Stirling plans to waive PhD dissertation

August 17, 2007

PhD students will be able to obtain doctorates without completing the traditional 80,000-word dissertation in what is claimed to be a pioneering initiative by Stirling University.

Stirling said this week that it would offer PhD students the chance to submit a series of linked peer-reviewed journal articles instead of the standard thesis.

The university argues that this gives students better preparation for an academic career than the traditional dissertation - an exercise that will never be repeated by many working academics. But the initiative has been criticised by some who fear it will devalue the PhD.

John Field, deputy principal for research at Stirling, said having students submit peer-reviewed articles early in their academic lives would make them more effective researchers and teachers.

He said students opting for the new route would have to submit between four and eight papers along with a linked narrative.

"The 80,000-word thesis has its place, and many students will continue to present their research in this manner. But some researchers will want to publish their work as soon as they can.

"The research training will be just the same as before, the supervisor will oversee progress as before, and the examination will have the same criteria as before. The standards, in other words, will be the same."

David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology at University College London, said Stirling's plans sounded "like a pretty good idea".

"A lot of time is wasted writing lengthy theses that nobody reads."

But he said there must be an extensive "methods section", as such sections in journal articles were often very brief, and warned of potential problems with "guest authorship" on published papers.

"It will work well only if the supervisor and university are scrupulous about only allowing papers to be included if they have a major contribution from the candidate."

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent University, said: "A group-linked publication is a method for encouraging collaboration and not suitable for educating people to develop individual scholarly work. This proposal is bad news. It will simply encourage the dilution of the meaning of a PhD."

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