PhD theses: the pros and cons 1

August 24, 2007

The decision by Stirling University to offer PhD students the opportunity to submit a series of linked peer-reviewed journal articles rather than a traditional thesis ("Stirling plans to waive PhD dissertation", August 17) is described as a "pioneering initiative". It may be pioneering in the UK, but elsewhere it has long been the norm. As those who have worked and examined in Scandinavia, for example, know well, a doctoral thesis composed of peer reviewed articles, together with an introductory "perspective", is standard.

The model whereby journal articles are submitted overcomes the objection that a traditional thesis is rarely read by anyone other than the examiners. Importantly, a higher threshold of quality is provided, in that the work has already passed peer review. Indeed, it is not unknown for a PhD to be awarded in the UK for work that would never be published, or where a single, modest publication ensues.

If widely adopted, a requirement for a minimum of three to four published papers would mean, however, that most PhDs would take longer. Consequently, UK universities and funding bodies would need to become more flexible in terms of the time taken for a PhD.

Perhaps the main disadvantage of the journal article approach is that the supervisor will generally have had a much greater input into the preparation of each published paper (their name is usually on it) than with the traditional thesis.

Paul Trayhurn
Professor of nutritional biology
Liverpool University

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