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I am currently writing up my PhD thesis and have the following issue. I wrote a paper during the PhD thesis, the result of which was developed further by third parties without my involvement. From the perspective of my published paper, this new result lies in the future and is of course not mentioned in the paper. However, at the time of writing the PhD thesis, this result is available and may be relevant for the readers of the PhD thesis.

Should the PhD thesis contain a reference to the third party paper?

Presumably the answer to above question is yes in one form or another. A more detailed question is then: How should it be included? I can imagine multiple options.

  1. If the result is relevant to the general scientific scope of the thesis it probably warrants an explicit mention in the introduction, explaining that the work is based on the result in the thesis.
  2. Let's say there is a close technical connection and the third party paper improves upon some aspects of the original result. Would it be appropriate to even summarize this progress rather than simply mentioning it?
  3. If the result is not directly relevant to the scientific scope, it is presumably omitted in the thesis.

This question is generally about whether the PhD thesis is meant to reflect the state of research at the time of writing or at the time of the published results that are summarized in the thesis. An answer to the above examples would already give a lot of insight, but I am also interested in the general attitude towards this issue.

As a side note: In some countries, cumulative theses (also called "staple theses") are allowed, which are simply an accumulation of the published papers with an introduction added. Since this form would most likely not contain any mention of the third party paper, I started thinking about what a normal PhD thesis should be doing in this regard.

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Some options:

  • Explanatory footnotes often work well and can be used to 'talk across time' so to speak;
  • Appendices can also be used for covering material that may be out of sink, if you think you need to go into more detail;
  • An afterword can also be an appropriate way of accounting for developments between the time of writing and the time of publication. This is fairly common practice.

Basically most examiners will view the dissertation as YOUR journey through the research, rather than as an exact snapshot of the state of play in your area.

HOWEVER - they will be looking for (and be impressed by) you demonstrating that you know what good practice looks like in your field of research, and this extends to how you handle (and acknowledge) circumstances of this kind.

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It depends a bit on the school and, as you point out, some theses format will not have this.

Nevertheless, it is often a good idea to write a “background” chapter that would place your work in the context of current research. Current here means a few years and in a case of a PhD thesis can span the lifetime of your thesis rather than the last few months. So the answer to your 1. is yes.

It is always nice if one’s work is a starting point rather than an endpoint; such a situation would increase the value of the candidate’s thesis, and I would certainly highlight that others have followed up on some of the early work of the candidate, and explain briefly how this feeds back to the context of the thesis. So to your 2. I would answer yes.

If the new results are only tangentially relevant, the general point of the previous paragraph applies although something more concise is appropriate: “this idea was developed in another direction by Author A.”

You don’t want to ignore the work of others: you wouldn’t in a publication. On the other hand, authors don’t spend a lot of time talking about other’s work unless it’s directly relevant to the context of the current work. I tend to think of a thesis as a “archival” paper (a mini-review of one’s work on the problem during the PhD period).

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