Publish and Graduate?: Earning a PhD by Published Papers in Australia




PhD by Publications, PhD by Published Works, PhD by Published Papers, Australian film, Film and television


How to Cite

Starrs, B. (2008). Publish and Graduate?: Earning a PhD by Published Papers in Australia. M/C Journal, 11(4).
Vol. 11 No. 4 (2008): publish
Published 2008-06-24
Refereed publications (also known as peer-reviewed) are the currency of academia, yet many PhD theses in Australia result in only one or two such papers. Typically, a doctoral thesis requires the candidate to present (and pass) a public Confirmation Seminar, around nine to twelve months into candidacy, in which a panel of the candidate’s supervisors and invited experts adjudicate upon whether the work is likely to continue and ultimately succeed in the goal of a coherent and original contribution to knowledge. A Final Seminar, also public and sometimes involving the traditional viva voce or oral defence of the thesis, is presented two or three months before approval is given to send the 80,000 to 100,000 word tome off for external examination. And that soul-destroying or elation-releasing examiner’s verdict can be many months in the delivery: a limbo-like period during which the candidate’s status as a student is ended and her or his receipt of any scholarship or funding guerdon is terminated with perfunctory speed. This is the only time most students spend seriously writing up their research for publication although, naturally, many are more involved in job hunting as they pin their hopes on passing the thesis examination.

There is, however, a slightly more palatable alternative to this nail-biting process of the traditional PhD, and that is the PhD by Published Papers (also known as PhD by Publications or PhD by Published Works). The form of my own soon-to-be-submitted thesis, it permits the submission for examination of a collection of papers that have been refereed and accepted (or are in the process of being refereed) for publication in academic journals or books. Apart from the obvious benefits in getting published early in one’s (hopefully) burgeoning academic career, it also takes away a lot of the stress come final submission time. After all, I try to assure myself, the thesis examiners can’t really discredit the process of double-blind, peer-review the bulk of the thesis has already undergone: their job is to examine how well I’ve unified the papers into a cohesive thesis … right? But perhaps they should at least be wary, because, unfortunately, the requirements for this kind of PhD vary considerably from institution to institution and there have been some cases where the submitted work is of questionable quality compared to that produced by graduates from more demanding universities. Hence, this paper argues that in my subject area of interest—film and television studies—there is a huge range in the set requirements for doctorates, from universities that award the degree to film artists for prior published work that has undergone little or no academic scrutiny and has involved little or no on-campus participation to at least three Australian universities that require candidates be enrolled for a minimum period of full-time study and only submit scholarly work generated and published (or submitted for publication) during candidature. I would also suggest that uncertainty about where a graduate’s work rests on this continuum risks confusing a hard-won PhD by Published Papers with the sometimes risible honorary doctorate.

Let’s begin by dredging the depths of those murky, quasi-academic waters to examine the occasionally less-than-salubrious honorary doctorate. The conferring of this degree is generally a recognition of an individual’s body of (usually published) work but is often conferred for contributions to knowledge or society in general that are not even remotely academic. The honorary doctorate does not usually carry with it the right to use the title “Dr” (although many self-aggrandising recipients in the non-academic world flout this unwritten code of conduct, and, indeed, Monash University’s Monash Magazine had no hesitation in describing its 2008 recipient, musician, screenwriter, and art-school-dropout Nick Cave, as “Dr Cave” (O’Loughlin)). Some shady universities even offer such degrees for sale or ‘donation’ and thus do great damage to that institution’s credibility as well as to the credibility of the degree itself. Such overseas “diploma mills”—including Ashwood University, Belford University, Glendale University and Suffield University—are identified by their advertising of “Life Experience Degrees,” for which a curriculum vitae outlining the prospective graduand’s oeuvre is accepted on face value as long as their credit cards are not rejected. An aspiring screen auteur simply specifies film and television as their major and before you can shout “Cut!” there’s a degree in the mail. Most of these pseudo-universities are not based in Australia but are perfectly happy to confer their ‘titles’ to any well-heeled, vanity-driven Australians capable of completing the online form. Nevertheless, many academics fear a similarly disreputable marketplace might develop here, and Norfolk Island-based Greenwich University presents a particularly illuminating example. Previously empowered by an Act of Parliament consented to by Senator Ian Macdonald, the then Minister for Territories, this “university” had the legal right to confer honorary degrees from 1998. The Act was eventually overridden by legislation passed in 2002, after a concerted effort by the Australian Universities Quality Agency Ltd. and the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee to force the accreditation requirements of the Australian Qualifications Framework upon the institution in question, thus preventing it from making degrees available for purchase over the Internet. Greenwich University did not seek re-approval and soon relocated to its original home of Hawaii (Brown).

But even real universities flounder in similarly muddy waters when, unsolicited, they make dubious decisions to grant degrees to individuals they hold in high esteem. Although meaning well by not courting pecuniary gain, they nevertheless invite criticism over their choice of recipient for their honoris causa, despite the decision usually only being reached after a process of debate and discussion by university committees. Often people are rewarded, it seems, as much for their fame as for their achievements or publications. One such example of a celebrity who has had his onscreen renown recognised by an honorary doctorate is film and television actor/comedian Billy Connolly who was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters by The University of Glasgow in 2006, prompting Stuart Jeffries to complain that “something has gone terribly wrong in British academia” (Jeffries). Eileen McNamara also bemoans the levels to which some institutions will sink to in search of media attention and exposure, when she writes of St Andrews University in Scotland conferring an honorary doctorate to film actor and producer, Michael Douglas: “What was designed to acknowledge intellectual achievement has devolved into a publicity grab with universities competing for celebrity honorees” (McNamara). Fame as an actor (and the list gets even weirder when the scope of enquiry is widened beyond the field of film and television), seems to be an achievement worth recognising with an honorary doctorate, according to some universities, and this kind of discredit is best avoided by Australian institutions of higher learning if they are to maintain credibility.

Certainly, universities down under would do well to follow elsewhere than in the footprints of Long Island University’s Southampton College. Perhaps the height of academic prostitution of parchments for the attention of mass media occurred when in 1996 this US school bestowed an Honorary Doctorate of Amphibious Letters upon that mop-like puppet of film and television fame known as the “muppet,” Kermit the Frog. Indeed, this polystyrene and cloth creation with an anonymous hand operating its mouth had its acceptance speech duly published (see “Kermit’s Acceptance Speech”) and the Long Island University’s Southampton College received much valuable press. After all, any publicity is good publicity. Or perhaps this furry frog’s honorary degree was a cynical stunt meant to highlight the ridiculousness of the practice? In 1986 a similar example, much closer to my own home, occurred when in anticipation and condemnation of the conferral of an honorary doctorate upon Prince Philip by Monash University in Melbourne, the “Members of the Monash Association of Students had earlier given a 21-month-old Chihuahua an honorary science degree” (Jeffries), effectively suggesting that the honorary doctorate is, in fact, a dog of a degree.

On a more serious note, there have been honorary doctorates conferred upon far more worthy recipients in the field of film and television by some Australian universities. Indigenous film-maker Tracey Moffatt was awarded an honorary doctorate by Griffith University in November of 2004. Moffatt was a graduate of the Griffith University’s film school and had an excellent body of work including the films Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1990) and beDevil (1993). Acclaimed playwright and screenwriter David Williamson was presented with an Honorary Doctorate of Letters by The University of Queensland in December of 2004. His work had previously picked up four Australian Film Institute awards for best screenplay. An Honorary Doctorate of Visual and Performing Arts was given to film director Fred Schepisi AO by The University of Melbourne in May of 2006. His films had also been earlier recognised with Australian Film Institute awards as well as the Golden Globe Best Miniseries or Television Movie award for Empire Falls in 2006. Director George Miller was crowned with an Honorary Doctorate in Film from the Australian Film, Television, and Radio School in April 2007, although he already had a medical doctor’s testamur on his wall. In May of this year, filmmaker George Gittoes, a fine arts dropout from The University of Sydney, received an honorary doctorate by The University of New South Wales. His documentaries, Soundtrack to War (2005) and Rampage (2006), screened at the Sydney and Berlin film festivals, and he has been employed by the Australian Government as an official war artist.

Interestingly, the high quality screen work recognised by these Australian universities may have earned the recipients ‘real’ PhDs had they sought the qualification. Many of these film artists could have just as easily submitted their work for the degree of PhD by Published Papers at several universities that accept prior work in lieu of an original exegesis, and where a film is equated with a book or journal article. But such universities still invite comparisons of their PhDs by Published Papers with honorary doctorates due to rather too-easy-to-meet criteria. The privately funded Bond University, for example, recommends a minimum full-time enrolment of just three months and certainly seems more lax in its regulations than other Antipodean institution: a healthy curriculum vitae and payment of the prescribed fee (currently AUD$24,500 per annum) are the only requirements. Restricting my enquiries once again to the field of my own research, film and television, I note that Dr. Ingo Petzke achieved his 2004 PhD by Published Works based upon films produced in Germany well before enrolling at Bond, contextualized within a discussion of the history of avant-garde film-making in that country. Might not a cynic enquire as to how this PhD significantly differs from an honorary doctorate? Although Petzke undoubtedly paid his fees and met all of Bond’s requirements for his thesis entitled Slow Motion: Thirty Years in Film, one cannot criticise that cynic for wondering if Petzke’s films are indeed equivalent to a collection of refereed papers.

It should be noted that Bond is not alone when it comes to awarding candidates the PhD by Published Papers for work published or screened in the distant past. Although yet to grant it in the area of film or television, Swinburne University of Technology (SUT) is an institution that distinctly specifies its PhD by Publications is to be awarded for “research which has been carried out prior to admission to candidature” (8). Similarly, the Griffith Law School states: “The PhD (by publications) is awarded to established researchers who have an international reputation based on already published works” (1). It appears that Bond is no solitary voice in the academic wilderness, for SUT and the Griffith Law School also apparently consider the usual milestones of Confirmation and Final Seminars to be unnecessary if the so-called candidate is already well published.

Like Bond, Griffith University (GU) is prepared to consider a collection of films to be equivalent to a number of refereed papers. Dr Ian Lang’s 2002 PhD (by Publication) thesis entitled Conditional Truths: Remapping Paths To Documentary ‘Independence’ contains not refereed, scholarly articles but the following videos: Wheels Across the Himalaya (1981); Yallambee, People of Hope (1986); This Is What I Call Living (1988); The Art of Place: Hanoi Brisbane Art Exchange (1995); and Millennium Shift: The Search for New World Art (1997). While this is a most impressive body of work, and is well unified by appropriate discussion within the thesis, the cynic who raised eyebrows at Petzke’s thesis might also be questioning this thesis: Dr Lang’s videos all preceded enrolment at GU and none have been refereed or acknowledged with major prizes. Certainly, the act of releasing a film for distribution has much in common with book publishing, but should these videos be considered to be on a par with academic papers published in, say, the prestigious and demanding journal Screen? While recognition at awards ceremonies might arguably correlate with peer review there is still the question as to how scholarly a film actually is. Of course, documentary films such as those in Lang’s thesis can be shown to be addressing gaps in the literature, as is the expectation of any research paper, but the onus remains on the author/film-maker to demonstrate this via a detailed contextual review and a well-written, erudite argument that unifies the works into a cohesive thesis. This Lang has done, to the extent that suspicious cynic might wonder why he chose not to present his work for a standard PhD award.

Another issue unaddressed by most institutions is the possibility that the publications have been self-refereed or refereed by the candidate’s editorial colleagues in a case wherein the papers appear in a book the candidate has edited or co-edited. Dr Gillian Swanson’s 2004 GU thesis Towards a Cultural History of Private Life: Sexual Character, Consuming Practices and Cultural Knowledge, which addresses amongst many other cultural artefacts the film Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean 1962), has nine publications: five of which come from two books she co-edited, Nationalising Femininity: Culture, Sexuality and Cinema in Britain in World War Two, (Gledhill and Swanson 1996) and Deciphering Culture: Ordinary Curiosities and Subjective Narratives (Crisp et al 2000). While few would dispute the quality of Swanson’s work, the persistent cynic might wonder if these five papers really qualify as refereed publications. The tacit understanding of a refereed publication is that it is blind reviewed i.e. the contributor’s name is removed from the document. Such a system is used to prevent bias and favouritism but this level of anonymity might be absent when the contributor to a book is also one of the book’s editors. Of course, Dr Swanson probably took great care to distance herself from the refereeing process undertaken by her co-editors, but without an inbuilt check, allegations of cronyism from unfriendly cynics may well result.

A related factor in making comparisons of different university’s PhDs by Published Papers is the requirements different universities have about the standard of the journal the paper is published in. It used to be a simple matter in Australia: the government’s Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST) held a Register of Refereed Journals. If your benefactor in disseminating your work was on the list, your publications were of near-unquestionable quality. Not any more:

DEST will no longer accept nominations for listing on the Register and will not undertake to rule on whether a particular journal article meets the HERDC [Higher Education Research Data Collection] requirements for inclusion in publication counts. HEPs [Higher Education Providers] have always had the discretion to determine if a publication produced in a journal meets the requirements for inclusion in the HERDC regardless of whether or not the journal was included on the Register of Refereed Journals. As stated in the HERDC specifications, the Register is not an exhaustive list of all journals which satisfy the peer-review requirements (DEST).

The last listing for the DEST Register of Refereed Journals was the 3rd of February 2006, making way for a new tiered list of academic journals, which is currently under review in the Australian tertiary education sector (see discussion of this development in the Redden and Mitchell articles in this issue). In the interim, some university faculties created their own rankings of journals, but not the Faculty of Creative Industries at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) where I am studying for my PhD by Published Papers.

Although QUT does not have a list of ranked journals for a candidate to submit papers to, it is otherwise quite strict in its requirements. The QUT University Regulations state, “Papers submitted as a PhD thesis must be closely related in terms of subject matter and form a cohesive research narrative” (QUT PhD regulation 14.1.2). Thus there is the requirement at QUT that apart from the usual introduction, methodology and literature review, an argument must be made as to how the papers present a sustained research project via “an overarching discussion of the main features linking the publications” (14.2.12). It is also therein stated that it should be an “account of research progress linking the research papers” (4.2.6). In other words, a unifying essay must make an argument for consideration of the sometimes diversely published papers as a cohesive body of work, undertaken in a deliberate journey of research. In my own case, an aural auteur analysis of sound in the films of Rolf de Heer, I argue that my published papers (eight in total) represent a journey from genre analysis (one paper) to standard auteur analysis (three papers) to an argument that sound should be considered in auteur analysis (one paper) to the major innovation of the thesis, aural auteur analysis (three papers). It should also be noted that unlike Bond, GU or SUT, the QUT regulations for the standard PhD still apply: a Confirmation Seminar, Final Seminar and a minimum two years of full-time enrolment (with a minimum of three months residency in Brisbane) are all compulsory. Such milestones and sine qua non ensure the candidate’s academic progress and intellectual development such that she or he is able to confidently engage in meaningful quodlibets regarding the thesis’s topic.

Another interesting and significant feature of the QUT guidelines for this type of degree is the edict that papers submitted must be “published, accepted or submitted during the period of candidature” (14.1.1). Similarly, the University of Canberra (UC) states “The articles or other published material must be prepared during the period of candidature” (10). Likewise, Edith Cowan University (ECU) will confer its PhD by Publications to those candidates whose thesis consists of “only papers published in refereed scholarly media during the period of enrolment” (2). In other words, one cannot simply front up to ECU, QUT, or UC with a résumé of articles or films published over a lifetime of writing or film-making and ask for a PhD by Published Papers. Publications of the candidate prepared prior to commencement of candidature are simply not acceptable at these institutions and such PhDs by Published Papers from QUT, UC and ECU are entirely different to those offered by Bond, GU and SUT. Furthermore, without a requirement for a substantial period of enrolment and residency, recipients of PhDs by Published Papers from Bond, GU, or SUT are unlikely to have participated significantly in the research environment of their relevant faculty and peers. Such newly minted doctors may be as unfamiliar with the campus and its research activities as the recipient of an honorary doctorate usually is, as he or she poses for the media’s cameras en route to the glamorous awards ceremony.

Much of my argument in this paper is built upon the assumption that the process of refereeing a paper (or for that matter, a film) guarantees a high level of academic rigour, but I confess that this premise is patently naïve, if not actually flawed. Refereeing can result in the rejection of new ideas that conflict with the established opinions of the referees. Interdisciplinary collaboration can be impeded and the lack of referee’s accountability is a potential problem, too. It can also be no less nail-biting a process than the examination of a finished thesis, given that some journals take over a year to complete the refereeing process, and some journal’s editorial committees have recognised this shortcoming. Despite being a mainstay of its editorial approach since 1869, the prestigious science journal, Nature, which only publishes about 7% of its submissions, has led the way with regard to varying the procedure of refereeing, implementing in 2006 a four-month trial period of ‘Open Peer Review’. Their website states,

Authors could choose to have their submissions posted on a preprint server for open comments, in parallel with the conventional peer review process. Anyone in the field could then post comments, provided they were prepared to identify themselves. Once the usual confidential peer review process is complete, the public ‘open peer review’ process was closed and the editors made their decision about publication with the help of all reports and comments (Campbell).

Unfortunately, the experiment was unpopular with both authors and online peer reviewers. What the Nature experiment does demonstrate, however, is that the traditional process of blind refereeing is not yet perfected and can possibly evolve into something less problematic in the future. Until then, refereeing continues to be the best system there is for applying structured academic scrutiny to submitted papers.

With the reforms of the higher education sector, including forced mergers of universities and colleges of advanced education and the re-introduction of university fees (carried out under the aegis of John Dawkins, Minister for Employment, Education and Training from 1987 to 1991), and the subsequent rationing of monies according to research dividends (calculated according to numbers of research degree conferrals and publications), there has been a veritable explosion in the number of institutions offering PhDs in Australia. But the general public may not always be capable of differentiating between legitimately accredited programs and diploma mills, given that the requirements for the first differ substantially. From relatively easily obtainable PhDs by Published Papers at Bond, GU and SUT to more rigorous requirements at ECU, QUT and UC, there is undoubtedly a huge range in the demands of degrees that recognise a candidate’s published body of work. The cynical reader may assume that with this paper I am simply trying to shore up my own forthcoming graduation with a PhD by Published papers from potential criticisms that it is on par with a ‘purchased’ doctorate. Perhaps they are right, for this is a new degree in QUT’s Creative Industries faculty and has only been awarded to one other candidate (Dr Marcus Foth for his 2006 thesis entitled Towards a Design Methodology to Support Social Networks of Residents in Inner-City Apartment Buildings). But I believe QUT is setting a benchmark, along with ECU and UC, to which other universities should aspire. In conclusion, I believe further efforts should be undertaken to heighten the differences in status between PhDs by Published Papers generated during enrolment, PhDs by Published Papers generated before enrolment and honorary doctorates awarded for non-academic published work. Failure to do so courts cynical comparison of all PhD by Published Papers with unearnt doctorates bought from Internet shysters.



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Author Biography

Bruno Starrs, QUT

D. Bruno Starrs holds masters degrees from Bond University and the University of Melbourne. He is nearing completion of a PhD on the films of Rolf de Heer at Queensland University of Technology. Published creative writing that has sprung deformed and grotesque from his much troubled mind includes several stage-plays and a novel. Editors have begrudgingly accepted his quasi-academic ramblings on subjects as diverse as Werther, Dracula, Quidditch, Big Brother, Red vs. Blue and Australian film. He edited (with Sean Maher) the 'Equal' issue of M-C Journal in May of 2008. Starrs lives in Kelvin Grove, Queensland, where he reads aloud to his imaginary mistress, Kelvin.