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