Roses and thorns: authorship and the PhD by publication. Commentary on Cleary M, Jackson D, Walter G, Watson R & Hunt GF (2012) Editorial: Location, location, location – the position of authors in scholarly publishing. Journal of Clinical Nursing 21, 809–811


Correspondence: Geraldine Lee, Lecturer, Florence Nightingale School of Nursing & Midwifery, King's College London, London, UK. Telephone: + 44 207 848 3201.


The PhD is changing. In addition to traditional single-study theses, many university departments of nursing now offer PhDs by publication – with doctorates being awarded based on a set of discrete papers. The recent editorial by Cleary et al. (2012) on the grey areas of the order of authors on multi-authored papers is a welcome contribution. There is a growing pressure to publish for students and academics alike. Although the editorial referred to masters and doctoral students and author position, the thorny issue of authorship in PhDs by publication needs urgent attention. A growing number of students are now undertaking a PhD by this method, but there is often a lack of, or vague, guidance regarding publications in terms of expectations, contributions, outputs and credit. In this new type of PhD, how can students and supervisors work together to ensure fairness and publishing success?

Usually, thesis by publication requires, as a rule of thumb, two to five papers, although this can vary significantly between universities and disciplines (Mullins & Kiley 2002). Within the thesis itself, the extent of the student's contribution to each paper needs to be clearly stated, though, interestingly, the contribution of supervisors is often not. For example, at Monash University in Australia, the student is primarily responsible for the initiation, key ideas, development and writing up of the paper (Monash University website,; accessed 31 May 2012). The content of the thesis still needs to meet the requirements of the traditional thesis, and this is determined by the supervisor(s) in discussion with the student.

It is critical that the criteria for authorship and the order of authors are understood and agreed by both supervisors and doctoral students at the outset. Dialogue and discussion in the early stages of doctoral study can go a long way in preventing problems later. Much conflict and confusion can be overcome by having realistic expectations and outcomes agreed between the student and supervisor(s). This will of course depend on each party having honesty and integrity and being seen as partners. It is useful to discuss early on how the each party might go about publishing together, when to plan to publish, where to plan to publish, what to publish and why you want to publish. If there is only one supervisor, then it is quite straightforward that the student will be the first author, and the supervisor, the second. This is exactly what benefits each: students need to show leadership and collaboration – supervisors, particularly as they advance in seniority, need to show the capacity to mentor and help students publish.

Authorship order gets more complicated when there are multiple supervisors and others contributing significantly to the study or studies, such as research assistants. Actual contributions to the paper should be used to guide decisions. Inclusion or order should not be based on seniority, attainment of funding or politics. Where there are three or more authors, the position of supervisor(s) and who is the corresponding author, irrespective of position, can become critical. Some universities now include a specific declaration/proforma per publication where each author is required to state their contribution in terms of percentage. Students can also include other publications that they contributed to during their doctoral candidature if it is relevant to their thesis and usually as an appendix. For example, one of the authors here (GL) contributed to two papers during her PhD candidature (Sliwa et al. 2010, Tiazarwa et al. 2012).

Joint first authorship is important if more than one student is working on a particular project, especially if similar methodologies are involved. One major constraint to be considered is the intellectual property of the paper, and usually, once the paper is accepted by a journal, the publishers retain the copyright. Students need to be cognizant of this as it may impact on their or their fellow students' future publications. Journals are now aware of the importance of joint first authorship and its necessity for doctoral students.

It may seem that PhD by publication is an onerous undertaking but there are several benefits from this approach, although there is a lack of literature on the topic (Kamler 2008, Robins & Kanowski 2008). Kamler examined theses by publication in higher education and acknowledged the importance of co-authored publications between students and supervisors in enhancing pedagogic practice and assisting students in gaining experience and skills in the publishing process (Kamler 2008).

Although there are advantages and disadvantages in undertaking a PhD by publication, overall it is judged beneficial for students and their institution (Robins & Kanowski 2008). Indeed, not only is the PhD publication valuable to doctoral students who by the time of thesis submission have several published papers but also to the university that has demonstrable research outputs. Traditional PhDs may not necessarily allow this early dissemination of research findings, whereas PhD by publication ensures prompt additional knowledge through peer-reviewed journals. Another advantage of PhD by publication is that by the time of the PhD being examined and awarded, the doctoral student has a publication track record that they can use when applying for future jobs or postdoctoral fellowship applications. That said, there are also limitations. The student's candidature may be lengthened if they are waiting for feedback on their submitted papers and then further waiting while revisions are being undertaken. Another possible limitation that can occur is the issue of intellectual property and who owns the data, and this can happen when more than one student is involved in a project or students are enrolled in different universities.

The good and bad remain rife in academic life. Working with others, attaining research funds and writing influential publications are vital, but each involves risks and often failure. Likewise, the PhD by publication is not without perils but offers attractive benefits to students and supervisors alike.