Publishing during the doctorate

I’m kind of crossing a number of fields, which I like because obviously it gives you more opportunity for publishing …you can set yourself apart a little bit, can’t you? And, I think you need to think long-term, about where this is going to end up in four years’ time really … where I’m going to end up in four years’ time. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

It’s not so much that he got an award; it’s that his article is going to be published….and that’s the benchmark. That’s what’s going to get him a job. You know, … he’s not “Doctor” now – but actually, this is of the utmost importance, and if you don’t have an article, you know, you won’t really be able to get a job here anymore. (New supervisor, Humanities)

DPhil student: [I felt like an academic when] submitting my first paper. Papers are the currency of my field – they control your future job prospects. (Doctoral student, STEM)

There is often a balance needed in deciding whether or how much to publish during the doctorate, especially if doing a monograph-style thesis, given the pressure to complete in three years. But, in general, for those planning on an academic career publishing during the doctorate is considered beneficial, as the students and supervisor quoted above make clear. In this sense, doing a set of scientific papers, not necessarily published, can be a helpful thesis strategy and, in fact, a number of programmes, e.g. Geography, accept this form of thesis.


Case study: Anne

Part 1 - Publishing: student invited to submit an encyclopaedia article

Anne: There’s a guy at Nottingham who’s a professor who knew me a little bit. …He knew about this encyclopaedia and he passed on my details to one of his colleagues in the Department, who is co-editing it. …So she just emailed me and said would I write an entry … So it was just like a 750 word entry …Well, I’ve never written anything that was going to be published, or other people apart from my supervisors were going to read before. 

 Questions to consider about the case study

As a student, what would your response have been to an approach of this kind? 

As a supervisor, what would be your response if you knew one of your students was doing something like this?

Part 2 

Anne: My supervisors hadn’t been very enthusiastic about it… So I ended up… well, I said, “Well, I am going to do it,” but then I didn’t really discuss it with them again, and they didn’t see the article, so… it was just that I’d never written anything that anyone else was going to read before.

As a supervisor/student:

  • What are your expectations regarding student publishing?
  • How might you clarify and negotiate these expectations with your student(s)supervisor?

Strategies particular to publishing include the following:

Explicitly discuss publishing possibilities with students early in their programme. See Helping Students Develop a Publication Plan.

Some such strategies can be a useful way of helping the student with the development of their thesis, as we see in this quote from a supervisor:

...what I’ve always done with my students is that when they do a piece of work, I encourage them to write it up, to get feedback from the international community. So most of my doctoral students will all have publications before they even hit their thesis submission. In some ways, I’m not really concerned about the thesis – it’s not the document that worries me at all. What I like them to have is a series of published papers which underpin their experimental chapters. So by the time we get to the thesis, it’s pretty much a fait accompli, that they can usually write the thesis in 6 to 8 weeks, if they’ve done all the other work, and I hardly have to look at the thesis, to be quite honest, because all the hard work has gone into leading up to that. If you go to the international community to kind of have your work refereed, then pretty much you’ve got your peers on it and the thesis takes care of itself. I think that’s why a lot of these students have won prizes for their thesis. (New supervisor, Medical Sciences)

Consider who among your research collaborators or colleagues might provide useful feedback to the student: Here a supervisor describes what he views as an ethical responsibility, and its value to the student.

If my students write something and I think someone might be interested in it, then I feel it is kind of obligatory for me to put them in touch. So the cost is an email to both of them saying, “Oh, you’re both working on this topic at the moment. I thought you might usefully correspond.” If you can do things which are helpful and nice to people for very little cost to yourself, then I think, you know, any ethical view should say that you should do that! (New supervisor, Humanities)

Address the ethics of co-authoring: The issue of single or joint authorship of student papers can be an emotionally fraught area and is very discipline-specific. Given this is a difficult subject to understand and a minefield to negotiate, sympathetic guidance from an experienced supervisor will be appreciated by students who are beginning to consider publishing their work - especially so when they are working as part of a team who contribute to each other’s progress. To avoid misunderstanding and model good practice, authorship should be discussed before writing begins, and authorship can usefully be re-visited near completion of the paper as initial expectations may not match final contributions. Helpful documentation which clarifies the issues includes:

Model the writing process, sharing with students successive drafts of journal papers that you are writing or reviewing and asking for their comments.

Model interpreting and responding to reviewer comments: This can be helpful since some reviewers can be fairly blunt in their comments and inexperienced authors could view this as hurtful. In such cases, students may misinterpret what is being asked for or feel they want to 'drop the whole thing'. Thus, in addition to modelling, students can benefit from support and advice on how to respond to particular reviewers' comments. For an insider view, Peer-review: the nuts and bolts is a guide to this important process for early-career researchers, explaining why it is important, how it works and the limitations it has.

If you run a journal club, ensure that issues beyond the research are discussed, e.g. the quality of writing – what makes one article more persuasive than another, choosing the ‘right’ journals, identifying the characteristics of the journal’s particular genre, etc. Key Questions for Abstracts may be a useful tool for making a collective analysis of the abstract of a research article.

You might also consider running an occasional in-house seminar on journal article publishing: Use a panel to get discussion underway, ideally involving:

  • An Editor (or someone on the Editorial Board) of a refereed journal in the area;
  • A practised reviewer of papers for a refereed journal in the area (how they go about assessing papers);
  • A later-year DPhil student or post-doc who has recently been through the process of having an article published and who can provide tips on this as a 'learning' process.

Increasingly, open-access publishing is emerging as a possible means of dissemination. The Open Access Publishing Flowchart may provide a useful point of departure in considering whether to choose open-access.

Students may wish to form a writing group - see Tips for starting and maintaining a writing group - and should seek out 'Meetings with the Editors' sessions, often held at disciplinary conferences.

Listening to personal accounts of writing and getting published. Hearing accounts of how other early career academics experience and approach writing and getting published can be helpful, especially in aiding the understanding and development of strategies and individualised ways of engaging in these activities. Go to the website of Routledge (publisher) for "Becoming a successful early career researcher" and click on the Free Audio Files tab. Select Writing and Getting Published, parts (1), (2) and (3).

Non-English-speaking doctoral students can feel disadvantaged because of having to read, research and write in another language. This disadvantage can be particularly challenging when attempting to publish in an English-language journal. For instance, a referee reading the writing of non-native speakers can feel the thinking is out of focus if the rhetoric and sequence of thought violates native speaker expectations. Thus, it takes considerable extra time and effort to write effectively in English. See Ideas to help international students which identifies issues of concern to some international students.

Some students whose first language is not English may wish to access resources at the Language Centre. Here academic writing courses are available for students even at the earliest stages of the doctorate and other courses are aimed at those at a more advanced stage who wish to continue developing their writing skills. Training sessions to address writing skills more generally are usually available for all PRS and/or DPhil students at the divisional level.

Publishing during their doctoral studentship can be very helpful to students in three ways:

  • They are able to get their work “into the slipstream of academic ideas, and so avoid [their] thesis becoming just 'shelf-bending' research, sitting in a university library and slowly bending a shelf over the years” (Dunleavy, 2003).
  • They develop the skills necessary for publication.
  • They gain explicit, and generally very helpful, feedback on their work.

Students are typically highly trained to read for content (what a text says), but not necessarily to read for what a text does (how it is put together). However, they can learn how to deconstruct texts so that they become more aware of the distinctive features of articles in journals they are targeting. This involves reviewing the composition processes of relevant journal articles from the following perspectives:

  • Cognitive features (how information is treated in the writing);
  • Linguistic features (including disciplinary language usage); and
  • Structural or organisational features (composition processes in the different parts of the journal article).

The above text was based on:

Craswell, G. (2005) Writing for academic success: A postgraduate guide. London: Sage.

Day, R. & Gastel, B. (2012). How to write and publish a scientific paper. 7th ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dunleavy, P. (2003). Authoring a PhD: How to plan, draft, write and finish a Doctoral thesis or dissertation. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Eley, A., Wellington, J., Pitts, S., and Biggs, C. (2012) Becoming a Successful Early Career Researcher. Abingdon: Routledge. 

Mullins, G., & Kiley, M. (2002). "It's a PhD, not a Nobel Prize": How experienced examiners assess research theses. Studies in Higher Education, 27(4), 369-386.

Murray, R. (2009). Writing for academic journals (2nd Edition). London: Open University Press.

Wellington, J. (2003) Getting published: A guide for lecturers and researchers. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Further resources:

The following article may be of interest to those who want to think about the role of writing as a doctoral pedagogy as well as a research output:

Kamler, B. (2008) Rethinking doctoral publication practices: Writing from and beyond the thesis. Studies in Higher Education. 33(3), pp283-294.