PhD by Publication – Making a Contribution

Earlier this year I was awarded a PhD by Publication from the University of Lancaster, UK.   The process is not quite finished yet. I still must submit a hard copy and electronic copy to the library and wear the floppy hat at a ceremony in December. But for all intents and purposes it is a done deed.

Of course, I know of the criticisms of a PhD by Publication and I suspect that several of my colleagues and friends wonder about whether this is a ‘proper’ PhD. In this video, Tara Brabazon states very clearly that a PhD by Publication is valuable, but is not equivalent to a traditional PhD and that she wouldn’t allow a PhD by Publication to examine one of her PhD students who has been down the traditional 3, 4 or more years research route.

This begs the question of whether any one PhD is equivalent to any other PhD. Is a taught PhD equivalent to a traditional research PhD? Is a science PhD equivalent to an Arts PhD? Is a PhD from one university equivalent to a PhD from another university? Is one examination experience (viva) equivalent to another? And following Tara Brabazon’s argument, should a PhD by Publication be examined by a person with a traditional PhD? Surely the measure of the value of a PhD is not the number of years it takes or a question of who examines it, but the contribution to knowledge that it makes. I have read some PhD theses that scarcely mention the contribution made by three or more years’ work. I can understand this. Claiming to have made an original contribution to knowledge felt like the height of arrogance to me knowing, as I do, the work of many, many authors in my field.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, to apply for this route to a PhD I was required to write a supporting statement which

  • summarised each publication submitted,
  • outlined their interrelationship,
  • critically reviewed the current state of knowledge and research in my field,
  • indicated how my work has contributed to the field, and
  • commented on the standing of any journals and the reception of the publications as indicated by citations and reviews

At my first meeting with Professor Paul Ashwin, who would be my supervisor (it was very good of him to check my application before officially being my supervisor) he said that I needed to develop a rigorous, reflexive argument for an original contribution which will endure beyond the individual papers. I wonder how often PhDs result in an enduring, original contribution. My first attempt at writing an application fell flat on its face. Paul said he couldn’t see my contribution in the pages and pages that I had written covering the above listed bullet points. I was therefore asked to write a summary contribution statement before continuing with my application.

This proved surprisingly difficult. What exactly is a contribution?

Do the published papers (21 of them) count as a contribution? – No

Does that fact that the published papers have been cited (one of them 440 times) count as a contribution? – No

Does the fact that my papers have been blind reviewed (in total) by more than 40 reviewers, and peer reviewed by many more, count as a contribution? – No

Do the early empirical papers on the MOOC learning experience, which were amongst the first ever published on MOOCs count as a contribution? – No. Paul’s response to this suggestion was ‘So what?’

Does the fact that some of the papers address (but don’t fill) identified gaps in the literature count as a contribution? – Only in part.

So what will ‘endure beyond the individual papers and is original’? After about six weeks of puzzling over this, feeling like a complete imposter, starting and restarting numerous drafts, I finally submitted a summary contribution statement to Paul Ashwin and received the feedback that ‘PhD shines through your contribution statement’. Phew! I was ready to apply and include this contribution statement – Jenny Mackness Contribution Statement 02-06-16

However this summary statement is not in the final thesis. Ultimately, to avoid repetition, I summarised my contribution further under these headings:

  • A contribution to the literature on learners’ experiences in MOOCs
  • A contribution to understanding complexity in cMOOCs
  • A contribution to changing research processes

I am now confident that my publications have made an original contribution to knowledge, but how enduring this contribution will be I wouldn’t like to say. That is the real test.