Institutionalizing Doctoral Writing Practices: Writing-for-Publication Groups (2/5)

Unfortunately, many doctoral students are left to their own devices to sort out how to publish out of their doctorate research (Dinham and Scott, 2001; Engestrom, 1999). Individual supervisors vary in the support they give to writing for publication during and after the doctorate. There are also different disciplinary traditions around the importance of writing for publication. We know of one university in the UK where the school of psychology expects each doctoral candidate to write a paper each year for an international conference and to have it sent to a refereed journal afterwards. In this case, not only are conversations about writing integral to supervision, but students’ progress is evaluated in relation to the papers and articles they write.

In her investigation of doctoral writing practices in science and education, Barbara (Kamler, 2005a; Kamler and Rowan, 2004) highlights the crucial role of specific discourse communities in shaping publication output. Her interview-based case study compared the writing experiences of doctoral graduates in education with those in the physical and biological sciences. A key finding of the study was that science graduates were far more successful than education graduates in achieving high quality journal publication: producing 13 international refereed publications, compared to only two in education. In science, where co-authorship with supervisors was accepted practice, students began writing for publication earlier in their candidature and viewed the process as a team effort with supervisors, that is, as a crucial part of learning the ropes of academic publishing.

In education, where co-authorship was perceived more negatively for ethical reasons of ownership, autonomy or self-exploration, students produced significantly fewer publications. They were more reluctant than science graduates to submit to international refereed journals, had fewer strategies for doing so and received less supervisor support in the process. While they did not share any expectation that supervisors should play a key role in assisting them to publish, the only two refereed texts in the sample were also the only texts that were co-authored with supervisors. That is, the two education graduates in the study who achieved refereed publication did so because of the scaffolding from co-authoring with a more experienced supervisor/mentor. In this study, co-authorship with supervisors produced ‘know how’. It helped students move past their anxieties and stay robust through the refereeing and resubmission process that is part of publishing.

Heath’s (2002) quantitative study of supervision at The University of Queensland also found significant disciplinary differences in publishing practices. Of the 355 students surveyed, 83 per cent had one or more publications by the time they submitted their thesis. However, students in the sciences published more, and included their supervisor as co-authors more often than did their peers in the humanities and social sciences.

In situations where publishing is the norm, questions of writing are rolled into everyday supervision pedagogy, but they may not go beyond the individually focused supervision to become ‘institutionalized’ via joint supervisor dialogue or cooperative activity. One way in which the process of institutional support for publication can begin is via writing groups. We discussed the usefulness of writing groups earlier, but here we draw attention to their role in publishing – putting the scholarly identity out in the public arena.

Page-Adams et al. (1995) report on a student-sponsored initiative in social work to support doctoral publication through the formation of a writing group. The group was initiated by two students at Washington University in the US who believed social work doctoral students needed more structured support in writing for publication during candidature. Their impetus was career-oriented; they recognized the low publication productivity of new social work faculty members and wanted to improve the quality of their scholarly writing as future social work educators.

The chairperson of the doctoral programme offered administrative support (photocopying, meeting space), but students worked without supervisory input. Of the 25 enrolled doctoral students, eight joined the group. They set deadlines for written drafts and offered detailed feedback to one another on conceptualization, substantive content and writing style.

Members pushed to ask the hard questions first. Is this piece worth writing? Does it contribute enough to warrant a publication attempt? Members approached these potentially charged issues by helping one another identify ways to improve the substantive content, or by suggesting alternative conceptual approaches that might yield bigger contributions. (Page-Adams et al. 1995: 403)

An evaluation of the group showed a positive correlation between group membership and scholarly productivity. The eight members wrote, submitted or published nineteen papers during the group’s first year, compared to five papers written or submitted for publication by non-members. Page-Adams et al. strongly recommend such groups as an effective way to enhance the quality of writing and make a contribution to a professional knowledge base early in academic careers.

While they claim student initiative and administrative support were crucial to the development of the publication group, what was supplied seems an exceedingly modest input from the university community. Certainly it sidesteps the question of supervisors, faculties or institutions supporting such groups as part of a writing culture.

Barbara initiated a form of publication support for early career researchers at her university in Australia; it had greater institutional support than the PageAdams initiative. Her work became part of her faculty’s strategic research planning and was resourced in 2004 by giving Barbara workload allocation to mentor her colleagues on writing for publication. The aim was to foster the capacity of early career researchers in education by fast-tracking publications from their dissertations.

The initiative was undoubtedly shaped by the increasingly performative environment of Australian universities and the need for younger academics to build their research profile in order to be competitive in research grant submission. It also recognized the intense pressures on recent doctoral graduates to deal with heavy teaching workloads at the same time that they ‘become known’ through publication. While the faculty had been funding a number of initiatives to bring research money into the university (for example, workshops on grant writing, administrative support with research budgets), no assistance was given to the other end of research – publishing findings from research and disseminating new contributions to knowledge.

Since 2004, Barbara has worked individually with six to eight researchers each year, to discuss their thesis and provide assistance with publication. She reads each dissertation and collaboratively develops a publishing plan, outlining four to six articles to be published in academic refereed journals. The plan creates a structure for writing, specifying target journals, titles and abstracts. Writing the plan creates a site of pedagogy, as discussions range from how to write compelling abstract bids to analysing the different genres of journal publication. Once the writing begins, Barbara provides close reading and critique of successive drafts before they are submitted for publication.

The evaluations of this work have been very positive. Early career researchers remark on gaining practical and political ‘know how’ about journal submission, as well as success in publication. They also talk about learning how they might work differently with their own doctoral students to make writing a more central part of their supervision practice. From Barbara’s perspective, the work is about reinvigorating the faculty research culture and developing a pedagogy for postPhD writing and publication that moves beyond advice and financial incentive. It is not simply editing or a ‘remedial intervention’, but a strategic interaction about building professional identities through writing. The work has gained sufficient recognition that the faculty is now supporting writing groups for all academics (not just early career) who want to engage in peer review and discussion of their journals articles prior to submission.

One final example of productive writing-for-publication groups is described by Lee and Boud (2003) at another university in Australia. They share a similar commitment to fostering the research potential of university staff and repositioning them as active writers. But their approach is located more firmly in peer learning frameworks and the need to foster academic research development in light of the changing conditions of academic work – including pressures to find new forms of funding for teaching and research, develop research concentrations, increase doctoral research completions, and prepare research students for employment (2003: 189).

In this context, they see writing groups as ‘a useful place to do research development work’ (p. 187) and research development itself as ‘crucially about the making and remaking of academic identities’ (p. 189). They discuss two staff groups which were oriented around writing for publication. In the ‘new researchers’ group, members discussed ‘using conferences strategically, analysing key journals and their practices of submission; and … the practices of writing itself’ (p. 192). In the ‘extended publication’ group, members engaged in writing throughout the year and brought their writing to the group. There was greater emphasis on productivity and ‘all were successful in producing at least one article or book chapter ready for submission’ (p. 193

Based on these groups, Lee and Boud distil a set of principles which might be generalized to other sites of practice. Their first principle is mutuality, a term they use ‘to disrupt the effects of an excessive attachment to notions of academic autonomy’ (p. 194). Promoting a group approach to writing development works to break down solitary and private approaches to academic work. It creates new spaces for dialogue, reciprocity, respect for difference and enriched peer relationships.

The second principle views research development as normal university business, built into daily practices and the way ‘the organization governs itself, organizes itself and plans for its future’ (p. 195). ‘Normal business’ in the writing groups involved a focus on ‘know how’, on the practical and procedural measures for playing the publishing game and for developing and supporting the writing goals of all group members. But it was also achieved through policy measures. Writing groups were given funding and workload allocations for the convenors and then for participants, and were thus inscribed into strategic planning and budgeting.

The third principle recognizes that ‘questions of desire, identity and emotions are crucial to the sustainability of any developmental activity, yet they are often ignored’ (p. 196). Academic writing, not surprisingly, became a focus for major questions concerning identity and change. The desire to become recognized researcher-writers often warred with writers’ fears and anxieties about their own competence and inexperience. The confidentiality and mutuality of the groups Institutionalizing doctoral writing practices 151 allowed these issues to surface, be spoken about and worked through. As a consequence, all participants were repositioned as active scholarly writers.



Kamler, B., & Thomson, P. (2014). Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision (p.157). Routledge.

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