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.


Copyright problems

6 February 2010

Remember the picture of Michelle Obama we talked about earlier? I hope that it is your photo, or you have otherwise received permission to use it. Otherwise, you and your production editor (who has not been doing his job properly) could be in deep doggies.

Why?

Because by the time that your text and image files have been delivered to the typesetter, any questions about copyright and permissions should have been resolved long ago. Certainly, your typesetter will not be asking any questions about your right to this image (or, for that matter, your right to quote 15 pages word for word from Dreams of My Father).

No, and the first anyone may realise there is a problem is when a big fat lawsuit lands thud in your publisher’s letterbox. By then it will be too late – and by then you may get to learn that certain clauses in your contract are not just words:

4.1    The Author warrants to the Publisher that the Work is original and previously unpublished; that the Author has the sole right to publish it; and that in no way whatever does it violate any existing copyright.
4.2    If any material is to be reproduced in the Work to which the Author does not have copyright, the Author is responsible for obtaining the permission of the copyright holder for the reproduction of this material. Any expenses incurred in this connection must be borne by the Author.

§ 5 Other Legal Obligations
5.1    The Author warrants to the Publisher that the Author has the full power to enter into this Agreement, that the Work contains nothing that exposes the Publisher to legal action, and that all the statements contained therein purporting to be facts are true to the best of the Author’s knowledge. […]
5.2    If the Author breaches the warranties made in §4.1 and §5.1, the Author shall indemnify the Publisher against any consequential loss, injury or damage occasioned to the Publisher or the Publisher’s business partners, including any legal costs or expenses and any compensation costs and disbursements paid by the Publisher on the advice of their legal counsel to compromise or settle any claim.

These clauses are from the standard NIAS Press contract. By no means are they unusual. And essentially they mean that, if you have dropped your publisher in the legal doggies, you can be pretty certain that you’ll be hung out to dry. Bankrupted. Fired. Humiliated.

The long and short of it is that, even if it is your production editor’s job to check that you have cleared any permissions required for the use of copyright material, ultimately it is your responsibility that this has been done. Likewise, if you are to get round the copyright issue by getting (say) a map redrawn, that too should have been done by now.

Better get moving, right now.

(The ins and outs of copyright and permissions will follow in a later post. This is just a wee reminder, warning you not to leave this matter any later.)

(Post #18 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)