Saturday, 9 January 2010

The problem with doctoral theses.....

One quite regularly sees little snippets in the newspapers, particularly the gutter press, with alluring headlines such as "Boffin says time travel is possible" or "Rev claims Jesus visited England" or even "Research shows home educated children do better than those at school"! Often, these articles are based upon dissertations which have been written in order to obtain a doctorate. A giveaway is that the researcher is usually called "Dr" Hockenglocker or the "Rev" Jones. Seldom is it mentioned in the text that the researcher was not actually a "Dr" or "Rev" when he conducted the work; it was done in order to earn him the title. So it was with the piece in the Telegraph the other day about early reading. Despite the impression given there, this research was not carried out by "Dr" Sugatte at all, but by plain old Mr Sugatte. This may seem like pedantic nit picking, but there is a reason to be cautious about relying upon the findings of doctoral theses like these.

The doctoral dissertation must follow certain conventions. Abstract, table of contents, references cited, coherent argument and so on. The actual subject is chosen together with one's supervisor. The aim is generally to be original, daring, even controversial. There is no need at all for the conclusions to be true or even for you to believe them yourself. They must be plausible of course and not completely mad. After all, you will be cross-examined on the thing during the course of a viva, but some dissertations are pretty outlandish and zany. For example, many years ago at a major theological college, one fellow set out to prove in his dissertation that John the Baptist had lived at Qumran, the desert retreat where the Dead Sea Scrolls are supposed to have been written. This too found its way into the papers, to the horror of the author and amusement of his colleagues. He had not of course actually believed for a moment that John the Baptist was an Essene; the thing had been an intellectual exercise.

One does not in general write a dissertation which proves what everybody thinks anyway. A psychology student writing about education would be unlikely in the extreme to write a thesis which set out to show that the best education for children would be one provided full time at school, beginning when they were rising five and ending on the third Friday in June of the year that they turned sixteen. You want something a little more radical than that; perhaps a suggestion that children need not attend school at all and actually do better at home.

Unless people understand the background to these things, they are likely to take the slightly wierd ideas which from time to time emerge in this way as mainstream research. This is why it can be misleading for newspapers to present such things as having been conducted by Dr so and so at such and such university. I confess that I was surprised and not a little disgusted to see the Telegraph do this. Home educating parents often latch on to odd pieces of work like this and ignore mainstream research on the subject entirely. This can be hazardous.


  1. It might be wise to avoid conflating the news media's response to the content of doctoral theses with the content of the theses themselves. The aim of a doctoral thesis is to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the academic community that one is capable of carrying out independent, original research that adds something to our current body of knowledge. A historical topic could indeed be speculative, but the thesis would be tested effectively - that's the whole point of the exercise, and why it's called a thesis.

    I don't see that it follows that research conducted in the course of a PhD must be inferior to that conducted by someone after they have obtained a PhD; it's the quality of work that earns the title, not the length of time served in an academic institution. Some PhDs are excellent; some academic studies undertaken by experienced professors are drivel. That's why there is a fair degree of rigour in the peer-review process.

  2. Suzieg, you say, "The aim of a doctoral thesis is to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the academic community", but that isn't really the case. The aim is to satisfy a supervisor and two others that the student is cap[able of undertaking serious work. All concerned know that this is essentially a "trial run" for what the student might in the future achieve. One would take a piece of research by Noam Chomsky at MIT rather more seriously than a PhD thesis from Enfield University. It is interesting to see how much of the mythos built up around home education is based upon such things as a PhD thesis by Paula Rothermel. I strongly suspect that in a few years time, home educators will be according Sebastian Sugatte's thesis the same respect!

  3. Well, of course one would take a piece of research by Noam Chomsky rather more seriously than a PhD thesis from Enfield University, but that's only because Chomsky has a reputation gained over many years. There is, however, no reason at all why the student from Enfield shouldn't go on to outshine the venerable professor.

    Just as one should be careful to make a distinction between what newspapers say about PhD theses from the content the theses, the response of home educators to any piece of research is neither here nor there.

    There's a reason why Chomsky and others of his ilk haven't researched home education - PhDs do not have to be daring, or controversial but they do have to be original. A PhD gives a student a chance to research something that truly interests them, and, if they do well, to carve out their own area of expertise within their field. This is significantly more difficult for established researchers who are either at the mercy of the areas of interest of funding bodies, or who have become overworked experts who don't have time to switch research fields.

    In the case of PhD examination, indeed one has to satisfy a 'supervisor and two others'. However, the 'supervisor and two others' are not infrequently established academics with a reputation to think of. Are you proposing a workable alternative method of examining PhDs?

  4. I proposing a change in the way things are done? Heresy, suzieg. Every conservative bone in my body rebels against the very thought. You talk about making a distinction between what newspapers report about a PhD dissertation and what is actually contained in it, but unless one feels inclined to buy a copy from the British Library for £48 or go up to the university's library and hunt around, all we can do is rely upon abstracts. I think that I mentioned before that Paula Rothermel's dissertation was, until November 11th 2009, on her website. As soon as I asked a few awkward questions about it, it was deleted. All that remains are abstracts, none of which contain details of the precise methodolgy used. I have seen this done before. Quite often when one ploughs thorugh the whole of a thesis, it becomes apparent where things might have taken a wrong turn. So yes, I agree that it is unwise to rely upon newspaper reports, but sometimes the authors of the theses themselves make it hard to do anything else.

  5. "I have seen this done before. Quite often when one ploughs thorugh the whole of a thesis, it becomes apparent where things might have taken a wrong turn."

    I know very little about how a thesis is developed and how closely it is supervised whilst being drawn up. If it is supervised and checked at various points by professors, isn't it less likely that a wrong turn will be taken during thesis research than research carried out without supervision?

  6. Simon wrote,
    "This is why it can be misleading for newspapers to present such things as having been conducted by Dr so and so at such and such university. I confess that I was surprised and not a little disgusted to see the Telegraph do this."

    Maybe it's because academics have recognised his achievements and consider them worthy of note and monetary support?

    "The ground-breaking Psychology PhD research, conducted by Dr Sebastian Suggate, has been placed on the University's "distinguished list" of doctoral theses for 2009. Dr Suggate has also been awarded a prestigious Postdoctoral Research Fellowship from the Humboldt Association in Germany to the University of Wuerzburg in Bavaria to further his studies into childhood education."

    Would they do this if this were true of his research?

    Simon wrote,
    "There is no need at all for the conclusions to be true or even for you to believe them yourself. They must be plausible of course and not completely mad."

  7. BTW, the research by Delores Durkin was carried out at a time when it was considered wrong for parents to teach children to read before they went to school. It was believed that children's reading skills would be harmed by amateurs attempting to teach them before the teachers could do it correctly. Durkin set out to prove that learning to read early is not harmful. She says nothing about learning later being harmful. She did find that the children who started reading before school maintained their advantage, but this is hardly surprising in such an unusual group with parents interested in their education enough to go against current advice and teach them to read themselves. A self selected group if ever there was one, making up less than 1% of the local population.

  8. Lodge a complaint with whoever controls the system. PhD theses have traditionally been placed in university libraries and are not published unless parts of them are submitted to journals in the normal manner, or unless they are turned into a book. Most PhD candidates would be happy to send a copy of their thesis to a fellow academic who showed an interest, but are under no obligation to publish their work.

    As far as I am aware, Paula Rothermel put her thesis on the internet because it might be of interest to home educators. If I were her, I too would have removed it. It was in danger, not so much of 'awkward questions' from yourself, but of being used as a political football, (as I think I mentioned before).

    I don't understand why you are so pre-occupied by PhD theses. There are a lot of them out there. They are good, not so good or indifferent. They are a demonstration of the candidate's ability to conduct independent, original research. If they are good enough, a PhD is awarded. If newspapers or certain interest groups make too much of them, that is hardly surprising, since it is in the nature of newspapers and interest groups to do so.

    If you're concerned about possible 'wrong turns' in academic papers, there are plenty of them out there, easily accessible, in full, via Google scholar, just waiting for your attention, Simon.

  9. "You talk about making a distinction between what newspapers report about a PhD dissertation and what is actually contained in it, but unless one feels inclined to buy a copy from the British Library for £48 or go up to the university's library and hunt around, all we can do is rely upon abstracts."

    All going well you should get chance to read his research for the cost of a journal, though I thought you had already read it or could borrow it from a journalist friend who showed it to you last year? You may also be interested to see that he agrees with someone else whose work you recommend. Sally Shaywitz also believes that language development is a better predictor of later reading skills.

    "The last two studies are currently in preparation for submission to publications, although he understands his findings are controversial as this study is the first of its kind to look quantitatively and statistically at this area of childhood learning.

    "This research emphasises to me the importance of early language and learning, while de-emphasising the importance of early reading," he says.

    "In fact, language development is, in many cases, a better predictor of later reading, than early reading is. Secondly, this research should prompt educationalists, teachers and parents to reconsider what is important for children at age six or seven to learn, and third, it may give heart to parents whose children have initial difficulty learning to read. The picture is more complicated than simply early mastery of reading skills."

  10. So have you found any evidence to support any advantage in a general move towards early reading? You suggested Dolores Durkin, but having read some of her research, I don't think she would agree that there is evidence to support this move (though it is a bit old as I've mentioned before). Her point seems to be that early reading, undertaken at the choice of the child, is not harmful. Something that autonomous educators would agree with.

    A Fifth-Year Report on the Achievement of Early Readers
    Dolores Durkin
    The Elementary School Journal, Vol. 65, No. 2 (Nov., 1964), pp. 76-80

    "The data reported here, considered alone or in combination with first-year findings from a second study of early readers, indicate that early achievement in reading has no detrimental effect on subsequent achievement. In fact, some of the data suggest that an earlier start in reading leads to greater achievement in future years.

    Do these combined findings, then, provide positive support for earlier school instruction of reading? Not necessarily. To move from positive findings about children who first learned to read at home to a recommendation for earlier school instruction in reading is to take a big step over a wide gap.

    For the most part, early "home readers" are children who wanted to learn to read. They were persistently curious about letters and words. They had someone in their environment who was willing to answer questions and to stimulate more questions. For the most part, too, these early readers were given the opportunity to learn to read words that were of great interest to them. While some of these words appeared in books, others were found on cars and trucks, on street signs and TV commercials, on labels and phonograph records and packaging and canned foods.

    contrast this approach to learning to read with a typical first-grade reading program moved down to kindergarten. The difference is great; the difference in outcome might be great too."

  11. I think it might help if you were to read a couple of Durkin's books, rather than just odd snippets from th Internet. You might also bear in mind that Durkin here is contrasting the conventional teaching programme of forty five years ago with a relatively new and, to her at any rate, little understood idea of children learning at home. If you are really interested in this, you might try reading "Young Fluent Readers" by Margaret Clark, Heinemann and "Early Literacy", by Joan Brooks McLane and Gillian Dowley McNamee, Harvard University Press. These will provide a good foundation for this topic. You will, I am sure, appreciate that I am not running an online college here. There is plenty of research on early literacy, you need to read some books about it. After the two I mention, you might look closely at the Yale study which I talked briefly about; the results of which were published in 2003. Although they certainly found a few kids with reading problems of unknown origin, differences in brain structure and functioning showed up during the fMRI scanning in those who had had an impoversished environment from a literacy viewpoint. None of this is particularly revolutionary. Parts of the brains of musicians have more neurones than in other people. The same process happens with language. You might want to read a couple of books about the plasticity of the brain in early childhood. "Explaining the Brain", W. Ritchie Russell Oxford University Press would be a good one to start with.

  12. Having read a good deal on the plasticity of the brain, I would be interested to know why you think children with a far from impoverished environment from a literacy viewpoint can still fail to learn to read at the same age as their peers. Any suggestions?

  13. "I think it might help if you were to read a couple of Durkin's books, rather than just odd snippets from th Internet."

    These were not odd snippets from the internet, they were taken from the full research papers.

    I'm not really interested in books that discuss theories and qualitative observations, I'm interested in quantitative research. The books you suggest seem to be descriptions of the experiences of children who happen to be early readers. This is very different from looking at the benefits or otherwise of all children being taught to read early whatever their preference. I can see nothing in the information about these books to suggest that they have carried out controlled studies comparing randomly selected, matched groups who start formal reading education at different ages. This is surely the only way in which your theory that 'learning earlier is better' could be tested. This is why Suggate took up this area of research, because it had not been done and would fulfil the doctorate thesis criteria of research in a new area.

    "You will, I am sure, appreciate that I am not running an online college here."

    Fine, I didn't think you were, but if you rely on research to support your views you should at least be able to quote titles and/or authors so that others can check your interpretation or even learn something and end up agreeing with you. I'm surprised you seem so resistant to providing information that would presumably prove you case!

    "After the two I mention, you might look closely at the Yale study which I talked briefly about; the results of which were published in 2003."

    I would love to read this study, I've read quite extensively on brain development and plasticity, though it was a few years ago. However, without more information I've only been able to find studies that look at children and adults who already have dyslexia. No mention is made of when the differences between their brains and the brains of children without dyslexia occurred. The differences observed could have been caused by the environment or they could have been present at birth. Certainly the researchers make no attempt to specify which is the case so presumably I've not found the study you have read yet.

    I have seen mention of physical differences in the brain at post mortem examination. Would physically visible differences be cause by different levels and types of stimulation? It seems unlikely.

    "A range of neurobiological investigations using postmortem brain specimens (Galaburda et al 1985), brain morphometry (Filipek 1996), and diffusion tensor magnetic resonance imaging (MRI; Klingberg et al 2000) suggests that there are differences in the left temporoparieto-occipital brain regions between dyslexic and nonimpaired readers."

  14. Could this be the Yale study you mention?

    Disruption of Posterior Brain Systems for Reading in
    Children with Developmental Dyslexia
    Bennett A. Shaywitz, Sally E. Shaywitz, Kenneth R. Pugh, W. Einar Mencl,
    Robert K. Fulbright, Pawel Skudlarski, R. Todd Constable, Karen E. Marchione,
    Jack M. Fletcher, G. Reid Lyon, and John C. Gore

    "We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study 144 right-handed children, 70 dyslexic readers, and 74 nonimpaired readers as they read pseudowords and real words."

    "These data converge with reports from many investigators using functional brain maging that show a failure of left hemisphere posterior brain systems to function properly during reading (Brunswick et al 1999; Helenius et al 1999; Horwitz et al 1998; Paulesu et al 2001; Pugh et al 2000; Rumsey et al 1992, 1997; Salmelin et al 1996; Shaywitz et al 1998; Simos et al 2000) as well as during nonreading visual processing tasks (Demb et al 1998; Eden et al 1996). Our data indicate that dysfunction in left hemisphere posterior reading circuits is already present in dyslexic children and cannot be ascribed simply to a lifetime of poor reading."

    Just found another study from Yale and it's the right year! After reading the study my impression is that they believe there are at least two types of dyslexia, one present at birth and the other caused by a poor environment combined with a low IQ. Shaywitz only draws tentative conclusions though and make no claims about proportions in the population.

    Neural systems for compensation and persistence: young adult outcome of childhood reading disability
    Shaywitz,, Sally E. yr:2003

    "Finally, for the first time, results from functional brain imaging studies distinguish two potential types of reading disability. These are consistent with Olson’s suggestion of two possible etiologies for childhood reading disability: a primarily genetic type with IQ scores over 100 and a more environmentally influenced type with IQs below 100 [Olson 1999, Olson et al 1999 and Wadsworth et al 2000]. Though clearly, genetic and environmental factors play a role in reading in all children, it is intriguing to speculate that the accuracy improved (compensated) readers (AIR) subjects may represent a predominantly genetic type, while the persistently poor readers (PPR) group, with significantly lower IQ and a trend to attend more disadvantaged schools, may represent a more environmentally influenced type of dyslexic reader. , ...the environmentally influenced poor readers rarely attend university and may not readily come to the attention of investigators."

    If anything, it seems more likely that formal teaching of reading too early, before the necessary groundwork is there, may be the cause of future problems. If the correct neural pathways are not there as a result of an impoverished environment before school the brain will be forced to develop compensatory and incorrect pathways when formal instruction begins. The better route may be to provide an enrichment programme (being read to, watching TV with the child, looking at print in the real world, etc, all the things that would happen in a household involved and interacting with their children) to lay down the necessary neural pathways (if it's not too late) before attempting formal reading instruction.

    Those with a genetic form seem able to largely compensate for a problem they have a birth (but still have problems significant enough to adversely affect their day-to-day lives), even to the extent of attending university which would possibly explain the middle-class, environmentally rich backgrounds of some dyslexics.

  15. The first thing to note here is that the results from Suggate's PhD research have also been published in a peer-reviewed journal [1].

    Graduating through the PhD process is more a right of passage than a point at which a student is transformed from an unexperienced and unreliable researcher into an authority. Often, students present work at conferences and may publish parts of their research in peer-reviewed papers before writing their thesis.

    Sometimes the PhD is turned into papers later but often goes unpublished for a variety of reasons that don't necessarily reflect on the quality of the research.

    No supervisor or examiner wants to be seen to allow students an easy ride; they act as gatekeepers on behalf of the academic community and their own reputation is at stake.

    Neither the PhD process nor peer review are perfect, but both generally work reasonably well and the PhD process is certainly not as unreliable as Simon would have you believe. Inevitably, work may be superseded, disproved or improved upon; research rarely produces simple truths in black and white.

    We can make some objective statements about Suggate's work:

    1) Suggate was awarded a PhD by Otago University in New Zealand for this work.

    2) Otago is a highly reputable university, globally ranked overall very close to Durham [2]. It is also highly rated for its research [3].

    3) As already mentioned, Suggate's work has also been published in a peer-reviewed journal [1].

    4) Following completion and publication of his work, Suggate has subsequently been awarded a prestigious Humboldt fellowship to carry-out further research in Germany. He was also a finalists for the MacDiarmid prize, a prize for outstanding new researchers in New Zealand.

    Looking at the PhD process in more detail:
    Suggate's work would have been supervised by an academic who may also have read and authorised the submitted thesis. The supervisor would have selected external experts to review the thesis - commonly three in New Zealand - as well as another internal to the department.

    There is likely to have been an interview (viva) to establish that Suggate could defend the work. In British this can range from straightforward to a real ordeal; I know of cases where this took eight hours and the student has come out with a great deal of additional work to do. Generally though, if the student can substantiate their work and shows a wider understanding of its background and context, the degree is awarded, quite often with minor corrections or suggestions for improvement.

    Publishing in a peer-review journal means that the work would have been reviewed by one or two expert referees selected by the editorial panel of the journal and these may remain anonymous to all concerned except the editor.

    Simon appears to be attempting to spread doubts about Suggate, Rothermel and their research simply because it is not consistent with Simon's view.

    Ultimately, more research is needed, but Simon's comments have little merit and his accusation of deception on Suggate's part is scurrilous.

    Readers of this blog should be aware that relying on Simon's comments is much more hazardous than a piece of PhD research from respectable institutions.

    [1] International Journal of Education Research, vol. 48, issue 3, pp 151-161. 2009.

    [2] Times Higher Education Top 200 universities ranking:
    (Durham is ranked jointly with Marlyland at 122, immediately followed by Otago)

    [3] Performance-Based Research Fund - Evaluating Research Excellence. New Zealand Tertiary Education Research Fund.

  16. Thanks for a very clear summing up of the issues anonymous, especially surrounding the processes involved in developing a thesis and in peer review.

    (from anonymous who wrote previously at 10 January 2010 03:28)


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