Thesis vs book

13 May 2013

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.

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Purpose

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.

 Form

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.

 Length

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.

 Author

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).

Readership

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.

Focus on

Thesis: Author (the student, who is being examined).

Book: Reader.

Comment: Again, the difference in orientation creates a subtle but profound difference between thesis and book.

Scholarship

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.

Approach

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.

Language

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’.

Structure

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.

Narrative flow

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).

Ending

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.

Methodology

Thesis: Detailed description required.

Book: Description only if and when relevant.

Comment: Methodology has much the same role as theory – see scholarship (above).

Referencing

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.

Quotations

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.

Evaluation afterwards

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.

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Where now?

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.


The death of community and consensus

18 September 2009

In a series of recent posts, I have explored the issue of self-publishing from many different angles. To recap these posts have been:

A wider issue

There is, however, a wider issue with self-publishing that troubled me as I began sketching out the series – its impact on the wider scholarly community and the often-unstated consensus that gives coherence to this community. Unfortunately, while this issue troubled me, its shape was – and still remains – unclear. Hence, what I write today may be reworked at a later stage.

Broad communities

Among the reasons why you might consider self-publishing your scholarly output are:

  • This is where the future is (the slow death of the publishing house in its present exclusive form and the gradual adoption of open, collaborative forms of authorship)
  • Altruism (the free exchange of information/research)

Certainly, these ideas and ideals are common among people engaged in such collaborative endeavours as Wikipedia, in the Creative Commons movement, and in open-source publishing more generally. These are indeed broad communities given coherence and energy by their mission.

So what’s my problem?

My problem is that these interest groups have many scholars among their members but they are neither scholarly groups per se, nor are scholarly concerns as such a central concern for them. Moreover, they may function as communities but they are not and do not represent the interests of the wider scholarly community in its entirety.

Elements of the scholarly community

Of course, I run the risk here of invoking an ideal – the scholarly community – that is not grounded very much in reality. That said, despite its fragmentation into fields, factions and fashions, I think that we can discern the outlines of a scholarly community found around the world (areas of it global, others firmly anchored in a local setting). In part, this is defined by:

  • The pursuit of knowledge
  • A spirit of questioning and exploration
  • Scientific inquiry framed by an intellectual discourse and grounded in the application of commonly accepted methodologies
  • (In most cases) collection, analysis and presentation of evidence that is observable, empirical and measurable (sometimes derived from experimentation)
  • Information exchange and debate
  • Scrutiny and validation by one’s peers
  • Advancement on the basis of merit
  • Collegial responsibility

The last two points are of course debatable. No doubt some people would add a few other defining characteristics as well: greed, envy, in-fighting, etc.

Where self-publication doesn’t measure up

But, if the above features are reasonably correct, where is the difficulty in placing self-publication firmly within this community?

Scholarly endeavour is not rewarded equally so let’s not get too starry-eyed here. Nonetheless, I guess that in one way or another my misgivings all relate to (lack of) scrutiny and validation by one’s peers and what this implies. A few points:

  • Some presses are less rigorous than others in enforcing scholarly standards but there is a general consensus among them on what the standards are. Realistically, can these standards be provided by the ‘wisdom of crowds’ instead?
  • If no common standards are applied to measure all scholarly output, can there be any coherence to the body of knowledge or confidence in its veracity?
  • Peer review has its faults but replacing it with a ranking system derived from social networking would have quality losing out to popularity as the main determinant of worth.
  • Peer review is a semi-altruistic activity; although a notional payment may be received, it is an important way for scholars to contribute to their field and thus build a ‘community of excellence’. Replacing it with social ranking would likely be divisive and encourage scholarship based more on activism than on the pursuit of knowledge.

In addition, there is the issue of value to consider. Publishers exist in part because they offer quality in return for payment (sales finance the editorial input). However, a tenet of open-source publishing (home of many self-publishers) is that information should be free. While there can be debate about the correlation between the price charged for a publication and its intrinsic scholarly value, it is undeniable that not charging for a work makes it far less likely that there will be any (impartial) editorial scrutiny of it beforehand.

As such, in my mind self-published works have a place in the scholarly world but not an important one. Certainly, they may be good for specific individual scholars but as a phenomenon they do not meet our collective needs; they do not measure up.