3 Paper Dissertation Model

A PhD manuscript does not need to resemble a ‘door stop’. The traditional format — divided into introduction, literature review, methods, results and discussion — is not the only option for presenting your research. In some fields of study (and at some universities) students can opt for the three (or triple) article dissertation (TAD) format, also known as the journal article format. This involves organizing your thesis into three (or more) publishable full-length articles, and joining them with an introduction that presents the general theme of the research project, as well as summarizing the main findings in the conclusion chapter.

Should I choose the TAD, journal article format?

Students should discuss format options with their advisor and Dissertation Committee to make sure it is acceptable at their place of study, as well as being appropriate for their topic. The journal article format might be difficult to execute if you have a single focal question that cannot be easily divided into three (or more) logical manuscripts. The approach is more suitable for projects that involve multiple experiments and various data sets, or for mixed methods studies where the author wishes to separate the qualitative part from the quantitative part.

This approach might be particularly pertinent to part-time students. For example, if a PhD takes six years to complete, there is a possibility that early research becomes outdated by the time the student gets ready to graduate. However, if there is a series of papers that get submitted and critiqued as the research progresses, this drawback can be managed.

TAD format strengths

Knowledge dissemination is very important in the academic world. By organizing your work into journal publications, you are learning the important skill of communicating your findings. You also increase the possibilities of getting published and cited prior to defending your thesis. Students who chose the traditional format often do not get a chance to transform their manuscripts into articles once their PhD is completed. Another benefit of the TAD format is if for any reason you do not get to finish your PhD, you still have published work from you academic efforts.

Students who opt for the TAD format also purport that this approach enables them to split their thesis into manageable chunks and set realistic goals. Moreover, these students experience more structure as their work gets continuously monitored both formally and informally by different parties – e.g. by their advisor and journal reviewers.

TAD formatweaknesses

There is a realistic possibility that the papers you submit to journals get rejected. Also, the acceptance process can often be lengthy. Nonetheless, receiving timely feedback can also be very beneficial, as it helps you improve and adjust your work sooner rather than later. You also need to consider the possibility that after the review, the framing of your papers will change, which might affect the overall alignment of your articles and your project as a whole. Some authors might struggle to write a coherent introduction that connects all the articles, especially if they become disjointed as they pass the review process.

Journals also impose word or page limitations, so it might be difficult to include all the study’s details and its full background. However, this can be overcome by including appendices to your dissertation text. One last thing to consider with the journal article format is the authorship. You usually need to be able to show that you are the sole or primary author on at least two of the published (or publishable) articles.

(Much of that described below is taken with permission from the School of Social Work at the University of Texas1)

Dissertation Structure

Under the ‘three papers’ model, a PhD thesis consists of three separate papers of “publishable quality".  The papers may not merely represent minor tweaks of a work that would be more appropriately reported in just one or two papers. The papers should be of normal journal article length (say, between 5,000 and 10,000 words). The papers are each free standing (in the sense that each can be read and understood independently) but should form a cohesive body of work that supports a theme that is expressed clearly in the introduction of the dissertation (Chapter 1). In addition, Chapter 1 may contain essential background information. There may also be a general literature review, but this is not necessary. Therefore, the ‘three papers’ PhD thesis looks like this:

  1. Introduction and background to the general topic area. This will function as the cord that weaves the various papers together and describes, for the reader, their ‘collective meaning’ and ‘combined contribution’ to the field. It should include:
    1. a definition or statement of the problem,
    2. the importance of the problem, i.e., why it is worth researching, why it matters to the field of MIS, and its potential implications for business and society.
    3. the philosophical and theoretical foundation (s) supporting the problem/issue,
    4.  an overview of the important literature (overview, because each article will have its own unique literature review),
    5. the research questions,
    6. In the case of co-authorship on any individual chapter within the dissertation, the student must indicate the percentage of effort and a description of the role played by each author in the introductory chapter.
  2. First paper.
  3. Second paper.
  4. Third paper.
  5. Conclusion and implications and suggestions for further research, including: The conclusion will briefly summarize the dissertation’s major findings, limitations, discussion, and recommendations. The student will also present and discuss linkages (i.e., similarities and differences) between the separate manuscripts that are included in the dissertation, striving as much as possible to present the document as representative of a coherent body of work. The conclusion chapter ‘ties’ everything together and helps the reader see how the various manuscripts, taken together, make a contribution to the knowledge base regarding the problem. The conclusion chapter should present/discuss research imperatives, or knowledge gaps, not visible when each manuscript is considered individually and should articulate an agenda for future research on the issues addressed in the dissertation

The total number of chapters is thus usually five, and the total length approaches 150 type-written pages (a maximum of about 35,000 words). As with the conventional PhD thesis, appendices of unlimited length may be added, but these appendices are commonly appendices to each paper, rather than appendices to the thesis as a whole.

Quality of Papers

The three papers must be of "publishable" quality, which is defined as that which would be accepted for publication by a journal in at least Tier 2 of the Bauer journal list for the MIS area either extant at the time of the dissertation proposal defense or as amended by the time of the dissertation final defense. This quality will be judged by the dissertation committee. However, papers published or accepted for publication by at least a Tier 2 journal serves as prime facieevidence of publishability.

Published Papers

A maximum of one article published or accepted for publication prior to the proposal defense may be included. This article must represent work undertaken while the student is enrolled in the PhD program and be approved by the committee at the time of the student’s proposal defense. This article must be connected to the theme of the dissertation. If a previously published article is approved by the committee, the student will be responsible for securing necessary permissions from the copyright holder and other authors.

Student's Contribution

Students must be the primary contributor on all papers, as determined by the dissertation committee. As primary contributor, students are responsible for development and articulation of a concept or idea for research, development of a proposal to pursue this idea, development of a research design, conducting research and analysis, writing major portions of a manuscript, designing an intervention or assessment (if relevant), and interpreting results.

At least two of the papers should be based on data that are analyzed by the student. If the third article is conceptual in nature, or based on a synthesis of the literature, it must be connected to the theme of the dissertation without overlapping heavily with the contents of either article. Whether the extent of any overlap is excessive will be determined by the student’s dissertation committee. (A certain amount of overlap is acceptable. For example, portions of the literature review may need to be cited in the various papers because it delineates the entire historical background of the study’s focal topic. Redundancy can be carefully reduced by citing one’s own work. However, self-plagiarism - reusing one’s own previously written work or data in a ‘new’ written product without letting the reader know that this material has appeared elsewhere - is prohibited.)

Co-authors must be identified at the student’s proposal defense. The paper and the role of the co-authors must be presented and approved by all members of the dissertation committee. Any changes in co-authorship must be approved by the student’s committee.

Submission of Papers to Journals

Journals to which articles are being submitted must be approved by the dissertation committee. Serving as an “editorial board” for the student, the committee will help select journals that will challenge the student and offer a reasonable chance of publication success.  If a paper is rejected by a journal during the dissertation process, the student may submit to another journal approved by the dissertation committee. In the case of a revise and resubmit during the dissertation process, any changes to the paper must be approved by the dissertation committee. Co-authorship will not be changed for a revise and resubmit.

If the journal reviewers suggest modifications to any of the 3 submitted manuscripts prior to the dissertation defense, your plan for addressing those suggestions should be shared with your dissertation committee members and approved by all of them before you enact the changes. Changes can be made to any of the 3 manuscripts provided that the dissertation committee members are aware of and agree to the changes being made and their rationale. Students may opt to defer changes requested by a journal to which they have submitted an article until their dissertation has been successfully defended.

If a paper is rejected by a journal after the successful completion and defense of the dissertation, co-authorship decisions that were made during the dissertation process will no longer be in effect. Submission to a new journal will be at the sole discretion of the PhD graduate. Also after the successful dissertation defense, any new submission or resubmission, including changes in the authorship or article content, will be at the discretion of the PhD graduate.

Switch from Traditional to 3 Paper Format & Vice Versa

Students should decide as early as possible, in concert with their dissertation chair, whether to pursue the 3-disseration format. However, they may switch from one format to the other at any time provided that their dissertation committee approves the switch.

Dissertation Proposal

The dissertation proposal must include

  1. Introduction and background to the general topic area. This will function as the cord that weaves the various papers together and describes, for the reader, their ‘collective meaning’ and ‘combined contribution’ to the field. It should include:
    1. definition or statement of the problem,
    2. the importance of the problem, i.e., why it is worth researching, why it matters to the field of MIS.
    3. the theoretical foundation (s) supporting the problem/issue,
    4.  an overview of the important literature (overview, because each article will have its own unique literature review),
    5. the research questions.
  2. Copies of any completed articles, whether published or not.
  3. An outline of any articles in progress.
  4. A list of proposed journals.
  5. A timeline for completion of the work. The defense of the dissertation proposal is expected to parallel the proposal defense for a traditional dissertation. The three article dissertation alters the format, but not the content, expected in the dissertation research.

 

(Approved by MIS Faculty August 26, 2016)

1 Permission given by Allan Cole, Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, School of Social Work, The University of Texas, August 3, 2016.


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