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

Competences for Global Collaboration MOOC

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A new MOOC – Competences for Global Collaboration – is due to start on April 22nd.  This has been designed by my colleagues from the University of Applied Sciences in Graz, Austria.

This is a 6 week MOOC – covering the following topics:

Week 1: Communication across borders: Introduction and warm-up (Facilitators: Rupert Beinhauer, Jutta Pauschenwein; Visiting Speaker: Heinz Wittenbrink,)

Week 2: Legal cultures (Facilitator: Doris Kiendl-Wendner)

Week 3: Doing Business in Emergent Markets (Facilitator: Thomas Schmalzer; Visiting Speaker: Vito Bobek)

Week 4: Relationships & Networks in Business to Business Marketing (Facilitator: Denny Seiger; Visiting Speaker: Rahul Singh)

Week 5: International communication and negotiation (Facilitator: Gudrun Reimerth; Visiting Speaker: Maryam Bigdeli)

Week 6: Transfer into individual contexts (Facilitators: Maja Pivec, Jutta Pauschenwein)

The pedagogy of this MOOC has been very carefully thought through and articulated on the MOOC website, where a series of blog posts have outlined the course team’s thinking since they started to build their website in February of this year.

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More than 300 people have already signed up for this MOOC.  The topic seems particularly important for learning in a digital age. As Charles Darwin is thought to have said:
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Sharing as accountability

This was the title of a talk given by Dean Shareski to ETMOOC last week.  Dean is always entertaining to listen to and for me there is no doubting his sincerity and passion for his belief in sharing as accountability.

But Dean and I don’t really see eye to eye about sharing as accountability, as testified by the discussion generated by this blog post more than a year ago.

From his talk to ETMOOC, I don’t think either of us have shifted our positions that much, although in this talk he did not explicitly mention sharing as a moral imperative  and he did ask participants what the dangers of sharing might be.

Dangers of Sharing

However, at one point, he still said ‘You should feel guilty if you are not sharing anything’. Is there a hint of taking the moral high ground there? To be fair I think these comments are usually made (but not always) in the context of teaching. As David Wiley has evidently said, it is pretty impossible to teach without sharing.

But do we have a common understanding of what we mean by sharing?

  • sharing as a reciprocal relationship involving mutuality and interdependence?
  • sharing of thoughts and feelings in social communication?
  • sharing as altruistic giving and distribution?

Interesting is a summary of Peter Corning’s book ‘Nature’s Magic: Synergy In Evolution And the Fate of Humankind’, where Corning writes:

Work by Gintis, Bowes, Fehr and  Gächter indicate that strong reciprocity among humans is egoistic, not altruistic or cooperative, and depends on aggressive punishment of cheaters.

So maybe sharing is not all it is cracked up to be?

I should stress that I am not anti-sharing. More that I think it important to take an informed and balanced approach to the practice of sharing, such as found in the discussions around cooperation and collaboration, for example by


All this is on my mind because of the work I am doing on Howard Rheingold’s Towards a Literacy of Cooperation course and my thinking about how sharing, cooperation and collaboration inform each other. I will be surprised if I come out this course without having undergone a shift in my understanding, so maybe the next time I see/listen to Dean talk it will be through a different lens.

Reflections on Collaborative Research

Collaborative research can be very rewarding, but the opposite can also be true. An internet search quickly shows that others have also written about this.

A 1998 paper (Guidelines for Research in Partnership with Developing Countries) written by the Swiss Commission for Research Partnership with Developing Countries, lists 11 principles of collaborative research as follows:

  1. Decide on the objectives together
  2. Build up mutual trust
  3. Share information; develop networks
  4. Share responsibility
  5. Create transparency
  6. Monitor and evaluate the collaboration
  7. Disseminate the results
  8. Apply the results
  9. Share profits equitably
  10. Increase research capacity
  11. Build on the achievements

The Responsible Conduct of Research website also provides guidelines for collaborative research.

Both these sources of information say similar things and both appear to be providing guidelines for funded research projects.

Very little of the research I am involved in is funded. I usually work voluntarily, in my own time, to satisfy my own interests. Because I am an independent consultant, it follows that time I spend on this research, also means that it is time that I am not earning by working on a paid project. This is my choice, but perhaps it necessitates a different type of collaboration, or throws up some different issues.

I have done enough collaborative research now to know when it does and doesn’t work for me. It doesn’t when there is no real sense of working together, when there are ‘egos’ involved, when one of the team claims personal ownership over some aspect of the research, when there is lack of mutual respect, when there is lack of communication, and worst of all, when there are issues around whose name should appear as ‘lead’ author. It occurred to me that it would be great if a research team’s names were presented as a circle, so that there was no way of getting into these ‘lead’ author issues.

For me collaborative research is rewarding when there is a genuine partnership – a ‘Pas de Deux’ relationship as one of my research colleagues called it, i.e. that colleagues provide complementary strengths. This of course requires knowledge of and respect for each other’s strengths which takes time to develop. Two ‘Cs’ are very important in this – courtesy and frequent, open communication.

For me collaborative research also works best when partners are equally enthusiastic about the research topic and have a genuine desire to dig deep, i.e. it’s more than a jumping through hoops exercise to meet an externally imposed target. The rewarding bit of the research for me is in the discussions that can take place, possibly over many months or even years about the ideas being researched. The actual publication is simply the icing on the cake.

Finally, for me the most rewarding research collaborations have been those where the discussion doesn’t end simply because the paper has been submitted for publication – the discussion has been rich enough to generate too much to say in one publication and ideas for further research immediately spring to mind.

Learning is a messy business…..

…. and no more so than when you are doing research and are a new researcher! I’m wondering if it is more or less messy when you are working with others. I remember that for the CCK08 assignments some people chose to work collaboratively and some chose to work individually. It’s interesting to reflect on whether the outcomes would have been better or worse for having worked in the alternative way. They would almost certainly have been different.

For myself, I prefer to work with others. I learn so much from the others’ expertise, their insights, alternative perspectives and different ways of working, which is enriched even further by different cultural backgrounds. I also find this whole process as interesting as the research itself. But it’s difficult not to go into information overload, particularly if the information is new. For example, I know nothing about Actor Network Theory (ANT), which other members of our research team seem to be familiar with, if not very familiar. It even took me a week or two to realise that IMO in a post meant ‘In my Opinion’ 🙂

It’s very interesting how easy it is to make assumptions about every possible aspect of life and learning. I try and stay mindful of Stephen Brookfield’s work on assumption hunting when involved in something like this research project, but I’m not always successful. This, of course, is complicated by the fact that this is a ‘virtual’ research team. We have never actually met. We probably have all sorts of erroneous ideas about each other, but it’s interesting how the process of working together, teasing out ideas, negotiating meaning and sometimes ‘going round in circles’, brings a sense of proximity and commitment.

In this team of four wonderfully enthusiastic researchers, I think we will have written a book before we even begin to write the paper! We are going backwards and forwards, sideways, up and down and round about, but bit by bit are making progress and untangling the knots of the messy learning business. I feel so pleased to be working in this team.