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He would much prefer to see theses’ introductory sections “written along the lines of a good review article, where the student does a critical appraisal of the state of the field”.But what about going further and abolishing the thesis entirely, and instead allowing students to submit a bundle of papers?
He says too many doctoral theses in his field include up to 100 pages describing techniques and fundamental principles largely paraphrased from textbooks.
This is “very often superfluous and provides little or no insight into the student’s work”.
“It makes no sense to rewrite the work in a way [that was not intended] and dissect out just your own little contribution to the team’s work in order to report it in a Ph D thesis,” he says.
As well as teaching students how to plan and write papers, Leigh adds, the approach also teaches them “how to plan and execute a research project efficiently and effectively; focusing at a relatively early stage on what needs to be done rather than…carrying out a lot of experiments…sitting down to write the paper and only then realising that to publish the story they need some model compounds that they haven’t made yet and don’t need some of the others that they have spent much time and effort making”.
He has successfully “encouraged” all but one of his doctoral students during the past dozen years to submit for examination a series of papers, published or not – including the literature review favoured by Moriarty.
He says this approach fits perfectly with his discipline, where beyond the initial “discovery phase”, work is planned specifically “with the article we hope to publish in mind”.
“That is just not a wise balance,” he says – particularly when even examiners rarely have the time to “wade through” theses in their entirety.
“An awful lot is going unused and unread,” he says. Communication within the science world and with the public is becoming shorter and snappier, yet our Ph Ds still seem to be stuck in the 1960s.” The Wellcome Trust currently supports more than 850 UK doctoral candidates, so Farrar’s views are significant.
Since his lab always lists the names of paper authors alphabetically, there is no issue about authorship order.
But Leigh accepts that other labs and disciplines in which order is determined by often fraught judgements about each author’s contribution could run into problems with the integrated format – if a university department insisted on a particular authorship position before a paper could be submitted as part of an integrated thesis.