PhD by Publication and Collaboration

A PhD is always (as far as I know) an individual piece of work. The point is to make and defend an individual contribution to knowledge in your given field.  This emphasis on an individual contribution can make doing a PhD a long, lonely, isolating route to the award, as evidenced by the stories of depression, mental illness, dropping out and associated long-term feelings of failure often reported in articles such as in the Times Higher Education.

Those who cope with this either relish working alone and don’t need to discuss what they are doing even with a supervisor, or, more likely, they have been proactive in nurturing a supportive network around them of family, friends and colleagues. My PhD was neither long, nor lonely; even so I benefitted from the support of many friends, colleagues and my family.

 Gilbert and George 1976 – MENTAL NO. 2, 314 x 264 cm (Source of Image)

Officially, there seems to be no such thing as a collaborative PhD (as in the style of the artists Gilbert and George, who work together to create their art), although PhDs may result from collaboratively funded projects between universities and outside organisations and who’s to say whether an individual PhD thesis has involved collaborative writing, but that seems unlikely. However, I do know of a Masters dissertation where, unbeknown to the marker, to meet the deadline one chapter was written entirely by the student’s father. This was not even collaborative.

My own PhD (by publication) required the submission of a selection of published papers together with a supporting statement which expounded the overall contribution to knowledge in my field. Whilst my PhD thesis (supporting statement) was written by me alone, and could only be written by me because it incorporates work with eleven different research teams (i.e. none of my collaborators have had the same overall experience), all my published papers have been written collaboratively. I consider this to be a strength of my research for the reasons I have stated in the thesis (see pages 48-50 – Jenny Mackness PhD (Pub) 2017).

At an early meeting with my supervisor, Paul Ashwin, we discussed whether all the papers to be submitted should indicate the percentage contribution of each author. Some PhDs by Publication do this, but I strongly resisted it. It seems to me that an attempt to measure a contribution in a collaborative project works against the spirit of collaboration. As I explained in my viva (I was challenged on this), a contribution might range from coming up with the one key idea or identifying the key research paper that changes the direction of the research, to hours of data analysis. How would you put a measurement figure against these different types of contribution each of which is essential to the successful outcome of the research? In addition, in most of my collaborative research the work has been conducted jointly, i.e. all the authors have been involved in the different aspects and phases of the research, framing the research questions, collecting and analysing the data, writing the paper and so on. Although the lead authors in my papers have been recognised as the person who has taken most responsibility for the research and the paper, in my research there has never been an author who didn’t merit having their name on the paper. We have been mutually accountable and the research has been enriched by the diversity of individual and alternative perspectives which have helped to guard against subjectivity and bias.

In my thesis, I argue that collaboration was central and essential to my research. Beyond the world of the individual PhD student, it also seems to be central and essential to many if not most research projects. Examination of my literature review reveals that the majority of peer-reviewed papers are co-authored (see p.56 -78, Jenny Mackness PhD (Pub) 2017). Only a third of the papers in my reference list were single authored. As I write in the thesis, there have been recent calls for more multi-disciplinary research, international and diverse teams (see p.52, Jenny Mackness PhD (Pub) 2017). This type of research requires considerable collaboration skills. These are not easy skills to acquire. I wrote about this in the early days of my research – Reflections on Collaborative research. The thoughts I had then still stand, but despite potential difficulties, I think I will always favour collaborative research over individual research.

My ongoing experience of collaborative research and reflection on my PhD by Publication has made me wonder again why any PhD student must endure years of working alone when the benefits of collaboration are not only obvious, but ultimately necessary for a career in academic research.

Mackness, J. (2017). Learners’ experiences in cMOOCs (2008-2016). PhD thesis. Jenny Mackness PhD (Pub) 2017

4 thoughts on “PhD by Publication and Collaboration

  1. Kay Oddone July 13, 2017 / 11:41 pm

    Thanks for this observation; it is one that I have often mulled over during the course of my own PhD research. I have never undertaken such a huge project, all by myself, and while I am fortunate both in the fact that I am happy working alone and also have a wonderful online support network, I sometimes think that the traditional PhD research model could do with some updating. As you point out, it is not common to work in such an isolated fashion in the ‘real world’ of either business or academia, and in fact collaboration is increasingly encouraged. I also muse about the genre of the thesis; being presented as a hard copy document, with no scope for hyperlinks, multimedia or any of the richness we who blog have grown used to incorporating in their writing. Time will tell if change seeps in…it will be interesting to watch!

  2. jennymackness July 14, 2017 / 8:29 am

    Thanks Kay for your comment. We seem to have been thinking along similar lines. The University of Lancaster requires the submission of an electronic copy along with the hard copy, but the fact that a hard copy is required constrained how I approached the writing of the PhD.

    At the beginning I toyed with the idea of including multimedia. I do have a couple of hyperlinks in my thesis, but the urls for these are provided in the reference list – and the urls are hyperlinked, but this won’t be of any help in the hard copy. I also have a couple urls of videos, but it would have been nice to embed those. And printing costs prohibit the inclusion of too many coloured images or Figures.

    I suppose an argument against hyperlinks is that they often go out of date and then there is the question of how much we should expect the reader to go outside the thesis for information.

    I am not sure what the University’s rationale is for requiring hard copies. The cynical side of me thinks it must be a money-making enterprise. It would be interesting to see how many hard copies are looked at in the library. It’s also ironic that we are continuously urged to avoid paper wastage, and yet are still asking students to print hard copies of their theses. I will not be printing a hard copy for myself – only for the library as required.

  3. SheriO July 14, 2017 / 8:31 pm

    Thank you for bringing up so many issues with doctoral training. The solitary nature of the work required drives many to leave programs or succumb to mental illness. It is a truth not universally acknowledged that upon graduation, a solitary PhD must be in want of a collaborator, as the vast preponderance of journal articles are written by more than one author.

    Why don’t we see changes in doctoral programs, not just allowing collaboration, but encouraging it as a necessary attribute of a 21st century scholar?

    No mechanism for learning exists in most doctoral or research training programs. By learning I mean ongoing review, experiments with pedagogy, study, attending conferences on doctoral training, contributing to journals of same, harvesting ideas from students for change…

    Programs go on year over year largely unchanged and unchallenged.

    Rice University published a tome on problems in the PhD, and innovated something called a collaborative PhD. the model for the collaborative PhD is sharing labour and minds with let’s say three student researchers all interested in the same topic. Each student does a slice of the topic. One supervisor oversees all three.

    In Africa a type of research called networked research has popped up. This is an interdisciplinary research around a practical issue, by persons with a real skin in the game regarding the issue. I don’t think it’s been used for PhDs, but it should be.

    In terms of the thesis, some foundling efforts have been made to break the lock of text and print. #remisthediss is one such effort, as is #goskp (genres of scholarly knowledge production). One prominent scholar from the remixthediss group I believe, drew his dissertation as a graphic-like text. He’s at the University of Calgary now I believe.

    I can not verify it, but I heard someone wrote out their thesis is Tweets. The times they are a changin’ …

  4. jennymackness July 17, 2017 / 6:10 pm

    Sheri – many thanks for your comments. I am interested that Rice University have a collaborative PhD. I will have to explore that further. Networked research also sounds interesting. Maybe there are also more examples out there that are not widely known.

    I do know that some students have managed to produce PhDs in other than traditional formats, but I think these tend to be in disciplines which support this, e.g. the PhD in comic format that you refer to by Nick Sousanis, – – explores the relationship between words and images, so it makes sense to use graphics as the form of presentation. Nevertheless, I suspect that not every university would have accepted this.

    It would be interesting to see the thesis made up of tweets. Presumably the research was about tweets and what can be communicated in 140 characters.

    I agree that there needs to be more use of multimedia and recognition of the affordances of technology for communicating and disseminating research.

    Lots to think about.

    Thanks 🙂

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