In my previous post, I asserted that ‘a thesis is not a book’ without offering any grounds for this claim. In this post I shall substantiate my claim by describing and commenting on the main differences between a typical thesis and a good scholarly book. Obviously, some theses are more book-like than others while a fair few academic books are not particularly good in their scholarship and/or in their authorship.
Thesis: To test the student’s competence and establish academic credentials.
Book: To communicate ideas/research results.
Comment: The difference in purpose, as in author and readership (below), means that the thesis and monograph are profoundly different.
Thesis: Often book-like but usually amateur in appearance.
Book: It is a book and normally is produced to professional publishing standards.
Comment: Producing a book-like thesis is risky but may be unavoidable. My previous post explores this issue.
Thesis: Often a lower limit, but not always an upper limit (sometimes the assumption being that the greater length, the greater the scholarship).
Book: Limited by market forces (printing cost, shipping weight, retail price, reader expectations, etc.)
Comment: The whole issue of book length (and word count) is explored here.
Thesis: Student (writing to pass scrutiny and assert academic credibility).
Book: Writer (aiming to communicate but with obligations to readers).
Comment: Arguably, the student is an involuntary author whereas the writer has choice (but that is to deny the enduring power of the old adage ‘publish or perish’; teachers have other obligations but researchers especially are chained to a publication treadmill).
Thesis: Panel of examiners tasked to evaluate the student.
Book: Colleagues and anyone else interested in the subject and in learning.
Comment: The difference in readership (between a group that is known and self-contained and one that is amorphous, undefinable and largely anonymous) is subtle but means that the thesis and monograph are profoundly different.
Thesis: Author (the student, who is being examined).
Comment: Again, the difference in orientation creates a subtle but profound difference between thesis and book.
Thesis: Exposition required (to demonstrate knowledge).
Book: Absorbed and built on (to frame discourse).
Comment: Theoretical framework is not the only issue here but it is a major one that I explore in greater detail here.
Thesis: Defensive exposition (to panel of examiners).
Book: Open disclosure (‘selling’ an argument/research results to often unknown and possibly sceptical peers).
Comment: Another reason for the subtle but profound difference between thesis and book.
Treatment of subject
Thesis: Often highly technical and very detailed.
Book: Avoids unnecessary technical detail.
Comment: Many factors are at play here, not only length and approach (as above) but also things like how experienced the author is as a writer. That said, remember that we are comparing the typical thesis and a good scholarly book; there are plenty of experienced authors with an obsession with detail.
Thesis: Often obscure, abstract and heavy on jargon.
Book: Clear with judicious use of technical terms where needed.
Comment: As per treatment of subject (above) but substitute ‘impenetrable prose’ for ‘an obsession with detail’.
Thesis: Often progressive recitation (along a preordained railway track).
Book: Organic unity, with narrative thread drawing the disparate elements together.
Comment: Arguably, the difference is more about the author’s skills and experience as a writer than any inherent distinction between thesis and book.
Thesis: Orderly exposition but argument not built; often excessive signposting.
Book: Builds argument, linking chapters with subtlety; has pace and momentum.
Comment: As per structure (above), i.e. more about the writing skills and experience (less likely among new authors).
Thesis: Often ends quite abruptly.
Book: Wrapped by conclusions.
Comment: Structure and narrative flow (above), hence writing skills and experience, are usually at work here.
Thesis: Detailed description required.
Book: Description only if and when relevant.
Comment: Methodology has much the same role as theory – see scholarship (above).
Thesis: Often far more than strictly necessary.
Book: Only what is necessary.
Comment: Excessive referencing is typical of the ‘exam bunker’ mentality found in many theses but is not unknown among experienced authors. Unfortunately, every citation is a ‘speed bump’, reducing the readability of a text.
Thesis: Necessary, often extensive.
Book: Limited use.
Comment: Also typical of the ‘exam bunker’ mentality is excessive quoting of the work of other scholars (both in length and frequency). Usually, students can get away with this in a thesis but the same excess in a published work (whether a book or article) could provoke accusations of breach of copyright and ‘fair use’.
Evaluation before completion
Thesis: Feedback from supervisor; final assessment by panel of examiners.
Book: Publisher’s commercial assessment, peer-review process and editorial input.
Comment: The difference in part relates to readership (above) but never assume that the commercial interests of a publisher and the academic needs of an author are completely aligned (far from it). A detailed description of editorial input begins here.
Thesis: Formal defence.
Book: Reviews published in journals and other external forums.
Comment: As per evaluation beforehand (above), readership plays a part but ultimately purpose (above) is especially important here.
As you can see, there are differences between a typical thesis and a good scholarly book. However, every thesis is different, likewise every monograph. The question is, then, where does your thesis fit in this matrix and what do you need to do to transform it into a career-building book?
Time to put on your analyst’s hat and start planning. In a subsequent post, I shall follow this process.