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Rewriting your thesis as a journal article

In my previous article, I had explained that it is an acceptable practice to rewrite content from a PhD thesis or dissertation and publish it as a journal article. However, you have to remember that a thesis and a journal article are two completely different sub-genres of academic writing, meant for different audiences and written for different purposes. They follow different styles and set very different expectations. This post will guide you on how you can reframe your thesis into one or more journal articles.

To begin with, it is important to understand the difference between a thesis and a journal article. Theses or dissertations are usually long discourses written by students as part of their course. It, therefore, has an educational purpose and needs to be presented before a committee that evaluates whether the candidate is worthy of receiving a degree. Thus, the purpose of a dissertation is to demonstrate how much you know, which leads to a general tendency towards presenting everything that you know about the topic in a dissertation. Typically, a lengthy introduction, an exhaustive literature review, a detailed description of the research approach and methodology, elaborate reporting and over-interpretation of results are some common characteristics of a thesis.

Journal articles, on the other hand, are read by busy scientists and researchers who are looking for practical ideas that are backed with evidence. Journal articles, therefore, have to be extremely focused in terms of presentation. These articles are expected to follow a specific format, and include a concise literature review, a controlled presentation of methods, only the main findings, and a succinct discussion section.

Here are some of the elements that you will need to work on to successfully create a journal article from your thesis:

Length: A journal article is much shorter than a dissertation or thesis, and consequently, requires a tighter framework and a more compact style. While a dissertation can run up to a few 100 pages and has around 20,000 words, a journal article can be anywhere between 3000-6000 words, depending on the field and the journal. Therefore, each section of the manuscript has to be shortened considerably. This should be done by selecting and rewriting content from the thesis, not by copying and pasting. Selecting and repurposing are the key elements here: you need to be extremely careful to preserve the essence of the study while leaving out the redundant details.

Abstract: The abstract for a journal article typically ranges anywhere between 150-250 words. However, a dissertation abstract is longer, usually around 350 words. Read the instructions of your target journal carefully. Some journals require a structured abstract while others prefer an unstructured one. Graphical abstracts and video abstracts are also gaining popularity and some journals ask for these.

Introduction: A thesis usually has a more detailed introduction as students demonstrate their familiarity with the existing literature through an exhaustive literature review. However, in a journal article, the literature review is more succinct and should include only as much as is required to understand the gap in research that led to the study. If your thesis/dissertation includes more than one research question, make sure you narrow down the focus to just one research question for your journal article.

Methods: The materials and methods section of a thesis usually includes an extensive discussion of the research approach and methodology. However, a journal article requires a more controlled presentation of methods: you should limit yourself to describing only the details of the methodology used, specifically, the experiments conducted; a comprehensive discussion of the research approach is not required here.

Results: While a thesis/dissertation usually reports each and every result in considerable details, a journal article reports only the main findings. In fact, as a result of inexperience or over-interpretation, students often end up reporting results in their thesis that are not strong enough. However, when it comes to journal articles, strict standards of reporting should be followed, and you should only report results that are directly relevant to your research question and backed by strong evidence. Secondary findings may be included as supplementary information if you wish.

Discussion: The discussion section of a thesis/dissertation is again more detailed, providing a thorough interpretation of all the results with an aim to show the student’s complete understanding of their data. Additionally, students need to demonstrate their interest in future research directions by engaging in extensive speculation. The discussion section of a journal paper should be clear and to-the-point. Do not make the mistake of repeating your results in this section.  

References: Dissertations typically have an exhaustive list of citations, sometimes, even a bibliography. However, journal articles include a limited number of citations, and the reference section includes only works that have been cited within the article. Some journals actually specify the maximum number of references that can be included. Similarly, it is fairly common to have a ‘Definitions’ section in dissertations, but this should not be included in a journal article.

The above tips are intended to give you a sense of direction on how you can reframe your thesis into a journal article. However, it is by no means an easy task and requires a lot of care and effort. Most importantly, remember to reference your thesis in the article and mention in the cover letter that the article is based on your thesis. With the help and guidance of the editor and peer reviewers, the published article will definitely be very different from and probably better than your thesis.

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