Extracting a journal article from your thesis

Top tips from award-winning author

What should you consider before and during the process of writing an article from your thesis?

We caught up with Marissa Rollnick, winner of a 2018 NARST Distinguished Contributions to Science Education through Research Award, who gave us her advice for those starting out.


Headshot_Marissa_Rollnick

Turning your thesis into publications should mark the beginning of your publication career. It is important to publish work post PhD as this makes your research more accessible to others.

One of the most important points to note is that writing an article from a thesis is not simply a task of cutting and pasting. The purpose and format of a thesis or dissertation is very different from that of a journal article or book chapter. The primary audience for the thesis is the examiner, and the student needs to convince the examiner that they have mastered research techniques and understand the arguments they are making. This can make the thesis repetitive and full of detail. The wider audience for the article or book chapter will want to know about the arguments or findings and at the same time be convinced that the findings are authentic and trustworthy.

Selecting articles from a thesis or dissertation depends greatly on the work itself. There may be new theories, methods or findings that are worth sharing and the supervisor’s role is to assist the student in formulating purposes for the paper. There are several steps involved:

  • Deciding on authorship
  • Planning the article
  • Selecting a journal
  • Writing the article
  • Reviewing the article before submission

Deciding on authorship

Anyone included as an author of a journal article must have made a significant contribution to it. You may need to decide whether this includes your supervisor and agree the order of the authors’ names. Different disciplines have different authorship practices, but in the humanities the principal author is mentioned first.

Editor’s note: How common is co-authorship and what are the challenges faced by those who collaborate? Our white paper, Co-authorship in the Humanities and Social Sciences: A global view, explores the experiences of 894 researchers from 62 countries.

Planning the article

A single paper in a journal should contain a central message that you want to get across. This could be a novel aspect of methodology that you have used in your PhD study, a new theory, or an interesting modification you have made to theory or a novel set of findings. Decide what this central focus is.
Then create a paper outline bearing in mind the need to:
  • Isolate a manageable size
  • Create a coherent story/argument
  • Make the argument self-standing
  • Target the journal readership
  • Change the writing conventions from that used in your thesis

Selecting a journal

Selecting a journal is a very important step in planning the article. The journal you select should target appropriate readership, be accredited and be accessible to your peers. Start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Look at your own reference list. Which journals have you used?
  • Study the editorial policies of the relevant journals: some are more restrictive than others (e.g. content, research paradigm, article length)
  • Scan past editions. Are there any similar papers?
  • Is it a trusted journal? There are several marks of quality and reliability to look out for in a journal, and people may judge your ability to choose appropriate journals to submit to. The Think. Check. Submit. initiative provides tools to help you evaluate whether the journal you’re planning to send your work to is trustworthy.

When selecting your journal think about audience, purposes, what to write about and why. Decide the kind of article to write. Is it a report, position paper, critique or review? What makes your argument or research interesting? How might the paper add value to the field?

Writing the article

When writing the article consider your choice of ‘theoretical framework’ and ‘voice’. Be clear what your article is about, and what it is trying to do. Finally ask your supervisor /co-author to go through the article with the following in mind

  • Use the criteria the reviewers will use.
  • Read and edit acting as a sympathetic friend and mentor.
  • Ask another colleague or friend who thinks differently to read it.
  • Get someone to edit it for language and spelling. Many authors use professional proof readers. This is not a sign of weakness as the editor has some distance from the article. This is particularly important if you come from a country where a different language to that of the journal is used.

Marissa Rollnick is professor emeritus in science education at Wits University of Education in Johannesburg, South Africa. She holds a doctorate in science education from Wits University and is a specialist in academic development and science education. Her professional career includes appointments as high school science and maths teacher, teacher educator (William Pitcher college, Swaziland and University of Swaziland), lecturer and professor in chemistry and chemistry education on access programmes and subsequently teacher education at Wits University and science education research at Wits University. She has had various visiting appointments at University of York, UK, Western Michigan University (Fulbright award), USA and University of Cape Town. She is currently also working at the Univerisites of Pretoria and Johannesburg.