Tara Brabazon: Examining the idiosyncrasies

Is it enough to demand an original contribution to knowledge or should doctoral candidates also have to show that they have “material suitable for publication” ? asks Tara Brabazon

June 30, 2010

I am not a train or plane spotter. I do not swap teaspoons with cutlery enthusiasts. But I do have a slightly unusual hobby: I collect PhD regulations. These rules and guidelines feature a high degree of overlap – just like all planes have wings and trains run on tracks; what interest me are the quirky differences, which I log in a little notebook. These specificities show how students, supervisors, examiners and candidature managers institutionalise the idiosyncratic.

I recently examined a doctorate where one criterion of assessment was “material suitable for publication”. Most of us are accustomed to a single and decisive determinant: an original contribution to knowledge. That is the distinction between a master of philosophy and a doctorate. Some universities blur this delineation. Too much focus is placed on students demonstrating “analysis”, “critical analysis” or – as if adding adjectives increases clarity – “critically interpretative analysis”.

Such a requirement is like demanding that a weather presenter be able to read a map. It is self-evident. Doctoral examiners verify the maintenance of academic protocols. Methodological and theoretical rigour is required. An expansive grasp of the research literature is necessary. If referencing is problematic, the writing poor or the methods implemented without reflexivity, then the thesis must fail, no matter what other strengths it may reveal.

The oddity of my recent examining process was that an original contribution to knowledge was not enough. The student fulfilled this criterion with ease. The issue was whether the doctoral script contained “material suitable for publication”. This requirement places particular responsibilities on examiners. We can be flippant and state that originality is the pathway to publication. In reality, journal publishing is fickle. Referees can be busy, distracted or wrong. Split decisions from referees – requiring editors to make independent decisions about articles and book proposals – remain common.

Therefore, when publication becomes a criterion for assessing doctorates, it places new pressures on the examiner. An original contribution to knowledge can be verified through expertise in the research literature. Now, examiners must work harder to ensure that – with precision – particular parts of the thesis reach the level and standards of publications within specific journals.

My method of doctoral examination requires that I read theses five times. The first review assesses the structure and shape of ideas, with particular attention to the abstract, introduction, conclusion and chapter structure. The second checks the bibliography and references. The third focuses on the literature consulted. The fourth monitors the original contribution to knowledge. The fifth is the close reading that forms the basis of my report. In my recent examination, I had to read the script once more to locate specific sections and chapters of sufficient standard to pass through refereeing. To confirm my judgement, I listed the recommended journals and the precise pages of the thesis that could be the foundation for refereed articles.

Perhaps I was a bit too earnest in response to this new criterion. Yet if publication is a determinant for passing a doctorate, then it is important that examiners take it seriously. The problem with this criterion is that doctorates are evaluated on a continuum of success or failure. While universities vary in their ranking and grading of assessment, examiners select from a list that includes passed without correction, passed with the removal of typographical errors, passed with minor corrections, major corrections, rewriting, gathering new data, various modes of resubmission with or without an oral examination, the awarding of a lesser qualification or a failure without the possibility of resubmission. There is a range of mitigations and caveats.

Publication is different. Either the candidate’s research will pass through refereeing and he or she will manage the switchblade comments, or it will not. Therefore, because journal refereeing is a variable process, it seems fair to the candidate to be as precise as possible in listing the publishable sections and then – for the university and candidature managers – noting a range of journals that could house the work.

As a supervisor rather than an examiner, the obvious way to guarantee the student’s movement through this new regulation is to ensure that at least two articles are published in journals before submission of the thesis. In this way, the criterion is redundant. The doctorate is shown to be at the required standard, confirmed through already existing publications.

A conflation of examination and publication does not enhance the PhD process. They are different processes. While it is important that doctoral candidates are assisted in presenting their findings to a wide audience, I am troubled that an outstanding thesis may not be passed because an examiner cannot confirm a publishable outcome for the research, perhaps caused through unusual interdisciplinary alignments, theoretical specificity or a careful if non-transferable study of a small nation.

One of my favourite stories about doctoral students and publications emerged during my time as a candidature manager in a graduate centre. Three external examiners were used. Split decisions were uncommon but not unusual. In one case, two examiners assessed a doctorate as a “1” – passed without correction. The third awarded a “4b,” arguing that there was nothing publishable in the script, even though publication was not part of the examining criteria. Instead, new data gathering and rewriting was required. After informing the examiners about the disparity between the results, the dissenter was told that this candidate had actually published his results in Nature. He was incensed, demanding that he should have been informed of the publication before writing the report. From that point on, the regulations were changed so that articles, chapters, books and conference proceedings derived from doctorates would be listed after the acknowledgements and before the contents page. Even though publications were not evaluated as a signifier of quality during the examination, they held an unexpected function.

It is intellectually absorbing to examine doctorates. It keeps academics fresh and aware of international standards and expectations. A criterion focused on publishing is one way to ensure that doctoral programmes prepare postgraduates for employment in contemporary universities. Without refereed articles in an academic culture of sector-wide research assessment, a doctorate has value but is not enough to secure an appointment. There is degree inflation, even in the highest of higher degrees.

These changing regulations raise the broader question about what constitutes a successful doctorate. When asked about my successful PhD students, I tell the story of a former student who managed profound dyslexia. We had to discover a supervisory method that would enable his research. Small MP3 recorders were just emerging at the time. We decided to conduct and record a two-hour weekly PhD meeting to talk through his topic, shaping and framing the reading and writing that followed. It was a lengthy process that was unrecognised in institutional workload calculations. But it worked. Incredibly, he submitted in two and a half years, passed with (very) minor corrections and is now not only a full-time academic but is completing his second book, building a specialism in internet and disability studies.

In this difficult time for our universities, it is important that failures be logged and strategies for improvement instigated. Concurrently, however, academics require a responsive and reflexive way to understand success in higher education. In remembering the courageous doctoral candidates who manage personal, professional and scholarly challenges or return to education after family responsibilities, their achievement will be assessed beyond the contents page of a journal.

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