PhD by Publication – Selection of Papers

In her book, PhD by Published Work, Susan Smith writes that one of the disadvantages of this route to a PHD is that ‘it is tricky to retrospectively shoe-horn diverse papers into a post hoc theme’ (p.34).

This statement seems to suggest that researchers jump from project to project that have no direct links between them. Maybe this is the case for researchers, associated with universities, who may have to work on projects which are not their principal area of interest, either because these projects bring in funding, or because papers from these projects will contribute to their University’s research excellence framework (REF). I can see that this might lead to diverse papers that are difficult to pull together, but neither of these constraints applied to me, since I have always worked as an independent researcher.

Despite this, it wasn’t immediately apparent to me which papers I should select for this PhD by Publication or what the focus of my supporting statement should be. I think there were at least three possible routes I could have gone down, depending on which and how many papers I selected for submission and which papers I left out. As Ian McGilchrist says on p.133 of his book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World:

It is not just that what we find determines the nature of attention we accord to it, but that the attention we pay to anything also determines what it is we find.

Perhaps not surprisingly, in order to select papers, I first had to refresh my memory about these publications. Once a paper has been published I tend not to go back and reread it multiple times, but instead move on to the next research project. Although I knew the general gist of all the papers, I didn’t remember all the detail. So I started by working on a mini literature review of my own papers, critiquing them, summarising them, checking the number of citations and how and where the work has been disseminated. Looking back at my journal, I can see that I didn’t find this process particularly easy. It was time consuming and my first summaries were streams of consciousness rather than summaries. Ultimately, I ended up with the summaries of the papers I selected that are in Appendix 3 of the thesis – Jenny Mackness PhD (Pub) 2017.

To decide on which papers to select, I used Matthias Melcher’s Think Tool, which allows you to enter text into a mapping tool and look for links between the entered texts.

Since 2009, I have published 20 papers and one book chapter. I entered the Abstracts of all these publications into the Think Tool and as a result was able to create 6 groups of papers and identify cross-paper themes.

Interrelationships between all publications by group and keyword. (Figure 1 in the thesis, on p.16)

I blogged about this process at the time – A new mapping tool: useful for research purposes. From this process it became clear to me that whilst a large body of work was related to emergent learning, and I could have focussed solely on that, in fact even those papers resulted from participation in MOOCs and a deep interest in how learning occurs in these open environments at the level of the individual learner. I felt there was only one group of papers that diverged from this and that was the group that looks at whether and how learning design can be influenced by an embodied view of the world and a view of perception and action as enactive perception using all the senses, but even these papers originated from an interest in the design of learning environments.

Having decided on which groups to focus on there still remained the question of how many papers to select. For Lancaster University, there was no advice on the number of papers to be submitted other than that the material submitted must be “sufficiently extensive as to provide convincing evidence that the research constitutes a substantial contribution to knowledge or scholarship.” At this stage I went into the department to look at the PhDs by Published Work already awarded, to discover that there had only been three since 1999 (1999, 2003, 2010) and each of these was awarded to a member of staff in the department, who submitted 9, 11 and 10 published works respectively together with a supporting statement of around 40 pages, although I have seen other examples from Lancaster University considerably shorter than this. Ultimately, I submitted 13 papers and a supporting statement of 101 pages. I mention this not to suggest that the number of pages is in any way significant, but just to illustrate that it seems that at Lancaster University there is a wide variety of practice. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the case across universities. The uncertainty associated with this was not easy to work with, but on the other hand seemed to mirror the unpredictable learning environments I have researched, where I have worked with no externally imposed rules or expectations.

Throughout this process I felt I was working in the same way I have always worked, i.e. working it out as I went along, and letting the process and structure emerge. One of my ‘critical friends’ who gave me feedback on the thesis after I had submitted but before the viva thought that my important work was related to the ‘Footprints of Emergence’ framework and emergent learning rather than the empirical papers and I think that my colleague Roy Williams, probably thinks the same, although he hasn’t said this. But the analysis of my papers, using Matthias Melcher’s Think Tool,  revealed my ‘golden thread’ (as Susan Smith calls it) to be ‘learners’ experiences in cMOOCs’, so that is what I focussed on.

On reflection and given the open structure of the PhD by Publication, I can see that in different circumstances at a different time, I might have selected a different set of papers and ended up with a different thesis. Now there’s a thought! But I’m not going to test out this idea  🙂

Why do a PhD by Publication?

Why do a PhD at all?

I have considered this question many times since I completed my MA in 1997 when I was asked by the awarding University department to continue to do a PhD. I declined. My job at the time was demanding and the MA, despite having really enjoyed it, had been a strain on me and my family’s patience! But a PhD was always in the back of my mind. In 2010, I considered it again and rejected the idea once more . During these years, I continued to work as an independent researcher with a variety of colleagues, producing a number of papers. At the end of 2015 I didn’t have any more research projects planned, so my mind turned again to the possibility of doing a PhD. It seemed it was a niggle that just wouldn’t go away. My eldest son sent me an email saying, ‘For goodness sake Mum, you’ve been talking about it for years – just get on with it.’

Source of image 

(I didn’t discover this book until after I had submitted, but I wish I had discovered it earlier)

There are many reasons for doing a PhD. I have friends who have completed or are working on research PhDs, i.e. they research a topic of personal interest for three or more years, or taught PhDs, where six taught and assessed modules are completed over the first two years, before embarking on a shorter thesis which takes two years or more. Reasons seem to be a combination of personal interest in the chosen topic and career incentives/ambitions and from what I have seen the award of a PhD can lead to new career opportunities. My reasons did not relate to my career, but they did relate to changing personal circumstances.

I have recently reached my eighth decade (70 as of last November to be precise) so a PhD as a career move was not relevant for me. In fact, it might mark the end of my research career. I haven’t decided yet. I needed to do it for myself. Although I knew that it was possible to do a PhD by publication, I thought I probably wasn’t eligible. Many Universities will only take members of staff to do a PhD by Publication.   When I went to Lancaster University in January 2016 to enquire about doing a PhD, I went with the intention of starting a full research PhD. It was Professor Paul Ashwin, Head of Department, who ultimately became my supervisor, who asked me why I wasn’t considering a PhD by Publication. Interestingly the Educational Research Department at Lancaster University, which has awarded my PhD, has no mention of a PhD by Publication on its website , but Paul found out for me that I was eligible at Lancaster University to do this, since I am an alumna (my MA) and I worked for nine years for an associated institution.

I didn’t fully realise until well into my PhD that this was the perfect route for me. Not only was it a wonderful act of retrospective coherence, a pulling together of eight years’ work, but it also came at just the right time and only cost me £600, which now that I am rarely paid for work I do and am living off my pension, was an important consideration. On reflection, although this was not a consideration at the time, it was also important that it didn’t take as long (18 months in total); at my age time is short and I have a lot of things on my bucket list to fit in 🙂

So what did I have to do for this PhD?

PhDs by publication in the UK don’t seem to be very common – and I am not talking about the kind of PhD which is assessed by the papers that are written and published as part of the PhD study. That kind of PhD seems quite common in some countries in Europe and in Canada. My PhD by Publication was different. It involved drawing on existing published papers and making the case for a contribution to the body of knowledge in the field studied (in my case – learners’ experiences in connectivist MOOCs). This act of retrospective coherence was particularly apt for me, since a lot of my research has been into exploring how emergent learning occurs in complex adaptive systems – namely open online learning environments.

Different universities have different requirements both for entry and for the thesis submission, for a PhD by Publication. In my case the application was as much work as the thesis submission, although that was partly my own choice as I decided to try and do most of the work (i.e. the Literature Review and mapping analysis of papers) upfront, leaving me less to do after acceptance.

The application requirements for Lancaster University were as follows:

  • a list of the publications to be submitted: these may include refereed articles, authored chapters, authored books, and edited works. They may not include course readers, internally published material or unpublished seminar/conference papers, and 
  • a supporting paper: this should summarise each publication submitted, outline their interrelationship, give a critical review of the current state of knowledge and research in the applicant’s field and indicate how his or her work has contributed to the field.  It should also comment on the standing of any journals and the reception of the publications as indicated by citations and reviews

In relation to the length of the submission, there are no set word limits for the supporting paper which should accompany the submitted publications. The supporting paper must cover all the areas outlined in section 53(b) of the criteria (bullet points above) and the material submitted must be “sufficiently extensive as to provide convincing evidence that the research constitutes a substantial contribution to knowledge or scholarship.”  

If the application is successful, you would then work with an internal adviser to expand on the supporting paper, so this is not the final submission, basically it’s the starting point in order to ascertain if your work is at the appropriate level, i.e. PhD.

During the PhD I kept a comprehensive journal of all my thinking and progress on a private wiki which I only shared with Matthias Melcher, who was wonderfully critically supportive and encouraging throughout the whole process. What is so amazing about this is that we have never even met face-to-face. Matthias was there at the very start of my research into connectivist MOOCs. We ‘met’ in CCKO8 – the first ever MOOC.

Looking back at my wiki notes I see that I started to think about applying for a PhD in December 2015 and had my first meeting with Paul Ashwin at Lancaster University in January 2016. I submitted my application at the beginning of June 2016 and my thesis (supporting statement) at the beginning of December 2016. My viva was at the end of March 2017 and my final submission with minor revisions in May 2017. These were accepted June 2017. Through most of this time, I worked full time on the PhD.

Now that it is over, my family are proud but relieved that life can finally go back to normal. My eldest son’s response this time was, ‘Well who said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks!’

PhD by Publication

Today I can christen this mug which was sent to me by my friend and collaborator, Mariana Funes (herself a Dr of long-standing) at the end of March, when I was told by my examiners that I had been awarded a PhD subject to three minor revisions.

This evening I have heard that these revisions have been accepted. Here’s the proof:

I have viewed the revisions to Jenny’s thesis submission suggested by the examiners at her viva on the 30th of March. I can confirm that they have been undertaken thoroughly and the account and justification of her contribution to knowledge is clear. I recommend that she should now be awarded the degree of PhD.

Professor Murray Saunders, Internal Examiner, Lancaster University, UK

I have a lot to reflect on and say about this PhD, principally because it was a PhD by publication – a bit of a different animal. I still have to be formally awarded this PhD by submitting a bound hard copy to Lancaster University (UK) library and attending an award ceremony in December, but given the revisions have been accepted, I now feel I can add PhD to my signature and post my PhD here on my blog.

But most important for me at this stage is to acknowledge my collaborators, without whom this PhD would not have been possible – I will write more of this later – collaboration and PhD aren’t two words that normally go together. So here is a copy of the Acknowledgements section in my submission.

Acknowledgements

I have been encouraged and supported by many people since I started researching learners’ experiences in MOOCs in 2008. Everyone acknowledged here has played a significant role in the act of retrospective coherence that is this PhD submission.

John Mackness has been a staunch critical friend throughout this process. Matthias Melcher has also, over these years, been hugely supportive, challenging my thinking and broadening my perspectives through ongoing online discussion. Stephen Downes, Mariana Funes, Debbie Simpson and Roy Williams all provided comprehensive and very helpful comments on my final draft. Many thanks to you all.

All my work has been collaborative. I have learned so much from the generosity, friendship and expertise of my collaborators. Special thanks are due to Roy Williams, with whom I have collaborated on many papers, for his unerring courtesy and kindness and for introducing me to new ways of thinking. I am also indebted to all my other collaborators; Frances Bell, Mariana Funes, Karen Guldberg, Simone Gumtau, Regina Karousou, Liz Lovegrove, Sui Fai John Mak, Elpida Makriyannis, Matthias Melcher, Jutta Pauschenwein, George Roberts, Rhona Sharpe, Charlene Tait, Carmen Tschofen and Marion Waite. I consider myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with you all. It has been a privilege.

Thank you too to Allison Littlejohn for her timely advice on applying for a PhD by published work and to my supervisor Professor Paul Ashwin for encouraging and supporting my submission for this award and for his astute feedback on my drafts.

Final thanks are due to my External Examiners Professor Sian Bayne and Professor George Veletsianos and to my Internal Examiner, Professor Murray Saunders.

And here is the whole document – Jenny Mackness PhD (Pub) 2017

As with all PhDs the process has been a significant learning experience, which I have recorded as I have gone along, starting in December 2015. I will be writing more blog posts about this process as a PhD by publication is still not a very common route to this award and certainly not a PhD for which the papers have been written before applying.