What’s a thesis by publication and how does it work?

If you are considering undertaking a PhD, you may have the possibility of doing a thesis by publication instead of writing a book. Thesis by publication is an increasingly popular model in which you plan your thesis around one or more articles that you publish in peer-reviewed venues like scientific journals. If you may be wondering if this is for you, below I summarize some research that may help you make that decision. Beneath each section you can find the references.

The research I summarize here was conducted by Shannon Mason, Margaret K. Merga, and Julia Morris. Do consider following them on ResearchGate or on Twitter (SM, MM, JM) to stay on top of their newest stuff.

(A word of caution: these investigations were conducted with a sample of Australian doctoral students. Although many of the findings should be sufficiently general, some important details may be quite different in your situation.)

What is the typical scope of a thesis by publication and what is included?

Average time commitment across enrolment status is 4.7 years, with part time candidature taking about 2 years longer (6.1 yrs) than full-time candidature (4.1 yrs). About 70% completed their thesis in the expected time period or shorter, whereas around 30% took longer than expected. The average thesis consists of 4.5 publications but the most frequent number of publications within a thesis is four publications. Overwhelmingly, publications are published in academic journals, but conference proceedings are also not uncommon. Rarely are book chapters or other types of publications included. Most publications are published at the time of submission of the thesis, but including papers “under review” or “in preparation” is also not unusual. Usually, the doctoral students is the first author of the publication, sometimes he/she is also a sole author. Mere co-authorship is more rare.

Mason et al., (2020). Publication characteristics. Table 9, p10

Mason, S., Merga, M. K., & Morris, J. E. (2020). Typical scope of time commitment and research outputs of Thesis by Publication in Australia. Higher Education Research & Development39(2), 244-258.

Mason, S., & Merga, M. K. (2018). A current view of the thesis by publication in the humanities and social sciences. International Journal of Doctoral Studies13, 139-154.

What are common rationales and motivations for choosing thesis by publication?

Candidates identify mainly four reasons for adopting the thesis-by-publication, (1) importance of publishing for an academic career, (2) desire to disseminate their findings broadly and timely, (3) receiving feedback and quality assurance, and (4) efficiency and manageability. Aside from themselves, they are most strongly influenced by their supervisors to adopt this thesis model.

Mason et al. (2019). Influences on decision to adopt TBP. Table 2

Mason, S., Merga, M. K., & Morris, J. E. (2019). Choosing the Thesis by Publication approach: motivations and influencers for doctoral candidates. The Australian Educational Researcher, 1-15.

How are publications integrated into the thesis?

There are many approaches and variations for integrating articles into the thesis; the authors find 11 such approaches in their data. By far the most common one is the sandwich model, in which the articles are treated as chapters and bookended by an introduction and a discussion/conclusion. Variations of this are when several or all articles are presented within one chapter or when there are separate chapters for literature review and/or research methodology due to gaps in reporting that may be due to journal preferences. Another approach, albeit much less frequent, is the 2-part-model. Here, the first part consists of introduction, theory, literature review, methodology, discussion, and conclusion, while the second part consists of an appendix of all included articles.

Mason & Merga (2018). Sandwich model. Fig 1, p.7

Mason, S., & Merga, M. (2018). Integrating publications in the social science doctoral thesis by publication. Higher Education Research & Development37(7), 1454-1471.

What are the challenges and positives associated with a thesis by publication?

Doctoral students found particular challenges in ensuring cohesion in the final thesis, experiencing time pressures due to imponderables of multiple smaller projects, managing the publishing journey, as well as the possibility of receiving insufficient supervisor and university support for this thesis type. However, these challenges appear mostly outweighed by the benefits. Positives reported by doctoral students were efficiency by partitioning the research project, accessibility and dissemination of the research by publishing “along the way”, feedback by other researchers through peer review, learning valuable research skills like scholarly writing and negotiating journal publication, career and reputation benefits by publishing more and earlier, increased motivation through achieving publication milestones, and finally, easier examinations.

Merga et al. (2019). p.11

Merga, M. K., Mason, S., & Morris, J. E. (2019). ‘What do I even call this?’Challenges and possibilities of undertaking a thesis by publication. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 1-17.

What are the skills and attributes that help me complete a thesis by publication?

Skills that help succeed in a thesis-by-publication include collaboration and interpersonal skills, proficiency in academic writing, ability to negotiate the publication journey, dealing constructively with feedback and peer-review, organization and time management, as well as information technology proficiency. Important individual attributes are resilience and patience, determination and focus, independence and assertiveness, introspection and openness to self-improvement.

Merga et al., (2019), p.277

Merga, M. K., Mason, S., & Morris, J. E. (2019). ‘The constant rejections hurt’: Skills and personal attributes needed to successfully complete a thesis by publication. Learned Publishing32(3), 271-281.


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