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Under this answer here on Academia StackExchange, Xander Henderson and I observed that there seems to be a large difference between the United States and, for instance, Germany regarding how specific some universities and colleges tend to be with style guidelines for PhD theses (and also other theses):

  • When I did my PhD in Germany (at Ulm University) there was not style or formatting guide at all. There were merely two general regulations about the processes of awarding PhDs (in German: "Promotionsordnungen") - one for the entire university and one for the department. They said that a PhD thesis must contain a title page, a table of contents, a summary, a complete bibliography, a CV, and a certain declaration, but aside from the contents of this declaration no details whatsoever were given (it was not even specified what has to be on the title page).

    From experience, things seem to be similar at other German universities.

  • On the other hand, it seems to be rather common that many US institutions have quite detailed style guides for PhD theses.

    Examples: The format guide of UC Riverside specifies the page margins and says that the text has to be double-spaced. The University of Chicago has similar requirements in this document. The MIT gives their students a bit more choice, but still specifies that "[t]he text of the thesis may be single-, double-, or one-and-a-half-spaced", see here. (Thanks to Xander Henderson for providing those links under the answer linked above.)

I understand why it can, for instance, make sense to specify that certain things have to be on the title pages. But I'm wondering why one would regulate, for instance, the page margins or the spacing between the lines.

Question: I'm interested to understand the rationale - and the cultural or institutional context of this rationale - for having such detailed formatting requirement for a thesis at all and, if one decides to have them, for having them at an institutional rather than at a departmental level.

The "cultural or institutional context" part is important: I'm not looking for a mere list of features or consequences of having such a guide (e.g. "specifying the page margins and the spacing makes it easy to compare the length of different theses"), because this alone is likely to provide little insight. Rather, I would like to understand the context: why do some US institutions find those features and consequences of having a detailed style guide sufficiently important that they choose to impose those restrictions?

Note: I explicitly took the United States and Germany as examples since the question popped up in a dicussion of US vs. German universities (and because I know the German system much better than other countries). If you know the situation in a different country where such detailed style guides are common, I'm of course also very interested to learn the reasons for doing this there.

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    For the UK, I can comment that it is quite frequent to have a detailed guideline. The details vary in between university, some are quite lax, some are very precise. I made a public Latex template for the guideline at my Uni and I spent a lot of time on it. For example page numbering in Arabic, but the preliminaries should be in Roman number. The chapter header should be font 10 points italic not bold, while the section should be... etc
    – JackRed
    Apr 2 at 14:19
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    Example for Newcastle Uni, Edinburgh Uni, Leeds Uni, Heriot-Watt Uni
    – JackRed
    Apr 2 at 14:23
  • During my PhD time in Germany, we had a LaTeX style file going around that satisfied the style required. The same is true for all universities in the US I've worked at. Apr 2 at 15:29
  • @WolfgangBangerth: Do you happen to remember how specific those style requirements were for your thesis? Regarding the LaTeX style file: yes, using templates or style files is of course the way to go if there's a detailed style guide in place. It doesn't explain, though, why some universities consider a detailed style guide a good idea. Apr 2 at 18:21
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    @WolfgangBangerth Weirdly enough, at my phd institution, they provided a LaTeX. This template had not been updated since the 90s, and didn't meet the formatting guidelines. I ended up having to build my own from scratch. I am not a TeXpert, so it is pretty kludgey, but I still get requests for the file several years on. :/ Apr 3 at 17:15

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I got my Ph.D. from a US university with such a style guide now nearly 25 years ago. It annoyed me so I asked, in polite fashion.

The answer I received was a sensible historical reason. Ph.D. theses would historically be microfilmed and distributed to libraries and other interested parties as microfilm, or printed on paper from microfilm. This was done through a single provider, UMI (University Microfilms International).

Dissertation offices developed standards in response to legibility issues that arose through this process, in particular font size and margins due to limitations of the to-microfilm and from-microfilm process, as implemented by UMI. Those standards have stayed due to inherent conservatism, even though in this electronic-pdf age they seem rather obsolete, and were already obsolete 20+ years ago.

I personally experienced that if an old Ph.D. dissertation reprint had something illegible, you would write a letter to the Ph.D. institution's dissertation office, and they would send an individual to the library or archive, wherever the original dissertation was kept. There they would take a good quality photocopy of the page and mail it to you. I expect any such task could easily translate to tightening the dissertation formatting requirements so that it didn't happen going forward, leading to accretion of picky requirements over time.

I asked but didn't get a satisfactory answer about double spacing and obligations on word-wrap and justification, which I felt were particularly annoying and unnecessary. I hazard a guess that interspersed with fully rational and reasonable conditions on resolution/legibility were added other prescriptive standards borrowed from when people actually wrote typewritten manuscripts for University department "working papers" series or similar, that were photocopied and distributed. And from literary agent and publisher historical manuscript submission guidelines, from times when manuscripts needed space for editors and agents to handwrite comments and corrections. But that is my speculation.

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  • All my high school (1973-1977) and undergraduate (1977-1982) term papers had to be double-spaced (at least when they were required to be typed), but I suppose this was for teacher comments. However, I will mention that it additionally made it easier to make white-out corrections. Also writer submissions to journals or popular magazines or as book manuscripts were required to be double-spaced. In checking with many older (1920s to 1950s) Masters and Ph.D. dissertations I have copies of (continued) Apr 5 at 14:35
  • (e.g. 18 Ph.D. and 33 Masters under Chittenden -- I can't believe he doesn't have a Wikipedia page; a strong candidate for "most eminent mathematician without a Wikipedia page" -- photocopied from library copies, from which I then made .pdf scans of) from many different universities, in every case the typed text was double-spaced, except maybe for footnotes or longer quoted passages. Apr 5 at 14:35
  • I meant to include the following in my earlier comment, but forgot. I had looked it up before looking at many of the theses copies I have, and then writing my comment, and I didn't notice I had overlooked it until 30 minutes later (now) when I was closing-out several no-longer needed Chrome windows. Google Books search for thesis + "double spaced", date-restricted to 1910-1940. Apr 5 at 15:05

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