This Paper Is Based On My Dissertation


Eva Lantsoght
Assistant Professor, Universidad San Francisco de Quito

Depending on your institution's guidelines, you will either finish your PhD by having a number of papers accepted for publication, or by writing a "big book"-style thesis.

This post is entirely aimed at those of us who spend months on end delivering a thesis of several hundreds of pages. We might be overly proud of having our baby finally sent out into the world, but then it will dawn upon us: the majority of researchers would prefer to read a 10-page paper about a more specific part of this research than plow through our 400 pages of labor. The only one who would ever want to read through it all and spend an entire week making sense of your thesis is a fellow PhD student….

And thus, for most of us "big book"-thesis-writing-and-publishing folks, we'll need to revisit all our material again after publication of the thesis, and turn it into a number of journal papers.

If you are lucky enough to get into a post-doc position that is fully research-oriented, you have all the time (or at least, you might think you have) to write your papers. If you venture out into the industry, you'll have to do it in your evenings and weekends.

Regardless of the time constraints, it's still extremely valuable to take the step of turning your dissertation into journal papers. Two years past my thesis defense, I'm reaching the end of this process (with a number of papers published, a number in review and a few more to write). Below are some of my observations on the process.

1. Plan for it

After you graduate, life is going to take over. You might be changing jobs, moving to a different place/city/country, and these papers might start to slip to the back of your mind. Take some time while your dissertation is still freshly printed, and ask yourself the following questions:

- Which chapters or subchapters would serve as a good journal paper?

- Which journal should I submit my work to?

- How much time do I think I need for writing this paper?

Then, start planning paper by paper. I’m keeping an overview in a Google docs spreadsheet with the papers, the journals I want to submit to, and the tentative self-imposed deadlines. My goal is to produce six new drafts per year, but some months are entirely filled with dealing with reviewers’ comments, delivering research reports with new work, or teaching duties. I typically give my co-authors (maximum) a month to send their feedback. The feedback is usually limited, so I might need just a morning to make a few changes, and then submit. I plan to start writing the next paper (or replying to reviewers’ comments and reworking the manuscript) whenever the draft of the previous one is done, so that I create a constant stream of writing, revising, sending to co-authors and submitting.

2. Enlist some good co-authors

Now that you have -hopefully- worked well with your thesis committee members, and implemented their advice to deliver the final draft of your dissertation, is there any part of your research that particularly benefited from their input? If you are planning to write a paper on this topic, consider inviting this committee member to be a co-author.

Writing with authors other than your supervisor will improve your writing, and is typically well-received in most fields. Publishing with different authors shows that you can work across research groups and universities and that you are ready to reach out into the world.

3. Remember that not all papers are born equal

Some papers will roll out from your dissertation in just a few writing sessions. For other papers you'll be sweating and sighing as you try to force a piece of research into a stand-alone narrative. Don't get mad at yourself or your work - just accept this fact as it is. And if the frustration becomes too much, head to the gym, grab some chocolate or do whatever typically relieves your stress.

Have you published several papers from the work in your dissertation? How did you organize this, and what advice would you like to share with me?

Image Credit/Source:Tatiana Popova/Shutterstock

My flippant response to this question is that it is not plagiarism because, by definition, plagiarism is stealing the words, work, or ideas of another. If the thesis and publications are entirely your own work, and claimed solely by you, then self-plagiarism is an oxymoron.

The question of whether it is “duplicate publication”, however, is one that is not easy to answer definitively. That’s clear by the fact that, although this poll shows that the majority us think it’s ok to publish the thesis text verbatim in an academic journal, one-third of us don’t.

It’s worth thinking about why duplicate publication is frowned upon, and how this impacts theses. Duplicate publication in journals—one person publishing the same words/data more than once in multiple papers—is wrong because it is seen as double-dipping. We all accept the idea that papers should contain unique contributions and that once a paper is published, identical contributions by that individual are superfluous, and merely a method to increase apparent scientific output without much of an increase in effort. And back in the day when journals held the copyright on your words/data, the process was especially problematic, because if you published your own words twice (without the journal granting you license to use them) you would be acting illegally, infringing on the journal’s copyright and arguably carrying out an act of plagiarism.

With regards to theses, the rules of engagement become a bit murkier. I learnt this first hand a number of years ago when I was involved in a new graduate program. We were very keen to embrace the power of the internet at the time, and were initially excited about the prospect of theses appearing on line as a resource. In the end, however, we decided against it. We consulted journals and were universally told that they were not interested in publishing work that had appeared in any public forum before, including online. They were concerned about copyright, and the higher profile rags were also concerned that the appearance of work in a thesis stripped it of its novelty, a practice that would ultimately erode their place as “the place” to access all the hot new science. The former concern has been largely offset by the change in how journals deal with copyright, but the latter concern is real and perhaps all the more important in the days when the stakes are very high and the internet is our main source of scientific exchange.

I voted “yes” here because I believe theses should be an exception to any definition of duplication publication. For one thing, many students don’t have the chance opt out of online thesis publication. We do not offer that privilege to students at my current institution (although fortunately bureaucratic wheels turn slowly and are particularly susceptible to passive aggressive students who want to protect their intellectual property). I do not believe is is fair to penalize a student that may not be able to prevent publication of their thesis, or may not have the forethought to block this practice. I also point out that—unlike publication in a journal—a scientist receives no “career points” for having their thesis appear online, so it clearly not an example of unscrupulous double-dipping. Copyright should no longer be a problem. And although exposing your best data to the world via your online thesis can certainly leave you open to intellectual theft, my experience is that most theses are hard to find online and thus their appearance on the web does not significantly usurp their novelty.

The best use of my thesis is that it levels the sofa at my dad’s house, and I do tend to pine for the days when theses were private documents and not for broad public dissemination. But here we are. So my advice is to publish your thesis in a journal if you can—but please do it only once.

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