Paper into thesis — thesis into paper

Have you published a couple of papers and now need to turn them into a thesis? Or you have a thesis that should become a paper? The need to revamp a text into a new format is quite common. But how to approach this project and not get overwhelmed? And what about copyright and self-plagiarism? The following strategies show you a path and help you avoid the frustration.

Recently I got two interesting questions in the course I was teaching:

  1. How can I make a PhD thesis out of published papers?
  2. How can I make a paper from my Master’s thesis?

Obviously, these questions came from two different students. Both were overwhelmed by the existing text and didn’t know how to approach the required transformation.

Even if neither of these situations applies to you directly, thinking about them reveals some interesting variations in the approach to writing a research article effectively.

More precisely, these insights will be valuable any time you are not writing a manuscript, report or thesis from scratch, but base it on previous published or unpublished texts.

Copyright and self-plagiarism

When you attempt to create a new text from something that has already been published, a question arises whether you are allowed to recycle (aka copy paste) published parts into your new text.

For the transformations between a thesis and journal articles, what matters are the rules of the journal(s) as well as the institution responsible for your thesis.

In many (if not all) fields in STEM, academic journals typically don’t consider theses — Bachelor’s, Master’s or PhD — to be “proper” publications. So they don’t mind if you copy paste text from your thesis into a research article, or the other way round, include text from your published article in your thesis.

But to be 100% sure, check the copyright rules of the journal in which you have published or want to publish.

In contrast, the rules of research institutions vary widely. So it is essential to carefully examine the official regulations that apply to you and act accordingly.

If you are not allowed to include text from your published article in the thesis, you will need to paraphrase. It can be hard to express the same ideas and points in different words — especially when you look at the original text as you attempt to paraphrase. It might be easier to set the original text to the side, and write a new text based on an outline and the figures and tables.

I. From papers to thesis

Let’s consider the first scenario: you have published a couple of papers and now need to put together a thesis.

If you can’t submit a cumulative thesis where you simply collect all your publications and write some binding text (general Introduction and Discussion/Conclusion), you could try the following procedure:

  1. Start with the results: pull out results from all papers and add any other results that didn’t make it into a paper (and that you find important).
  2. Sort the results into chapters, according to what belongs together. Here it can be helpful to write short captions containing the main message of every figure and table.
  3. Write the text of the Results chapters around the figures and tables. Recycle text from the papers if allowed.
  4. Write the Methods. You can have a separate methods chapter or include a methods section in each chapter, depending on your preference and whether the methods used in the different chapters overlap.
  5. Construct the Discussion and Conclusion sections by pooling all the discussion and conclusion points from your papers. Add anything else that comes to your mind, especially some “big picture” points that are only apparent when you consider results from multiple papers at the same time.
  6. Brainstorm topics for the Introduction and literature review: First note down all the topics you have mentioned in the Introductions of your papers. Then brainstorm further topics and concepts that are relevant for your work, including more general concepts and themes.
  7. Use a funnel structure for your Introduction: move from general to more specific topics.
  8. Dive deep into the literature review. You might need to find and review additional literature not included in your publications. This can be quite some work. Be patient, but don’t overdo it; try to recognize when you have enough. (Article on conducting a literature review is coming soon :))
  9. Write the Abstract and refine the Conclusions if needed.

II. From thesis to paper

If you got some interesting results in your Master’s thesis, your supervisor will probably suggest to “make a paper” out of it. But your thesis is much longer than a paper could possibly be. So how can you condense it, and how to decide what to leave out?

Here are my suggestions:

First, select results and create a storyline. The main difference between a thesis and a paper is the storyline: Thesis can be a collection of various results, but a paper has to have a main message and a clear storyline. Creating a strong storyline is your main task here:

  1. Print out separately all figures and tables from your thesis, including captions containing the message (not just description) of each figure or table.
  2. Identify the main result. Often it is clear what is the most important result. If not, select a few potential ones and discuss it with your co-authors.
  3. Select further results to support your main message.
  4. Order the results in a logical storyline. You might want to assemble individual graphs into compound figures and condense tables, possibly leaving out some details.
  5. Discuss with co-authors: do they approve of the selected results and the storyline? Do they have further ideas or requests?

Then write the manuscript around the selected results. If allowed, recycle text from your thesis wherever it fits. Here is one efficient approach, similar to the previous scenario:

  1. Write the Results section around the selected figures and tables. Keep in mind the main message and the storyline.
  2. Write the Methods section.
  3. Write the Introduction and Discussion section. Start with the one that feels easier. For both sections, check for new relevant references that were published after you completed your thesis.
  4. For the Introduction, select relevant topics from those covered in your thesis. Omit too general topics not relevant for your target audience (that you included in your thesis to demonstrate your knowledge to your supervisor).
  5. For the Discussion, select the relevant points from your thesis. Add further points if they occur to you, especially those related to the “big picture” and implications of your work.
  6. Write the Abstract and create a title.

Recycle and rethink

It might feel frustrating to write about the same research *again*, in another format, especially if you are not allowed to copy paste the previously written text.

But writing about the same topic again leads to more thinking — which can result in a qualitatively better text. You will better understand your own work, its context and its implications. This enables you to write more clearly and persuasively.

So embrace this annoying rewrite. Welcome the opportunity to create a better text with less effort than if you would be starting from scratch 😉

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