PhD by publication ‘not an option’ at most UK universities

Review finds only one in three institutions publishes guidance on alternative doctorate format

October 11, 2023
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Just one in three UK universities publishes guidance on how students can do a PhD by publication, according to a new study that calls for the alternative doctoral format to be offered more widely.

In a review of research degree policies at 135 UK universities, only 44 had clearly stated institution-wide policies on how students could complete a PhD by submitting peer-reviewed papers, book chapters or conference proceedings in place of the traditional doctoral thesis.

Seventy-five universities had no publicly available information on alternative format doctorates, while two did not have institutional guidelines as they differed by department. Seven had guidelines that could be viewed only by university members.

The study, published in Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education, argues that the variable practice across the sector reflects a “fragmented policy landscape” in relation to a format that is widely available in Europe and Australia.

While most Russell Group universities – 58 per cent – awarded PhDs by publication, there was a “tendency for post-92 institutions not to offer an alternative format option”, explains the study by Caitlin Robinson, a research fellow in the University of Bristol’s School of Geographical Sciences.

That stratification may make it harder for those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds to gain a doctorate as students at research-intensive universities are more likely to come from affluent groups, contends the study.

“I had expected to find most universities were offering the alternative format in some way and find it embedded in institutions’ practices, but there are clearly universities that don’t offer it, or where this route is not at all visible,” said Dr Robinson.

While she accepted that the format, which is informally known as the “staff PhD” as it is often taken by university lecturers who have not completed a doctorate earlier in their careers, “might not be appropriate for some disciplines”, Dr Robinson said it would be “good for universities to have more structured processes” on how to obtain a PhD by publication.

Criteria for PhD by publication differed markedly between universities, explains the report. For those who offered it, most did not stipulate a minimum or maximum number of submitted or published papers, but some asked for between one and three papers to have been published before they were considered by a viva committee.

Some insisted on publishing outlets having a journal impact factor while others did not, while institutions offered different information regarding the role of doctoral examiners and supervisors.

“It’s good for people to have this option if they want to do it,” said Dr Robinson, stating that those with proven expertise in their discipline should be allowed more flexible ways of gaining a credential that can often be crucial for academic promotions and in hiring decisions.

“PhDs by publication are often gained by those with a substantial body of work who want a doctorate – they need to be supported so they can develop a coherent project with the traditional structure, terminology and context that you would find with a traditional PhD.”

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Reader's comments (2)

Its true we need to change the style by which PhDs are awarded, specifically offer more options in more flexible ways. Going by the world trends, PhD by publications and by work experience should lead rather than thesis. Age is another ground should be looked at. So seniors what to have PhDs but the steps are too tight for them.
This is a no-brainer!