In this PEGblog, we explain what a compilation thesis is (often called a thesis by articles or a paper-based thesis/dissertation) and the limited nature and extent of the copy editor’s engagement with it.

Compilation thesis: nature and process

In Europe in particular, universities have for some time been permitting students to present their theses in the form of a collection of already-published articles. For example, the Scandinavian countries have been doing so for years and, consequently, they provide detailed criteria and style guides for such academic submissions. As for the rest of the world, the policies vary from an excellent understanding of what is required for submission to muddling through, and even to offering no guidance at all. Some of the guides make very peculiar recommendations – for example, on the types and numbers of published items suitable for inclusion in the thesis or dissertation. One thing’s for sure: we text editors certainly do not want to become mired in this morass!

This practice of thesis by compilation turns the usual thesis–publication sequence on its head. Conventionally, a doctoral student does their research, writes it up in the form of a thesis or a dissertation, and then either has to defend it orally or it has to be assessed by a team of examiners. Only once they have passed that test do they convert their chapters into articles and submit them for publication (now with the title ‘Dr’ before their name).

But, in the case of the thesis by articles, while they are conducting and writing up their research, the postgraduate student submits their articles to journals and eventually has them published. As part of this process, the articles are subjected to peer-review, possibly amendment (or even copy-editing) to respond to the reviewers’ requirements, resubmission and then copy editing by the journal’s preferred editor before publication. The fact that their journal articles were peer-reviewed, accepted for publication and copy edited adds considerable weight to what eventually become the chapters in their thesis. This effectively means that the student’s examiners would be hard pressed to criticise such chapters negatively. And that the copy editor of the thesis or dissertation will not have to, or even be able to, edit them.

Another significant factor preventing a copy editor from intervening in published articles as thesis or dissertation chapters is that the publishing journal holds the copyright over the article. If necessary, this embargo on editorial intervention should be pointed out to the master’s or doctoral candidate.

What the student needs to ensure is that the set of published articles covers all the elements of a thesis, that is, they must collectively provide a comprehensive account of the research hypothesis or question, method, findings, discussion or conclusions etc. In addition, they must provide linking material in the form of an informative paragraph or page, inserted prior to each chapter (ie inserted article), describing the role of the completed research in the thesis structure and its contribution to it. Finally, an abstract plus introduction and conclusion chapters must be added to the compilation to complete the document and render it ready for submission to the examiners.

Limited extent of the copy editor’s engagement

What this means for the copy editor who receives a request to edit such a compilation thesis is that their work will become minimal: It will essentially be limited to fixing whatever the student wrote after assembling the published articles as the chapters: preliminary matter (including dedication, acknowledgements, abstract and table of contents), introduction, linking material, conclusion and any appendices. Also included in the editable text are any other unpublished chapters, which must be styled according to either the granting institution’s (ie faculty’s) style guide or the intended journal’s ‘Instructions to Authors’, should a journal be identified with a particular chapter comprising already published material.

It is accepted that, in the case of a compilation thesis, the house style and referencing conventions of each of the paper-based journal articles are cast in stone, which means that consistency should not (indeed, may not) be imposed between them. The reason for this is that each of the chapters may have been submitted to a different journal, each with its own house style (eg US vs UK English conventions) and referencing systems (eg APA, MLA, Harvard, Chicago), and published in this form. There is therefore no point in making them conform to one style, since they have already been published: the academic discourse community accept this as a given.

Reducing the word or page count: the student’s domain

Another important point to take into account is this: if the page or word count of the entire thesis far exceeds a stipulated limit set by the institution, reducing that count must be the task of the student and their supervisor, never that of the copy editor. This is because, in the first place, paring down a postgraduate author’s words effectively means interfering with their original words and ideas – and that is forbidden in the case of examinable academic discourse. Secondly, such paring down or ‘redacting’ is patently not copy-editing and therefore falls way beyond the text editor’s remit. Furthermore, the length of already-published articles inserted as chapters cannot be shortened to achieve this end. Then, finally, there is the fact that none of the members of the thesis-writing troika is permitted to tamper with intellectual property that is protected by copyright.

Theses by compilation: a seriously ‘grey’ area

In reality, the compilation of a PhD by publication or any paper-based thesis/dissertation (PBTD) is not as clear-cut as described. For one thing, there is no global consensus on the shape or composition of this model of thesis or dissertation; and in a university environment, regulations on PBTDs will differ between faculties, and even within faculties, to accommodate different research disciplines. Accordingly, when accepting such an editing commission, it is imperative that the text editor has the pertinent approved policy and style guide to hand – and this should underpin the strong argument for not quoting for a job sight (and guidelines) unseen. Be warned, though, that guidelines vary as to the amount of detail required: some are explicit, some are silent on specifics, others are generic and in yet other cases there are no guides at all. In the last instance, the text editor is strongly advised to proceed with extreme caution – caveat emptor.

Given the complexities of theses by compilation or PBTDs, from the outset, we copy editors must be absolutely clear about the expected and/or permitted level and extent of our editorial intervention in examinable texts – and we must certainly not allow ourselves to be cajoled by authors into overstepping our remit as copy editors pure and simple. And the author’s brief to the copy editor must be tempered accordingly.

What this means is that, up front, our written agreement with master’s and doctoral students must be abundantly clear about the level and extent of our editorial intervention; and if our author does attempt to persuade us to take on additional tasks that were not originally agreed upon in writing, as professionals we must stand our ground and decline such requests as a matter of ethical principle. Not standing our ground could land us in hot water, apart from arousing the ire of unreasonable authors. In the case of requests to shorten or redact an academic author’s examinable text, our response must be an unequivocal ‘no’, supported by quoting the PEG guidelines on editing theses and dissertations chapter and verse.

Photos supplied by the authors. The camera-phobic Professor Elly Grossman was caught blowing bubbles instead of pulling crackers at Christmas 2023.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of PEG.

About John Linnegar

John Linnegar has been a text editor, proofreader and indexer of school and academic textbooks, reports and journal articles since the 1970s. For more than 20 years he has trained generations of editors, proofreaders and indexers. During this time, he (co-)wrote several books on aspects of language usage and editing, including Engleish, our Engleish: Common errors in South African English and how to resolve them (2013), Grammar, punctuation and all that jazz (2019) and Text editing: A handbook for students and practitioners (2012). With Consistency, consistency, consistency, he pioneered the series of PEG guides that now numbers five titles. Besides being a PEG Honorary Life Member and an Accredited Text Editor of both SATI and PEG, he is a member of a number of professional associations worldwide, including SENSENEaT and the CSE (Australia) and a regular presenter at international conferences.

About Elly Grossman

Elly Grossman joined PEG following an invitation to attend a PEG Thesis Workshop on 27th November 2010, in Johannesburg. The Workshop was initiated by the late Norman Blight who sought to engage senior academic staff and editors in discussing concerns and issues related to editing postgraduate student research texts. At the time Elly, then overseeing the Postgraduate Project Office at the University of the Witwatersrand, represented Wits at the Workshop. The day proved enlightening, prompting Elly to immediately join PEG. Membership has provided Elly with a window to the other side of professional thesis editing and offers, via the various forums, blogs, webinars and chatlines, a rich source of language usage. It was a revelation to her that there is such a thing as an em-dash and en-dash and that each has a different function! Elly is a researcher, has published widely, is currently working part time as a postgraduate research supervisor in the Faculty of Health Sciences, Walter Sisulu University, and is not an editor.

About PEG

The Professional Editors’ Guild (PEG) is a non-profit company (NPC) in South Africa. Since moving to online activities in March 2020, PEG has been able to offer members across South Africa, and internationally, access to an extensive online webinar programme. Continuing professional development remains a key offering and the first PEG Accreditation Test was administered in August 2020 to benchmark excellence in the field of editing.