Steps towards publishing your thesis or dissertation research: avoiding the pitfalls in turning a treasured tome into a highly-focussed article for CERP

Gwendolyn A. Lawrie *a, Nicole Graulich b, Ajda Kahveci c and Scott E. Lewis d
aSchool of Chemistry & Molecular Biosciences, The University of Queensland, St. Lucia 4072, Australia. E-mail:
bInstitute of Chemistry Education, Justus-Liebig-University Giessen, Giessen, Germany
cDepartment of Chemistry, Fort Hays State University, USA
dDepartment of Chemistry, University of South Florida, USA

The submission of a traditional postgraduate research thesis (or dissertation) is, on the one hand, a milestone achievement that should be celebrated and has been regarded as a rite of passage. On the other hand, this may quickly turn into a bittersweet moment involving a sense of loss or an anticlimax! This major document has normally occupied a significant amount of mental space and time, often involving a frantic and intense period of writing to meet the submission deadline. Immediately after submission, research supervisors inevitably turn their attention to thoughts of publications. Some students are fortunate and will have managed to generate several publications during their postgraduate research but for most this represents a daunting process!

In recent years, speculation regarding a new paradigm for the PhD thesis and its examination has emerged involving questions such as ‘The PhD—is it out of alignment?’ (Sharmini and Spronken-Smith, 2019) and ‘Is the doctoral thesis obsolete?’ (Jump, 2015; Gould, 2016). These provoke debate of whether the traditional PhD and its assessment are authentically aligned with broader graduate employability. In many countries, including Europe and Australasia, there has been a shift towards integrating separate publications with conventional chapters to assemble a thesis or dissertation by publication, which is often referred to as a “cumulative thesis or dissertation” (Christianson et al., 2015; Mason and Merga, 2018; Frick, 2019). Regardless, the outcome is likely to be that students will be required to engage in the publication process at a much earlier point in their studies and thesis examination will require a different approach to evaluating the contribution of the candidate as an author.

In chemistry education research, the traditional thesis structure is still a prevalent format so the process of converting a sometimes circuitous and very personal research journey into concise peer-reviewed articles requires careful consideration. We have brought together some thoughts from the editorial team to guide the process of publishing postgraduate research (PhD or Masters) in CERP, being mindful that in the future, a different approach to mentoring novice authors in the process of publication may be necessary.

What are the differences in communication between a thesis and a manuscript?

A dissertation or thesis is generally written for a target audience of examiners who are usually resident within the same country as the author, however, many universities require at least one international examiner to be included in the panel. The thesis is written to communicate the entire research journey and aims to make the growth and transformation of the new researcher in their field explicit, evidenced by their thinking and decisions that they made. The size of a typical thesis in the sciences has grown over time, reaching between 170 and 200 pages (Gould, 2016).

The role of a thesis examiner is to consider the overall communication of the process and outcomes in the thesis and these examiners apply a separate set of questions as terms of reference to those that are typically posed by a journal's manuscript reviewer (Table 1). Thesis examiners also frequently have the opportunity to explore the student's research further through an oral examination (viva)—whereas journal manuscript reviewers can only consider the written word.

Table 1 A comparison of guiding questions for a thesis examiner and a manuscript reviewer
Thesis examiner Manuscript reviewer
a A question in CERP ScholarOne reviewer submission form.
Does the entirety of the research presented contribute new insights to the field (originality)? What new insights does this research contribute to the field?
Has the student demonstrated the capacity to complete independent research through the selection and enactment of appropriate methodologies and the capacity to evaluate data and make evidenced claims? Does the manuscript present research questions that are relevant to the journal's audience? Do the methodology enacted and data collected substantiate the claims made?
How does this thesis rank compared to other theses that I have examined in my context (university, state, country)? How does this manuscript compare to published international work in the field? (How would you rate this article? Very significant (top 10%), Significant (top 25%, but not top 10%), etc.)a

The thesis examiner will often begin their examination holding the assumption that the work is already of sufficient standard to pass because the student's supervisors have endorsed its submission. In contrast, a reviewer is looking for clear evidence that a manuscript is of sufficient standard.

Why shouldn’t I just submit a thesis chapter for publication in its existing format?

While a single thesis chapter might appear to communicate a self-contained study, it is generally written with the assumption that the reader has read the earlier chapters in the same thesis. A manuscript needs to describe all the elements of the study while complying with the journal's guidelines in terms of composition and length (Seery et al., 2019). There are many sources of general advice for the process of converting a thesis into articles from a range of publishers (e.g. Wiley, Elsevier, Taylor and Francis) as well as other stakeholders, such as the American Psychological Association that advises one referencing style (APA Style, 2020). There will also be differences in the transformation process depending on whether your study is based in qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods data.

Length can frequently be an issue. Many journals have page limits, however CERP does not—but simply ‘tweaking’ aspects, such as the reference style and section headings to fit CERP’s guidelines is unlikely to be successful. Reviewers will quickly become frustrated with any missing links to methodological information, incomplete data, or overload of information in grounding the study in prior literature. Further, when necessary information is missing, reviewers are not only unable to rate the merit of the work, but they are also unable to offer constructive suggestions for improving the work.

How-to steps for transforming thesis research into a CERP article

Since the thesis already exists, there is almost a back-to-front approach to extracting the key elements that will make a coherent and self-contained story in a manuscript.

Step 1: taking a step back—dissecting the thesis

Inherently, a thesis has multiple interwoven themes that can be unfolded and used to communicate the different sides of the overarching research topic. Analyse the thesis to identify the most important core theme that can build a manuscript; the theme may naturally emerge from separate chapters (e.g. the development of a quantitative instrument in one chapter and its application to a specific learning context in another). Or you may need to unravel the threads of an argument that you have carefully woven across a whole thesis to generate separate publications (e.g. adopting two lenses such as student behaviour in a learning environment and student thinking regarding a concept; evaluating the effectiveness of an intervention using quantitative and qualitative methods). Often in a thesis, it is common to form and answer various sub-questions. However, these may not always be suitable for a stand-alone manuscript in a journal, which requires a cohesive structure of introduction, methodology, research question, and data collection. Of vital importance in this step is to find out the different ideas and components that can be connected together to build a meaningful story on their own.

Step 2: rearranging core themes

Having carefully identified the ideas, start making connections and reflect on whether or not these can be presented as one meaningful story that makes sense to outside readers. It may be helpful to get a different person's opinion at this point, as it may be a nearly impossible task to isolate yourself from the complexity of your long-lasting effort. One simple strategy to use in this step may be to write down the ideas on sticky notes, lay them out physically or using software, and move them around to see the different ways they connect (as demonstrated in Fig. 1). This resembles solving a jigsaw puzzle, or bringing together words to make a meaningful sentence.
image file: d0rp90007a-f1.tif
Fig. 1 A hypothetical arrangement of ideas to build a coherent story for a manuscript.

After identifying the theme that will be a focus point, determine which are the most valuable results to report, then assemble your figures and tables that can be best combined to display the data that informs one or two of your research questions. This data must be able to stand alone from the rest of the thesis and provide the evidence that supports a coherent story or claim. Do not rely on citing the remaining unpublished data in the thesis to inform published findings (in fact a reviewer will flag this as an issue fairly consistently).

A thesis often provides a luxurious amount of space to include examples of data processing, all the statistical analyses or extensive quotes from participants as part of qualitative studies. It will not be possible to include everything in a manuscript, so careful consideration is required to distill the key data while relegating supporting data to the Appendix or ESI. The process of selecting appropriate concise examples of qualitative data to use as evidence is particularly necessary since this is often ‘thick’ data (Bowen, 2010). Overall, shortening and revising the original text of the thesis can be as laborious as assembling brand-new text for a manuscript.

Step 3: write as much as necessary and as little as possible

Write the methods to describe how the data were collected with enough detail that the study could be replicated. Where possible cite methodological literature that establishes the rationale and appropriateness of the approach (for example, if a case study approach or a statistical analysis is used). Full details of ethical considerations and analysis procedures are required in CERP. If unsure how and what to describe in the methods section, it can be helpful to consult the guidelines of the journal or compare to published articles as examples.

Step 4: reducing and streamlining

Reformulate your literature review into an abridged and streamlined version to focus only on the data and findings that you intend to communicate in the manuscript. An introduction of a thesis often covers more related topics than is necessary in a manuscript and it can be hard to give up parts of it. By prioritising the themes and theories of a thesis literature review, and by limiting them to two main aspects, you can distill your new introduction down to the most essential theme that you need to cover. It is also good practice to explicitly identify how the theme in the literature review leads to the newly formed research question from Step 2.

Step 5: establishing coherence and clarity

Write your results to explain what the data represents—this is usually a quick step as you will have done this for your thesis. You may need to write more concisely, and avoid generalisations or claims that need substantiating, e.g. ‘As expected’, ‘Surprisingly’. Writing the results section, instead of copying and pasting parts of the thesis and then revising it, ensures the coherence of the results and prevents overly lengthy discussions.

Avoid sneaking in parts of the original thesis results section that may seem to be necessary but do not fit the research question. Reviewers will likely remark that the manuscript is missing a concise narrative or pursues too many tangents.

Step 6: consider your target audience

The discussion can be regarded as the most critical part of the process—this is the section where reviewers evaluate the impact or novelty of the findings. In a thesis, this discussion might have been the final chapter that considered the data from across the whole thesis. In a manuscript, you will need to connect your findings to prior research and knowledge in the field. Do not leave the reader to make the links between separate sets of data on their own. The discussion should also present how the findings may serve the diverse audiences that read the journal. For CERP, these audiences include educational researchers, instructors, and teacher trainers.

How to assimilate and respond to reviewer feedback

One of the first lessons learned by a newly minted post-doctoral researcher after submitting their manuscript is resilience. It is important to adopt a constructive lens in the process of rejection and it would be rare for the first paper submitted to sail through to be an accepted manuscript. It is natural that the initial reaction to reviewers’ critiques is one of anger, because the work has been so personal for the author and they believe that the standard for submission of a thesis automatically translates to a manuscript. However, the issue is usually clarity of expression or missing elements, and the reviewers are not judging the quality of a doctoral thesis, only the sub-component of the work that has been communicated in this manuscript.

A response to reviewer feedback is best constructed by reconsidering the written work from the perspective of a reader and asking ‘what do I need to do to explain better or present the evidence in a different way that makes it clearer?’

When reviewers provide feedback to an author, it is often because something has not been communicated clearly or to a satisfactory standard. Common issues are shared below:

The background context for the study is not appropriately established: Research questions need to be informed and framed by what is already known in a field. In a thesis, this may have been comprehensively described in a broad literature review but an abridged version that relates to the methods and data collected in the paper is required. Here are example reviewer comments in response to this issue:

Parts of the paper read like a textbook on qualitative research. It not only made the paper longer, but it didn’t fit in the methods section. Simply say what was done and how steps to ensure the trustworthiness of results were employed in data collection and analysis. At times I felt like I was reading an education dissertation and not a research report about the teaching and learning of chemistry. (Reviewer A, personal communication, August, 2018).

In the current form, the introduction reads as an exhaustive literature review appropriate for a chapter in a thesis or dissertation or as part of a review paper, which this one is not… Eliminate mini introductions to each part of the paper. Each part of the paper appears to be framed or quickly summarized before details are provided, repeating some of the same information. Again, this may be welcome in a thesis, but is not necessary in a paper… Eliminate section, sub-section, and sub-sub-section formatting… This, once again, suggests that this paper was cut and pasted from a thesis without any effort to follow the publication guidelines put forth by this journal. (Reviewer B, personal communication, January, 2019).

Insufficient information has been provided in the methods: One of the biggest issues in transforming a thesis into a paper is that methods of data collection are cross-referenced throughout. In some documents, there may be a dedicated methodology chapter that addresses multiple sub-studies. The journal reader needs to know exactly how the data was collected to address the specific research question that forms the basis of the paper. Example reviewer comments are:

The treatment of the interview data appears very superficial given these were claimed to be in-depth interviews… There is a tendency simply to report % agreement in regard to references to themes rather than more nuanced analysis of teaching knowledge of students' thinking. Was there any evidence of reflective practice in their interview data or indication how they were actively assessing students' understanding of the concepts/processes in response to their teaching? If so, given how important this interview data is in the study, you should expand your description of the participants.… (Reviewer C, personal communication, September, 2019).

The paper is difficult to follow because a lot of information that seems to be in the heads of the authors did not make it into the paper. To read and understand this paper, I had to make a lot of assumptions, but I am unsure whether I guessed accurately. Adding missing information will help readers to understand better. (Reviewer D, personal communication, November, 2018).

Findings are not presented in a way that establishes their novelty: The discussion section fails to address how the work advances the knowledge-base presented in the literature review or how the journal's audience may utilize the findings. An example reviewer comment is:

Clearly stating indications for how the findings can inform instructional practice or research beyond this setting would broaden this article's utility considerably. (Reviewer E, personal communication, August, 2015).

CERP Associate Editors invite reviewers based on their knowledge of either the context that a study is situated in or the potential reviewer's expertise in the methods that have been applied. It is not uncommon for the reviewer to have been cited by the authors in the manuscript because the Editor has deliberately sought an expert in the field and the authors cite work that serves as a foundation for their own.

The reviewers and readers of CERP are located world-wide so they cannot be assumed to have familiarity with the specific local requirements of a thesis in the country where the study was completed. Therefore, any contextual terminology needs to be framed to enable readers from different countries to connect to their own contexts. This can be something as simple as “By use of the term lecturer this study refers to any academic faculty member whose responsibilities include teaching.”—a single sentence explaining this contextual information instantly clarifies the position of the authors.

A constructive perspective for engaging with the publishing process is to consider the reviewers as critical friends—prepare for the worst and be delighted by the best but above all be willing to reflect and revise!


We thank the reviewers who agreed to their comments being shared in this article.


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