still nail their theses to the wall.


Pretzel Bender said...

This is an interesting idea. I have (more or less) been actually publishing chapters of my dissertation (though of course they were not written in a handy encapsulated format) and maybe a structure like this to begin with would have helped that process and maybe even have sped up review. I will say that one article (the more involved one) did take 1.5 years to get published so I think time would be a factor in making this a practical thing to do. I figure folks will be worried that it lightens the phd load and also that some dissertations are really better read as a synthetic whole piece. Still, having seen so many dissertations become too unwieldy for publication as their own book, it's not a bad idea to advance professionalism by making publication a part of the dissertation process.

Michael E. Smith said...

Yes, I think that this is part of the attraction of the 3-paper dissertation: making it easier to get the research published. I agree, some dissertations will probably fit the standard model more easily, so one has to decide based on one's individual circumstances. It took me sevearl decades to get the descriptive data from my dissertation into shape for publication, and the monograph is still not published (I call it my "Albatross monograph."

Rita... said...

That´s right. In Uppsala we nail our theses (spikning) and this marks the point in time from which the dissertation becomes available for public scrutiny. Most theses will be available online after the nailing. And to answer your question, yes, most theses in Uppsala follow the article system (even at the Department of Archaeology). Nevertheless, all theses are printed in a small number of copies (monographs or compliation of articles with introduction and conclusion) - and one will be nailed! While the thesis is nailed we drink some sparkling wine to celebrate the event :)

Michael E. Smith said...

Thanks, Rita. I saw the wall of these when I visited Uppsala a few years ago. I was intrigued. I like the fact that the university can maintain an ancient and charming custom, while being in the vanguard of current academic practices (like the 3-paper dissertation). I couldn't find my own photos from Uppsala, so I used images from the internet.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for giving this wonderful idea of publishing

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Anonymous said...

I think the 3 paper dissertation is potentially a great thing for some archaeologists (depending on the subject matter), but i am familiar with one pitfall not mentioned above. What if 1 of those 3 papers is actually plagiarized and misrepresenting someone else's work as the phd candidate's? I think this would be much more difficult to pull off with a standard tome-monograph type dissertation, but i have seen my own published and unpublished research repackaged as a "paper" in a 3-paper dissertation. I happened to be a peer reviewer for this paper and pointed out the plagiarism to the editor of the journal and it was rejected, and i assume/hope it would be similarly rejected elsewhere.

Clearly there was a lack of oversight on the supervisory committee (or they were complicit in it). So, in this case, a newly minted phd was really based on 2 papers and one plagiarized paper. Can anyone say that 2 papers (regardless of quality) and one recycled and repackaged presentation of someone else's work is really equal to a monograph style phd? My point here is that i think if candidates go the 3-paper dissertation route, supervisor committees will need to increase their scrutiny. Alternatively, this could be an isolated incident.

Michael E. Smith said...

@Anonymous - I don't see how the situation you describe relates to the difference between a standard dissertation and a 3-paper dissertation. If a paper involves plagiarism - whether or not it is part of a dissertation - it is not acceptable and should be exposed. If a dissertation involves plagiarism, then minimally the dissertation chair and department chair should be notified. In your case, if you were aware that the plagiarized paper was part of a dissertation, you should have notified these people yourself (or make sure that someone else, perhaps the journal editor, made this notification). I haven't found much published on this topic, but there is at lease one nice university website, the University of Brihish Columbia:

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