I want to know why some PhD students don't publish their works in a journal.

For example, I have seen many good, high level German theses which were written around 1970-90, but were not published in any journal.

  • 9
    Because journal publication takes too long, perhaps beyond the remaining length of the student's PhD.
    – user2768
    Sep 8, 2020 at 7:14
  • 3
    Why should they want to do this? For many people, journal publicatons are useless. For others, they are useful. USefullness also changed over time
    – user111388
    Sep 8, 2020 at 7:17
  • 26
    Out of the examples you have seen, how many did continue in academia? Also especially back then, when people were less obsessed with useless metrics, publishing the same result twice, once in a thesis and once in a journal, has no benefit.
    – mlk
    Sep 8, 2020 at 7:27
  • 3
    Is this question about 1970-90? Or was that just an example? That is, are you asking Why some PhD students (1970-1990) don't publish their works on a journal? or the question stated? Answers are learning towards the former. Perhaps edit to make it clear what you're asking
    – user2768
    Sep 8, 2020 at 7:36
  • 2
    In Germany, to get the PhD degree publication was not required (I think it is different nowadays), therefore people were not publishing. In most places it is a requirement.
    – Greg
    Sep 9, 2020 at 12:39

8 Answers 8


The obligatory journal publication of scientific work done for a degree, no matter what (think: "publish or perish") is a fashion that spilled over from the US to Europe and especially Germany around the late '80s-'90s. Before that, people bothered only publishing work that they felt was outstanding, and sometimes not even that.

I am aware of work that exceeded in thoroughness and quality by far other publications on the same question that were published more than a decade and half later, where the original authors did not feel that it was up-to-scratch for publication and refused to do what they felt was a "half-baked" work.

One may say it might be desirable if some this self-critical attitude would still be maintained (not in its totality, so much good work went effectively lost this way), it would save one a lot of sub-par reading and reviewing duties today. However, this ship has sailed long ago.

  • 7
    Yes, we'd need more Gauß (pauca, sed matura) again. Sep 8, 2020 at 15:34
  • 5
    @DanielFischer Or Wittgenstein: "Worüber man nicht reden kann, darüber soll man schweigen." ("When one doesn't have anything to say, one should keep silent" - yes, I know this translation is probably not what he meant in his context, but it is a possible interpretation which fits better here :-) Sep 8, 2020 at 15:38
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    It's worth noting that Wittgenstein published none of his work other than the Tractatus. He was appointed a Professor at Cambridge with only one 20 year old publication whose ideas he had already mostly repudiated! Sep 8, 2020 at 16:55
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    @AlexanderWoo Indeed. And neither Feynman nor Goedel would be metricised highly today. Another example is Higgs. Sep 8, 2020 at 17:22

First, in the olden times there was much less pressure to publish, and many researchers would publish only a handful of papers in their whole life, and they would publish only very complete works. I personally know researchers, considered anyway leading researchers in their field, who would publish just once every few years and who retired with probably less than ten published papers. Something that nowadays wouldn't even get you a tenured position.

Second, many PhD students leave academia for industry once graduated, and they may lose interest in publishing their work, right at the moment in which their work is more mature for publication.

  • 4
    If you're off to industry there is no benefit of converting your thesis into the format of a journal paper, even if you go back to academia later on. Your thesis speaks for itself, re-hashing in the form of a journal paper benefits only the rest of the world, which may take notice of the paper in Journal X, but not the thesis itself.
    – Dohn Joe
    Sep 8, 2020 at 8:18
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    @DohnJoe - Not everyone thinks like that. If the paper attracts a citation or a dozen, while you are "off to industry", that can facilitate returning to academia; no citations are guaranteed, but why not shoot for some while the research is still current. Plus the publication process, if the student hadn't published much until that point, is a life experience worth undergoing in itself. Sep 9, 2020 at 8:15
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    My PhD thesis contains (what I and my committee considered) a significant breakthrough in a certain experimental technique. It is French, hence unreadable by most topic experts. Publishing a paper would have required about one month of work on my side for zero tangible interest (PhD publication prerequisites already met, not staying in academia). I suppose many last-year PhD students face the same pile of incentives and end up not publishing even if they care about their topic (and scientific progress in general).
    – UJM
    Sep 9, 2020 at 17:29

There are good answers pointing out things were different in the '80s and '90s. Another thing to keep in mind is the differences between disciplines. There are disciplines, e.g. (some parts of) history in Germany, where journals don't have the standing it has in other disciplines. Slightly exaggerated (but only slightly) the attitude is that the only really scientific publication is a book.

There are good reasons for that: history, by the very nature of the thing they study, is not a very fast paced field. So if the speed of journal article writing is not a big benefit, then why not use the space of a book to make a really thoughtful argument? In those disciplines publishing your thesis in journals is still not encouraged, and in part actively discouraged.


Surprisingly not yet mentioned in the comments or in the 4 answers thus far is that for some people, and this is mostly for the 1970s to early 1980s, there was also the problem of typesetting journal papers for submission if you were no longer in an environment with department secretaries to type your work (because writing papers is not "mission central" at non-research colleges/universities, such as The University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople). The situation was even worse if you were not in an academic position or if you were in a non-academic research oriented position that was not closely related to whatever esoteric subtopic your dissertation dealt with. Obviously this was especially problematic for someone who never learned to type (not all that uncommon before the early to mid 1980s), but even for those with competent typing skills, the task of preparing multiple copies (via carbon copies) of a nearly error-free document, full of math or other technical symbols carefully handwritten on the copies, often just wasn't a sufficiently high priority for the effort needed, especially in those cases where there would be essentially no career or other advantages in doing so.


I can think of a few reasons specific to the period you describe:

  • If these theses were written in German, they would likely have had to have been translated into English for publication. These days it is more common that theses are written in English across Europe, lowering the effort required to adapt the work into a publication.
  • Before the internet, there were fewer journals and no keyword searching. Libraries only had the space for a limited selection of journals. A publication in an obscure journal would likely never be read, whereas these days internet searches allow people to discover papers wherever they are published. Back then, searching for publications in your field meant phoning up a librarian and asking them to search through their index cards (or later, a primitive computer database) for you.
  • Historically, the thesis itself would have been considered a full-on publication. Sharing a print of the thesis with other researchers, checking a thesis out of a library etc. were all more common. The benefit of duplicating the content in a separate publication was therefore lower. These days, physical theses tend to be locked up in a basement somewhere, never to be seen again. If a pdf is published online, it may have restricted access, and will not be indexed by sites such as PubMed.
  • 5
    Translation would not have been an issue. At least in the 1970s most journals accepted papers in German, though few authors published in German. (In mathematics, many journals will still in theory accept papers in German but no one ever takes advantage of this.) Sep 8, 2020 at 16:49
  • In chemistry at least Angew. Chem. (one of the bigger general journals) still publishes a full German language edition (though I think in this case German native speaking authors are encouraged to submit a German and an English language manuscript, and the remainder are translated by the journal).
    – jovisg
    Sep 9, 2020 at 8:19
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    "These days, theses tend to be locked up in a basement somewhere, never to be seen again"? These days, all the universities I'm familiar make all theses available online as pdfs making them more accessible than ever. Is this not universal? Sep 9, 2020 at 12:18
  • @JackAidley No, it is not. In my field there are a few universities that makes their theses searchable and available online, but there are others without any access to their ones.
    – Greg
    Sep 9, 2020 at 12:43
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    @JackAidley I've updated the answer to reflect that many universities do upload online copies of theses, but these are not indexed on the main scholarly websites. Sep 9, 2020 at 17:05

Most of the other answers focus on the theses written prior to 1990 not being published in journals. However, even nowadays theses are sometimes not published in journals for a variety of reasons – including mine from 2017.

This will, depend on the field, obviously; but my thesis was written in organic chemistry which is traditionally a field where journals are valued highly. My specific sub-field (total synthesis of natural products) has a couple of difficulties that, taken together, prevented my work and the work of most of my colleagues during their PhD from being published.

Publications in this sub-field typically consist of a complete synthesis of a large and complex molecule; one entire PhD typically consists of synthesising only one such compound. (In some cases, maitotoxin being the extreme, multiple PhD students work on the same compound over the course of many years, sometimes even in succession.) At the end of one’s time, there are two possible outcomes: a completed synthesis which has a high chance of ending up in a top-tier journal or an incomplete synthesis which, at best, can be published in a very low-tier journal – even if the work itself is thorough, high-level and extensive.

Unfortunately, it is not really possible to predict whether a project will be successful and what time it may take. My project was initially given to a master’s student because it seemed easy to complete and when I took over, I expected to complete it in a year maybe a year and a half and move on to a second project. This did not work out and ultimately another PhD student took over when I was finished – but she also was unable to complete the molecule. In the end, we settled for a partial synthesis in a lesser journal, probably because my supervisor was completely fed up with the compound. This partial synthesis covers maybe 40 % of what I included in my thesis (the PhD student who took over declined authorship, stating that she had provided no significant improvements or additions to my data).

On the other hand, one of my colleagues had a similarly complex molecule but a couple of strokes of luck leading to his completed synthesis being published within his first year as PhD. He spent the remainder of his time synthesising related natural products and derivatives and ended up with three papers to his name. (This being natural product chemistry, there were three people listed as authors: the PhD student and his two supervisors.)

The above leads me to another aspect: publication in a journal is often not mandatory to receive one’s PhD. At my university, publications were entirely optional. On the other hand, instead of writing a separate thesis three (or more) publications of similar or related topics could be submitted together with an introduction and a conclusion in what is known as a cumulative thesis. My colleague who ended up with three papers chose this path.

In other sub-fields of organic chemistry, publications are far more predictable. However, in these fields a PhD thesis often encompasses several individual projects that may or may not be strongly related. Individually, these projects are sufficient for publication, but it might not be possible to publish the entire thesis in one, as the projects aren’t related sufficiently. So the entirety of a thesis may be split across several publications rather than collected into one.

  • 1
    When I started my PhD in analytical chemistry in 2004, the regulations didn't even mention the possibility of a cumulative thesis. It had to be a monograph (I published a bunch of papers alongside. But the thesis has further content which is in no paper, in particular details on side-experiments). Other languages than German required request and approval by either the department or the exam committee (I don't remember which). When I finally handed in 10 years later at a different university, my German monograph was somewhat unusual compared to English cumulative theses. Sep 20, 2020 at 11:56

Well, talking about the period the OP mentions (70s-90s) the 'publish or perish' idea wasn't really a thing. So then chances of publication would depend very much on if the supervisor of the graduated doctoral student had much interest in said students work. Coupled with the fact that staying in touch, co writing drafts and such was harder pre internet. Both of my parents have PhDs (UK, early 1980s) from which nothing was ever published in a journal. My Dad was explicitly told by his supervisor when starting his research 'If you publish, it won't be with me.' (an attitude that mystifies me, but it was the case). Bits of my own thesis (Germany 2010s) remain unpublished as my supervisor was less interested in those particular bits and / or they needed just that bit more work, topped off by the fact he retired a few years after I finished.

So really in summary, there are a whole pile of factors, the ones covered here are just a few examples.


While I don't know about German universities in the 1970s-90s, there is (at least in my experience) a fairly obvious reason why PhD dissertations (and master's theses) aren't published in journals: they're way too long.

The typical journal paper runs about 8-10 pages (per Google and my own experience), while a thesis/dissertation might be closer to 100 pages. Many journals impose page charges - $100-$200 per page - so publishing papers of that length in traditional journals would be financially impossible for many people. https://www.nature.com/news/open-access-the-true-cost-of-science-publishing-1.12676

What often happens (again, in my experience) is just the opposite: the research will be published in several short papers, which will be expanded to form chapters of the final thesis/dissertation. Then too, if the research is part of a larger project, the papers might well be published with several co-authors.

  • Those dissertations are closer to 150-200 pages. The OPs question is about why not publish those results at all, not the specific format.
    – Greg
    Sep 9, 2020 at 12:46
  • @Greg: No, the question specificially says "in a journal", both in the title and the body. Also, if they were not "published" in some form, e.g. on microfilm in the university library, then how did the OP come to see them?
    – jamesqf
    Sep 9, 2020 at 15:47
  • I a not talking about microfilms. The question is not asking why the thesis was not published as a 100-200 pages long article in a journal. Many German graduate student has not published even parts of the thesis at all, ie no "several short papers" or one short paper, nada. It was common around my field (Physics, Chemistry) even with people who become famous professors.
    – Greg
    Sep 10, 2020 at 2:47
  • @Greg: You must be reading an entirely different question than I am :-)
    – jamesqf
    Sep 11, 2020 at 3:21

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