Dissertation vs. Thesis vs. peer reviewed paper, what is the difference

What is the real world difference between a doctoral dissertation, a masters thesis and a peer reviewed published paper? Is the dissertation far more in depth than the other two? They all need to be defended in one form or another and all involve research.

Yes, a dissertation is expected to be more extensive and tackle a larger question than a master’s thesis. A dissertation could likely be transitioned into a publishable paper, but it would probably have to be cut and some weaknesses addressed first. Published papers are typically reviewed by several experts in the field first, and their comments have to be attended to before the paper is accepted. Very few articles are taken as is.

So far as I can tell, “dissertation” and “thesis” mean the same thing, though “dissertation” is more often applied to a master’s degree, and “thesis” to a doctorate. The doctorate one will of course be much more in-depth, but the basic idea is the same.

A thesis or dissertation will typically also be published as one or more peer-reviewed papers, as well. But not all peer-reviewed papers (in fact, only a small minority) are theses. The typical peer-reviewed paper would generally not be considered to have the scope for a thesis. A thesis must have some deeper impact than an ordinary paper, and generally requires a higher standard of originality. For instance, a new way to do a calculation might warrent a paper, but probably not a thesis. A way to do an important calculation which nobody had previously been able to do, however, might be a thesis.

And, of course, a given researcher will only publish one thesis (or one per degree) in his career, but he may have any number of other papers.

At least in my field, in addition to being more in depth, a doctoral dissertation is expected to represent original research, that is, not merely repeat what someone else has done. For a master’s it is possible to simply replicate a previous study, though it is probably more usual for it to be based on original research (since many people extend their master’s research into a doctorate). Note that a master’s degree can often be gained by coursework alone; a thesis may not be necessary.

A peer-reviewed paper can be any length, from less than a page to several hundred pages. They also vary greatly in depth, some consisting of a few observations while others are major contributions to the field. Peer-reviewed papers don’t have to represent original research, either; some are reviews or syntheses of existing work.

Level of review is another distinction. Masters theses are usually not reviewed to the same level as a dissertation, and not all schools have a review committee. You always have several professors on your dissertation review committee who have to sign off on your dissertation. (I’ve never heard of a masters dissertation, but for PhD thesis and dissertation are used interchangeably.)

Length is also a factor. Dissertations are much longer then either of the others. Many journals have page limits for papers.

In the old days, dissertations (but not Masters theses) would get copied by a company in Ann Arbor and made available to all. I don’t know if this is still the case now that they can be put on line.

We also have very strict style rules for dissertations, but not so much for Masters theses. This was far more of a pain in the days before laser printers. Just before my time you typically hired a grad student wife to type your thesis, I got to use runoff.

While it is true that you can’t just do a survey for a PhD, dissertations usually start off with a literature survey, to demonstrate that the work is original. I suppose a Masters could be a survey, but I don’t think the departments I was in would have allowed this. ACM has (or had) a journal consisting solely of long survey papers called Computing Surveys.

In some fields the opposite can happen, where a Ph.D. student takes several papers they’ve authored/coauthored and adds more background and details to turn it into a dissertation. This would be more likely in a particularly fast moving field, where if you held off publishing until you had enough for your dissertation, someone would be likely to have scooped your result. For instance this is true in some areas of physics, where many people may be working on the same problem.

My doctoral thesis, as well as my wife’s, as well as other graduate students in our respective fields (genetics and optics) was like tim314 describes – several papers strung together. We have no Master’s program at our school so I will give those a pass.

I had 2 papers, one of which was peer-reviewed and published, and the other was in preparation at the time of my thesis preparation. To prepare my thesis, I wrote a 20-30 page introduction as chapter 1 (kind of a review of the field), took the Materials and Methods sections from each of the papers and put them together for a second chapter, the two papers as chapters 3 and 4, and then a future work section as chapter 5. I obviously changed the references and the figure legend numbering scheme, and manipulated the introductions to each of chapters 3 and 4 to prevent redundancy with chapter 1, and voila. My wife has 8 papers – she will include 3 or 4 of them with a shorter chapter 1 introduction in the thesis she is now writing.

Papers submitted for peer-review are largely self-contained works of science. They are submitted, critically analyzed by fellow scientists in your field (usually anonymously), and accepted (or not) for publication and worldwide distribution. Theses are prepared by graduate students for their boss and their dissertation committee (usually 4 other scientists at your institution that you pick near the beginning of the PhD), and then defended in public and private seminars at your institution. A thesis defense completes the PhD. A thesis, therefore, is not as critically analyzed, not distributed that much (7 copies of mine are in existence, 2 of which are available to the public at large). In practice, this means that much of it doesn’t have to be as polished or as scientifically sound.

What about inconclusive or negative results, are those still used in dissertations or in a thesis?

I have seen scientific papers on subjects like ‘vitamin E for treatment of acne’ (as a guess) where the results and conclusions are that it either doesn’t work or the tests were inconclusive. Can a dissertation or a thesis have a conclusion that is ‘inconclusive’ or ‘nope, all my research/ideas were wrong and this doesn’t work’ or do you actually need to find something that works in order to have an acceptable dissertaiton/thesis?

Wesley Clark
Absolutely. My friend’s doctoral dissertation was 2/3 made up of these two papers:


Yeah, it kind of sucked for her. But a lot of genetics research is about getting lucky. When you spend years and hundreds of thousands of dollars making mouse and fly mutants that have nearly no phenotype, those results need to be reported so the work is not duplicated. While neither of those journals is first-tier, they are reasonably respected journals in developmental biology with impact factors in the 2-6 range, so the papers will get noticed and read and her work will be acknowledged.

Switch dissertation and thesis in the first paragraph and this is correct.

I wrote a 60 page paper for my own personal study. It’s not for credit at any institute of higher learning. How do I get this peer-reviewed so I can improve up on it and others can benefit from it? I have it on openthesis.org, but is there something more?

First, don’t make it 60 pages. I know what was written upthread, 9 years ago, but the journals I’m involved with have page limits and word limits, and a 60 page submission would get rejected without review.

Go to a university library and look up journals in the field of your work. They will have submission instructions, which you will also be able to find online. I say actually look at journals because that will filter out really bad ones. Copy some of the papers in an area near yours and pay careful instruction to the structure of the paper. Papers in each field have pretty standard sections - in mine it is Introduction, Previous Work, Outline of the method, Results, and future work. Other fields will have different structures.

I trust you have searched for previous work in your area. If not, do so now. Experts have a pretty good grasp of what has been done, and if your idea got tried 20 years ago and failed they will know it. You don’t want to get back “Been done - Snerd 2002.”
Have someone read it for spelling, grammar, and logic. Especially logic. Even if it is good bad grammar and spelling errors will put reviewers in a bad mood - and I speak as a reviewer.

If you’ve done all this, select a journal to submit it to, reformat your now shorter paper according to their guidelines, and submit it. If it is at all reasonable you will get reviews. I bet you 10 - 1 it will get rejected, but some of the reviewers will make good comments. Reviewers comments are for the author - to help him or her do a better job the second time, or, if the paper is a revise and resubmit, do a better job for the second pass.

Good luck. What’s your field - maybe someone here can recommend some journals for you to look at.

My masters’ thesis studied a statistical analysis technique proposed in an earlier paper by a member of the department. My research showed that the technique was seriously oversensitive to initial conditions and could not be relied upon. So, yeah.

Just to confuse things: In the UK, undergraduates write dissertations. A thesis would be for a master’s or PhD.

This is very much the case in chemistry. I didn’t even do as much rearranging as edwino.

I’ll note here that the defense is not necessarily required everywhere, and its importance is decreasing, especially in the physical sciences. I’ve never seen anyone fail their defense. It’s turned into a minor hoop to jump through in at least some fields.

Yes. I wrote up my last few months of work into a final chapter. I didn’t learn much from that work, and I wrote a bit about the sorts of experiments that could be done to learn more. AFAIK no one has bothered to follow up.
That final chapter was unusual in my lab. Normally our PI didn’t want us to include unpublished information.

To me, the biggest distinction is that a thesis or dissertation is a requirement to earn a degree. A peer-reviewed paper is simply how we report new discoveries. In a typical career, a scientist will probably only write a single thesis or dissertation, but may author (or co-author) dozens or hundreds of peer-reviewed papers.

Yeah, negative results can absolutely be written up in a dissertation/thesis. You can also get a paper published based on negative results, although unfortunately a lot of people don’t because negative results aren’t ‘sexy’. This is a problem that a lot of people talk about, and it’s been claimed that it biases the literature and our understanding of phenomena (I’m not sure how severe the problem is, but a lot of people claim that it exists, to the extent there was a recent journal that was started with the whole purpose of publishing negative results).

Negative results, as long as the experiment was sufficiently powered, are still data, and still tell us something.

zombie or no

in the natural or physical sciences a Masters would most likely be original research.

While it’s true that almost nobody ever fails a defense, that doesn’t imply that it’s just a rubber-stamp. Rather, it’s that a defense won’t be scheduled until everyone involved (especially the student and their advisor) are confident that it will be successful. In the very rare event that a student does fail a defense, it’s considered to reflect poorly not so much on the student, but on the advisor, who shouldn’t have allowed the defense to go forward to begin with.

Thesis: Master’s Degree
Dissertation: PhD

These are internal to a specific department at a University–they are reviewed by your professors (they aren’t peers).

A journal article is reviewed by people who publish in the journal (peers).