process, issues and the concept of originality
Department of Education, University of Oxford Vice-chair, UK Council for Graduate Education
European Universities Association 7th EUA-CDE Workshop
Dokuz Eylül University, Izmir 23-24 January 2014
Outcomes of Doctoral Education – Mindset, Research, Innovation
• Evolution of the PhD as a ‘global brand’
• Different assessment models: are they
comparable, do they affect outcomes, do differences matter?
• Paper on the UK PhD: examines concept of
‘originality’ in doctoral assessment and its interpretation at subject level
Bologna Declaration and earlier
• German/Prussian PhD influenced development of all doctorates (17th century)
• ‘Adoption of a system of easily readable and
comparable degrees’ (Bologna Declaration,
• PhD as a qualification was way ahead: a ‘global brand’ for
around a century
Wilhelm von Humboldt ________________________________________________________________________
Alexander von Humboldt
References: Noble (1994:6);, QAA (2012: 31); Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy [online]
A variety of assessment models1
• Thesis (or equivalent) common to all?
• Viva or defence – used in all countries except Australia2?
• Formal requirement for
‘originality’ or ‘contribution to knowledge’
• Licence to become an academic practitioner?
• Timing and nature of
disclosure of final outcome to candidate
• Nature of the oral defence: public, private, or none
• Number of examiners
• Whether or not supervisor can be present
• Requirement for professional practice in some subjects
• Pass/fail or graded
1Kyvik, S. (2014) Assessment procedures of Norwegian PhD theses as viewed by examiners
from the USA, the UK and Sweden. Assessment & Evaluation in HE, 39:2, 140-153
2Group of Eight (2013) The Changing PhD: discussion paper [Online] :
Assessment of the PhD in the UK• Judgement of thesis plus viva
voce in all cases
• A private process – no public
• At least two examiners, sometimes three
• Independent chair/convenor
may be present
• Supervisor may attend with candidate’s permission
• Length of viva: 1.25 – 3.5
hours, depending on subject
Some topical issues
• Do doctoral graduates need more skills than those they use in research?
• Education, or training for employment, or both?
• Importance of doctorate in universities’ research effort and knowledge exchange ?3
3Moreno-Navarro, J. J. (2010). New Regulation for Doctoral Studies in Spain: presentation at 3rd annual
meeting of EUA-CDE, Berlin, June 2010. [Online] Available from:
Assessment of the PhD: ‘Originality’ and its interpretation
• The concept of ‘originality’ in the PhD: how is it
interpreted by examiners?
• Joint authors: Gillian Clarke and Ingrid Lunt
• Taylor and Francis online, recent articles: published 02.01.14
• Explores ways examiners and others interpret the concept of originality when judging candidates’ achievements in the final PhD exam
• Compares two data sets
Clarke, G. and Lunt, I. (2014) The concept of ‘originality ‘ in the PhD: how is it interpreted by examiners? Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. Published online 02.01.14
Structure and content
• Originality and how it is addressed in the literature
• UK and international doctoral qualification descriptors
• Responses to a 2007 discussion paper (QAA)
• Emerging data from a PhD study
Australian Qualifications Framework Council (2013)
Australian Qualifications Framework. 2nd edition.
Bourke, S. and Holbrook, A. (2013) Examining PhD and Research Masters Theses. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education
Delamont, S., Atkinson, P. and Parry, O. (2000) The Doctoral Experience: Success and Failure in Graduate School
Denicolo, P.M. (2003) Assessing the PhD: a constructive view of criteria. Quality Assurance in Education
Johnston, S. (1997) Examining the examiners: An analysis of examiners’ reports on doctoral theses. Studies in Higher
Lovitts, B. (2007) Making the Implicit Explicit: creating performance expectations for the dissertation.
Mullins, G. and Kiley, M. (2002) ‘It’s a PhD, not a Nobel
Prize’: How experienced examiners assess research theses,
Studies in Higher Education
Ostriker, Jeremiah P., Holland, Paul W., Kuh,Charlotte V. and Voytuk, James A.(eds) (2010) A Data-Based Assessment of Research-Doctorate programmes in the United States
Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (2001) The framework for higher education qualifications in Scotland. Glasgow: QAA.
Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (2008) The framework for higher education qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Gloucester: QAA.
Tinkler, P. and Jackson, C. (2000) Examining the
Doctorate: institutional policy and the PhD examination process in Britain, Studies in Higher Education
Tinkler, P. and Jackson, C. (2004) The Doctoral Examination Process
Trafford, V (2002) Questions in a Doctoral Viva: Views from the Inside. Paper presented at the UK Council for Graduate Education Research Degree Examining
George E. Walker, Chris M. Golde, Laura Jones, Andrea Conklin Bueschel and Pat Hutchings (2008), The
Formation of Scholars: Rethinking Doctoral Education for the Twenty-First Century
Formal guidance and criteria: FHEQ and FQHES UK doctoral qualification descriptor:
• Creation and interpretation of new
knowledge, through original research or other advanced scholarship
• Systematic acquisition and understanding of a substantial body of knowledge at the forefront of an academic discipline or area of
• General ability to conceptualise, design and
implement a project for the generation of new knowledge…at the forefront of the discipline
2007 discussion paper about doctoral degrees
Total of 72 respondents, 65 of whom (90%) answered Question 8: How do you/does your institution define ‘originality’ in the context of doctoral study?
Group (a): 31 (43%) of respondents provided their own
definitions of originality
Group (b): 16 (22%) linked originality to publishability
Group (c): 13 (18%) said definitions of originality should be discipline-specific
Group (d): 10 (14%) did not wish to define the concept of originality
Group (e): 3 (4%) emphasised the importance of a common
understanding of originality
Group (f): 2 (3%) wanted a reference to originality to remain within the doctoral qualification descriptor
Group (a) – some of the definitions of originality:
‘a contribution to knowledge, specifically, the extent to which the candidate’s work provides insights into and increases understanding of their field’
‘new knowledge/discovery of new facts arising from an individual’s research or creativity’
‘the application of existing knowledge in a way that
provides new insights into the subject, e.g. through using different approaches or methodology’
‘forms a distinct contribution to knowledge of the subject and affords evidence of originality by the discovery of new facts and/or by the exercise of critical power’
‘the ability to think independently, find solutions to
difficulties and offer fresh insights into existing situations’
Group (b) – respondents linking originality to publishability
‘[Originality] is a red herring. The key is ‘publishable’ – and we are not talking of format but content.’
‘Work that meets international standards of published research’
‘…making a novel contribution to the subject such that it is likely to be publishable in an appropriate journal…’ Other comments: the outcomes of a doctorate should include a requirement to produce work of publishable quality; it should be clear examiners are looking for
thesis containing work of this quality rather than having the expectation the thesis itself should be publishable; a basic quantifier for the quality of the PhD is how
many publications or papers come out of the research
Group (c): definitions of originality should be subject-specific
• What expectations and assessment criteria are used in different disciplines?
• Defining originality is a matter for disciplines, not institutions, because the contribution is to the body of knowledge in the relevant subject Differences between STEM and arts, humanities and social sciences: in STEM, originality often
linked to publication during PhD, whereas in arts etc. more emphasis may be placed on an original research concept / intellectual originality?
Groups (d), (e) and (f)
• Group (d): institutional-level definition of
originality not appropriate; originality should only be interpreted at subject level
• Group (e): emphasised the need for a common understanding of originality, especially for new examiners
• Group (f): reference to originality must remain in the FHEQ/FQHES doctoral qualification
Emerging data from the PhD study • Title: A study of how examiners judge the
achievement of PhD candidates in the final
examination: perspectives, process and outcomes • How do examiners in a range of subjects make
judgements when they assess PhD candidates (thesis and viva)?
• Possible reference points used: subject custom and practice; examiners’ previous experience; external criteria (institutional and other)
Case study design
Stage 1: Negotiate observations and/or interviews. with participating
universities. Obtain copies of
assessment regulations governing the procedure, including any relevant documents used by the institution to guide examiners, candidates and independent chairs, if used.
The case studies
Case studies were carried out on a phenomenon: the doctoral examination process. This design is based on a triangulation approach to each case study, using research methods sequentially.
Stage 3: analyse interview transcripts and examiners’ reports linked to the oral examinations . Note any similarities and differences in the examiners’ decision-making and between university
regulations and guidance.
Stage 2: Observe and take notes
at two to three vivas at five universities. Conduct interviews with candidates, supervisors and examiners (and independent chair, if in attendance), preferably just after final PhD examinations.* Request examiners’ reports for relevant examinations.
Progress with case studies and individual interviews
Candidate Examiner Int Examiner
Ext Supervisor Independent Chair/ Convenor Non-case study examiners University 1 1: SS 1: SS 1: SS 2: SS - University 2 2: B, A 1: B 2: A, B 1: A 2: A, B
University 3 tbi 1: SS tbi tbi - 1: MB
University 4 1: E
University 5 1: MB
Key A = arts MB = molecular biosciences B = biological sciences SS= social sciences
Questions for examiners
• As an examiner, what attributes/
characteristics/abilities/skills are you seeking in PhD candidates? For example, what
questions did you have in mind when
considering the recent candidate’s work (thesis or equivalent) and during the viva? Did you
benchmark the person with other candidates you’ve examined? To what extent, if at all, did you have in mind any external criteria
(including guidance at subject level)?
Questions for supervisors and independent chairs
• How do you think examiners decide whether a
candidate has or has not achieved what is necessary to be awarded a PhD (thesis and viva)? What questions do they have in mind? What attributes /characteristics
/abilities/skills do you think examiners are looking for in the candidate? Do examiners benchmark the person with others they have examined? How do they make their
Questions for candidates
• Before the final assessment of your thesis, and
before the viva, what did you think you would have to do to be awarded a PhD? For example, on what basis did you think examiners would be making
their judgements, about your thesis and about you as an individual researcher? What formal
guidance, if any, are you aware of that suggests what examiners should take into account? And what attributes /characteristics/abilities/skills do you think examiners are looking for in PhD
Overview of responses
• Participants’ refer to the question of ‘orginality’, which is often mentioned in the context of ‘an original contribution’ (Lovitts, 2007: 32)
• They address what ‘originality’ and/or ‘a
contribution to the field’ means for their own subject
• They make it clear that the concept of original work or a contribution to knowledge is only one of the criteria examiners use to assess PhD
Categories of responses to questions Eight groups:
• Originality and/or a contribution to knowledge • Academic level and intellectual rigour
• Quality of data and its analysis • Methodological approach
• Knowledge and understanding (of the student’s own work and the field of study)
• Publication and publishability
• Candidate’s ability to analyse their own work critically and to defend it
• Quality of thesis and ownership of the work
Originality/contribution to knowledge
• To fulfil criteria set by the university, e.g. an
• What is the candidate’s contribution to the field and does s/he have a grasp of the body of literature?
• Has the candidate generated new knowledge
(produced something not done before or added to the understanding in/made a contribution to the field)
• Is it an original contribution and does it tell a coherent story?
Academic level/rigour and quality of data
• Is the work worthy of a PhD – has the candidate created something the examiners can pass? • Does the candidate
show intellectual rigour; does the evidence and argument stand up to challenge?
Quality of data and analysis
• What is the quality of data and its analysis and is there enough in-depth analysis?
• Has the candidate carried out the right statistical
analysis and have they interpreted their data correctly?
• How has the candidate conceptualised the research idea and is the methodology
appropriate and rigorous?
• Can the student defend their methodological choices and argue why they have chosen the methodology used rather than a different
approach; have they considered the alternatives and does their approach withstand scrutiny?
• Has the student understood what they’ve done and can they justify their approach?
Knowledge and understanding
• What is the candidate’s understanding and
awareness of the broader field and the literature? • Have they produced a body of work that is
integrated in the field and shows how the literature has a bearing on what they’ve done?
• Does the candidate understand the importance of controls in their experiments and have they been repeated to check validity and reliability?
• Is the candidate’s coverage and review of the literature sufficient and appropriate? Does the review demonstrate insight rather than just the
ability to summarise? Have the research questions emerged from the literature review?
Publication and publishability
• Has the candidate already published in peer-reviewed publications?
• Is the work ‘publishable’ – of publishable quality?
• In some subjects, expectation that the
candidate will present portfolio of published papers as the thesis
Candidate’s ability to analyse and critique own work
• Is the candidate aware of any weaknesses in their approach and have they considered alternative interpretations?
• At the viva, can the candidate engage in
intellectual defence of the thesis and can s/he cope with unexpected questions?
• Can the candidate think analytically, draw on theory when analysing their research and does s/he bring to bear on it a wider knowledge of the field?
• Does the candidate have the ability to critically appraise their work within the field?
Quality of thesis and ownership of the work
• Is the student’s work independent – their own
rather than their supervisor’s, using ideas they’ve largely developed themselves?
• Has the candidate done the work and do they acknowledge others’ contributions
• Has the candidate been honest: do they have integrity?
• Have the papers cited in the thesis been read? • What is the overall quality of the thesis:
presentation and writing?
• One candidate did not mention
originality in the PhD, instead focusing on the quality of research being
• Another said ‘I think the only criterion
I was really aware of was originality, that you had to make some
substantive contribution to knowledge
• The third candidate confirmed s/he was aware the research had to be original because of guidance by the university, which defined originality in terms of a contribution to knowledge
Conclusions / questions
• Is ‘originality’ the same as ‘a contribution to
knowledge’ or are they different?
• What is a ‘significant’ contribution to knowledge?
• Are there ‘degrees’ of originality and do they relate to the candidate’s overall achievement level?
• How does originality / a contribution to knowledge relate to publishability?
• Do we agree that ‘originality’ can only be defined at
subject level; should we try to define the way iit is interpreted by different subjects?
• Do all PhD candidates who are awarded the degree
meet the ‘originality’ / ‘contribution to knowledge’ criterion, as well as criteria?