Including publications in a thesis: what does it mean, and how does it work? (Dan Bendrups)

The Dissertation of Vanessa Paugh, PhD | Photo by Dean Terry on flickr
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One of the advantages of working in researcher development is that you get to see new trends emerging in disciplines right across the scope of the university. 

One of the most significant recent trends is the move towards including publications in thesis submissions, which is becoming standard practice across Australian universities. Some disciplines have long-standing expectations that graduate researchers will produce publications but this is not universally the case. Other disciplines have a culture of holding off on publication until after a thesis has been examined. In the Health Sciences, for example, it is a common expectation for candidates to produce a published systematic literature review early in candidature, while candidates in the Humanities might struggle to find an academic journal willing to even consider publishing a literature review.

In areas where graduate research publications are encouraged, it has not always been possible to include them within the thesis proper. Rather, they may have sat alongside the thesis, may have been referred to in passing or included in an appendix. Meanwhile, supervisors have quite varying personal views about the merits (or otherwise) of including publications in a thesis, often based on their own discipline expectations. As a result, there can be quite a bit of confusion for graduate researchers about how their publication goals and thesis writing goals might align.

This post aims to unpack some of the more commonly asked questions about how publications fit in a thesis. 

Let's start with the most obvious:

You’re talking about a ‘PhD by Publication’, right?

Well, no, not exactly. 

The PhD by publication is a particular kind of doctoral degree that became quite widespread in Australian universities in the 1990s. The PhD by Publication model can be thought of as a kind of fast track for assigning doctoral credentials to professional researchers who may be active and exemplary in their fields but who may not previously have completed a doctoral degree and who then wished to do so. Typically, a PhD by publication is a short degree (sometimes just a single year) in which the candidate’s main task is to assemble a portfolio of their current and prior publications in a manner that demonstrates their consolidated contribution to knowledge in their field of expertise. It doesn't normally involve extensive new data collection, or the development of new skills or research capabilities.

The PhD by publication track may suit candidates who have established research practices and are seeking to having this experience formally recognised, but this is not a path that suits most graduate researchers and it leaves little opportunity for developing as a researcher. As Denise Jackson notes, by 2013, a number of universities were already moving away from the PhD by Publication route and, instead, developing new ways to include publications within full-length doctoral programs. They use descriptions like ‘thesis including publications’ or ‘thesis with publications’ to differentiate this from the ‘PhD by publication’ model.

Aren’t we just splitting hairs over terminology?

Well, yes and no. It depends on what you think a graduate research degree is all about. According to the Australian Government’s Higher Education Standards Framework, graduate researchers should be embraced in a community of scholars where they have access to resources and supervision that will enable them to not just produce research outputs but also develop as research professionals. Including publications in a thesis submission fosters this by (among other things):

  • Encouraging graduate researchers to learn and apply the professional conventions of writing in their discipline;
  • Exposing them to opportunities for real-world feedback from discipline peers
  • Helping them to understand the workings of scholarly publishing, including identifying appropriate venues for publication, communicating with editors, and interpreting production guidelines; and
  • Enabling research integrity through the proper consideration of the input different collaborators (including lab partners, supervisors, etc) may have made to the production of piece of research, and then reflecting this through authorship attributions.

Developmentally, there is far more going on than just assembling a portfolio of work.

How do I make it work?

Different universities have different policy settings around exactly how to include publications, and what may be included. 

Here at La Trobe University, no maximum or minimum number of publications is required. A PhD could include just one publication if desired, with the balance of the research presented as ‘traditional’ thesis text. Candidates should also be guided by discipline expectations about how many papers are usually included and how to ensure that their publications are linked together with framing material that explains how their various individual publications together constitute a continuous arc of knowledge. We frequently direct candidates to our list of Nancy Millis Prize winners, as there are some exemplary models of theses including publications to be found there.

One of the main things that throws candidates when working out how to include publications is the question of how to manage the formatting of a document. Issues include various distinct formats of writing, disconnected pagination, and repeated information (such as method descriptions that are repeated in various papers). There are different ways to approach these issues but the overarching principle that applies here is to provide sufficient explanatory text so that a reader can make sense of the differences. For example, a thesis that includes a published systematic review of literature may not need to also have a separate literature review chapter. If this is the case, the task is to explain to the reader that the literature review takes the form of a publication and not just leave it to them to assume that this is the case.

What other considerations might apply?

Whatever you plan to do, make sure it is discussed at length with your supervisors so that you are all on the same page about how the thesis will look and what it will include. In particular:

  • Double check the authorship agreement you signed with the publisher to make sure you understand any limitations that might apply to the reproduction of the publication in the thesis (note: some publishers may not permit the work to be reproduced, instead requiring a link to the online location of the publication);
  • Make sure you include proof of co-authors’ agreement for the publication(s) to be included in the thesis;
  • Make sure you have a clear description, early in the thesis, of the number and type of publications included, and what contributions were made by which authors. A table can be a good way to present this information; and
  • Make sure that you have provided sufficient explanation for examiners to be able to clearly see how the publications fit together as a contiguous body of work.

Examples of recent La Trobe University theses that include publications

The following examples were all Nancy Millis PhD prize recipients. They each approach the inclusion of publications slightly differently, reflecting the inherent variability that exists between disciplines, but they all make efforts towards explaining how the publications fit, who contributed to them, and in what ways.

1. Georgia Atkin-Smith (Molecular Science, 2019):

2. Jennifer Gravrok (Psychology, 2019):

3. Leesa Hooker (Nursing, 2016):

You might find it useful to check out the "Schedule for presentation of theses for higher degrees by research" (PDF) on the Submission of your thesis page. This document gives you the official word about what you need to do when including publications as part of your thesis.


Dr Dan Bendrups is a Senior Lecturer in the RED team.  His disciplinary background spans anthropology, cultural studies, and creative practice, and he is known internationally for his work concerning Rapanui (Easter Island) cultural heritage. As well as researching in these domains, he also provides broad-based doctoral supervision in ethnographic methods. He has a particular interest in doctoral supervision and leads the RED supervision portfolio.