Should PhD students have to publish during their thesis? Ask a group of postgraduate students and some academics and you get very different answers.

Last week I attended a workshop for postgraduate students as part of the Ecological Society of Australia conference in Adelaide. The day included talks from academics on a range of different ecology topics, as well as students talks and group discussions. It was a great opportunity to meet other postgrads before the conference itself, make new connections and share our experiences.

In one activity we were asked to split into groups and discuss the subject of publishing, and whether students should be encouraged or even required to publish during their PhD. The academics who were presenting at the workshop also formed a group to discuss the same topic.

The ‘traditional’ thesis vs thesis by publication

For those who are not in academia: currently, students in most universities have the option to produce either a ‘traditional’ thesis – a single document made up of several chapters – or a thesis by publication which consists of a series of papers which have been published in peer-reviewed journals (or at least in the process of being published). There are pros and cons to both, which also depend on the particular project. When I started my PhD, it was pretty much assumed that I would do a thesis by publication. Most students in my school do this, and it made sense for my project as it fits well into a series of papers. Doing it this way will mean I finish my PhD with several papers already published, give me writing experience, and I won’t have to spend time publishing my work afterwards. But others I know are sticking with the traditional thesis for various reasons – some projects take a long time to get results so you can’t publish as you go, and in some disciplines it’s unusual to get more than one paper out of a PhD.

Publish and-or Perish

Students vs Academics – is there a conflict of interest in the push to publish?

As the groups reported back on what they had discussed, the general consensus seemed to be that students want flexibility in how we write and communicate our theses. While we all seemed to agree that publishing is a good thing to do, both for career prospects and for communicating our research, we recognised that students have different reasons for doing a PhD, and the best method of communication depends on the project. Many also pointed out that academic journals are not the only way to communicate your research, and certainly not the best way to communicate with the general public.

Then the academics’ group stood up to tell us what they had discussed, and the message was loud and clear – publish now, publish early, publish as much as you can. Students should be strongly encouraged to publish their research in good academic journals throughout their PhD studies, even if they don’t want a career in academia. They also pointed out that we have an obligation to communicate our research, particularly if it is publicly funded.

Now, this is almost certainly very good advice given the current system where publishing in good journals is the main measure of success in academia. But I think most people who have experience of this system agree that it is far from perfect and could do with a lot of improvement. No one is suggesting that we shouldn’t publish at all, just that there is more than one way to do it and we shouldn’t put so much emphasis on academic journals.

As I spoke to other students throughout the rest of the day, a lot of them commented on the contrast between the students’ and academics’ responses. Many (including myself) felt there was a disconnect between what students clearly want and what we are being told we must do to succeed, and some felt that the academics were ignoring the students views and opinions and forcing us to conform to the system as it is now. The academics are of course far more invested in the current system, and want their students to be successful – but to the students this can sometimes feel like a lot of pressure, and in the worst cases it can feel like a conflict of interest between students and supervisors.

So, how do we change the system? Well, maybe we should listen to the students!

Some great ideas popped up in conversation on how we could improve the system. My favourite was the suggestion that students should develop a communication strategy as part of their thesis plan, and include it in a separate chapter at the end of the thesis. This would require students to think about the value of their research, who the audience is, and the best method for reaching that audience. It would also give students experience in public speaking and dealing with the media. Of course, part of this strategy could well be to publish in academic journals – this is still the best way to communicate with other academics in the field if that is your intended audience. But if your research is relevant outside of academia, you should be thinking about other ways to get your research to them.

Some alternative communication strategies could include:
• Newspaper or magazine articles
• Radio or TV interviews
• Article in ‘The Conversation’
• Write or contribute to a blog
• Social media (facebook, twitter etc.)
• Present a talk or poster at a conference
• Fact sheets or brochures
• Report for practitioners or policy makers
• Present at field days (or even organise one)
• Visit and present at other universities
• 3 minute thesis competition
• Get creative – create artwork or collaborate with an artist

For example, if the research impacts land management on farms, perhaps the student could produce a fact sheet with clear recommendations, and attend field days to speak directly to farmers and land managers (particularly to provide feedback to any landowners who provided access to their properties for fieldwork!). This is important not just for good communication, but also for maintaining relationships with the landholders.

Lots of students I know are already using many of the strategies listed above (I myself have used 8 of them to communicate my honours research), but this kind of communication can take a lot of time, and because it can’t be included in the thesis there is no real incentive and it’s often seen as a distraction or a waste of time.

We need to teach students how to communicate appropriately with the people their research affects, and encourage and reward those who do.

The next step is to continue this up through the levels of academia, but the bottom seems like a logical place to start. It was obvious from the postgrad workshop that students recognise the importance of communicating their science through all the media now available to them (and many are already doing it!), and they want the flexibility to be able to include this in their PhD. What they don’t want is to be locked into the publish or perish paradigm, so let’s listen to them and try to change it!