Non-academic publishing a theory

Let’s say Joe Schlub has an interest in, say, economics. And he comes up with a hypothesis and model which he thinks is genuinely novel and useful.

How could he go about publishing his idea?

Obviously he could submit to a journal, but do submissions from outside academia get taken seriously (for argument’s sake, let’s say Joe knows enough about writing papers, statistics etc to describe his model rigorously)? Does he have any shot of getting published in a high-profile journal?

Would a better approach be to contact PhD supervisors and present his idea as a possible PhD thesis?

From my own experience, there isn’t much of a chance to simply submit it to a journal. If you can affiliate yourself with the academy, and most usefully some professor in the field who can vouch for you and your theory/writing, then you might have a shot. It doesn’t hurt if you’ve done work in the field you’re writing about to some degree.

But really, it’s a coin toss. Good theories/works are often turned down even when you’ve got a nice thick CV, so I’m not sure I can give much more than that. Anyway, I fully support non-academy scholars contributing their work to academic journals. And to that end, it certainly doesn’t hurt to contact scholars in the academy who can point you in the direction of publications/work that you may have missed without money to access countless numbers of journals and books.

There are two reasons why people spend five to six years in graduate school in economics:
[li]To develop this level of expertise in writing up a model.[/li][li]To become familiar enough with the existing literature to know where the gaps are.[/li][/ol]
It’s not actually impossible to get to this point without going to grad school, but given that graduating PhDs at top schools very rarely have a single paper published, the odds are firmly against an outsider coming up with something good to publish.

As far as the more general question, in theory, yes, an outsider with a good enough paper can get it published. In practice, it may be tougher.

In my area, Computer Science, we are fairly flexible about such matters. Especially since a lot of top people work in industry and even a few with no affiliation at all. I’ve had one journal paper published since leaving academia.

You write up the paper, submit it to an editor of a journal, who farms it out to referees (reviewers) who recommend if it should be published, possibly with changes. (I’ve also reviewed papers since leaving academia. No biggie.)

But that’s in theory. In practice, if the editor has never heard of you and has doubts about what you’re claiming, the paper might be sent back with a “No thanks, not for us.”

You also have the problem of making sure the paper is properly written: format, organization, clarity, citations, etc. That’s why we go thru PhD programs, to learn how to get all that right for our field.

Once in a while someone from left field comes along with a paper claiming to prove P=NP or some such. Given the significance of the claim, the editor will usually treat it as a real paper if it seems like a serious submission. (Not written in crayon on a napkin, for example.) They have all been quickly shown to be flawed, of course, but they are checked out nonetheless. (One I saw had an obvious flaw in a construction on page 3.)

As for the PhD part. Getting a PhD is a lot more involved than just writing a thesis. You’ll come off as a crank going that way. Not good.

If you want to “protect” your work, i.e., establish it as original, try a respectable online site like If an issue arises, you can always point to your submission and say “Hey, I wrote about that in 2012. Here’s a link.”

The key to all this is to do the opposite of what a crank would do. If you can’t tell the difference between a crank’s paper and a real paper, give it up.


Are you speaking of economics only? Because I (and pretty much 1/2 everyone I know who got even a MS in engineering) published at least once.

Yeah, that’s specific to economics. It varies pretty heavily by discipline, with the lab sciences at the high end of the spectrum.

Thank you for the clarification.

I only know one very famous academic writer who is not, nor ever has been an academic AFAIK. She does have her Ph.D., but is a cloistered nun in or near a Carmelite monastery. Claire Ortiz Hill. I gather it’s a hassle for her to acquire books she needs for research, but she is prolific, abundantly published in books and journals, and has the respect of anyone involved in phenomenological research.

So I guess it’s possible. ETA didn’t see only econ was at stake – FWIK, it’s the same in any field, though. Obviously phenomenology formal logic is a deductive hard science, so I guess that proves the point that it gets rarer the more difficult a discipline is.

And cross-disciplinary work can famously be published. Martin Bernal, Sokol, Blosser. Martha Nussbaum probably counts. Too many examples, probably, to really name.

As a biologist, I have a hard time imagining anyone who’s not also a biologist having the interest, equipment, and expertise to make a significant contribution. One possible exception could be in the field of bioinformatics, which is getting bigger and bigger. Lots of biologists are making their careers doing research entirely on computers, never setting foot in a “wet lab”. With a sufficiently high-powered computer, access to lots of publicly available databases of genetic information, and plenty of time, an amateur could produce publishable results. The hard part there would be for them to come up with interesting questions to ask.

FYI I picked economics out of the air, because I thought it might be a feasible thing for the layman to contribute e.g. it doesn’t require access to the latest high-tec equipment. But sounds like I chose poorly.

And I wasn’t asking for myself. I’m not deluded enough to believe I have come up with anything publishable in a subject I haven’t formally studied. Just wondering what if?

Thanks for the responses.

Can you expand on this for the sake of the discussion a bit? IME besides performing research, delivering papers at colloquia (even if they never get published), joining professional associations, having a University mailbox (you know, so you can get sample desk copies of books and such, er, for evaluation purposes), there’s not a whole lot else. What am I missing?

I’m an industrial chemist, not an academic. I don’t have any publications or patents, but there is plenty of material in the literature from industry labs. This is either stuff that is already covered by patent and can then be published in the open literature or stuff that, while interesting, was determined to not have a commercial application. So it’s not out of the question that I will eventually have no publications from academia but be a co-author on some from work. Heck, at least one journal (Organic Process Research and Development) is basically nothing but industrial chemistry and often on pretty large scales at that.

As for getting a PhD, there are classes, teaching loads, preliminary exams (to allow you to actually study for a PhD), comprehensive exams, and oral exams. A lot of time is (in theory) expected from the PhD candidate to study the literature and learning material not otherwise covered.

Oh – I get you now. I just put all that stuff under hoops you go through to actually begin “writing.” Yeah, of course you don’t just write your book in mom’s basement – your team and your department has to let you continue. That and fellowships, of course teaching is a major part of the doctoral experience. I was short-cutting out on some of the more basic requirements, because I thought it was understood.

In fine, essentially all doctoral students become members of the academy, ideally, such that finding a tenure-track (or…spit…adjunct) job is basically pro forma. Didn’t state my question clearly enough. Thks.

Interesting. Is it sometimes (or even ever) the case that a person gains admission to graduate school primarily on the strength of a thesis or dissertation idea that they already have? I understand that lots of people get to grad school and then drop out when their research goes nowhere. Is it meaningfully possible to pursue admittance not on the strength of your undergrad, but on the fact that you effectively already started on your thesis or dissertation? Is it possible (not easy, but possible) to write a dissertation at home and then submit it for PhD consideration, and if it’s deemed up to the level of PhD expectations, you get the degree?


Professor: “We usually don’t admit anyone to the program without at least a 3.7 undergrad GPA and at least one glowing recommendation. Nonetheless, a quarter of our students drop out when their research goes nowhere. This guy <holds up application> has only a 3.3 and only lukewarm references from undergrad proessors but he already has serious thesis idea that I’ve gone through and it looks promising. Let’s let him in!”

While the thesis is what gets you out with the right letters after your name, in some fields it’s becoming a formality. In chemistry, often nobody looks at your thesis or cares about your thesis. To get a job, you need to have published papers. When it comes time to leave grad school, you take all the papers you published, reformat them to meet the school’s specs (double space, ludicrous margins, table of contents, etc.), slap them together, and call it a thesis. Or dissertation. Or whatever. It ought to take just a few weeks (mine took longer because two of my chapters were papers that I was still writing). I don’t think my committee looked at it. I didn’t even defend it, as it was too big a hassle for all parties involved.

As always, YMMV. I know of at least one chemist who has some unusual expectations about his student’s theses, but we all make fun of him.

I may not be the only person having trouble following this.

Not in any respectable US university that I know of.

Just being admitted into a PhD program is non-trivial. You need suitable academic background (usually* at least a Bachelors in the field), good scores on tests like the GRE, good grades, and letters of recommendations from professors.

Note that nowhere on that list is “Hey, I’ve already written a thesis!”

Once in, as noted, you have to take advanced classes (including doing presentations in seminars), pass one or more sets of exams, get taken on as a student by an adviser (sometimes the hardest step, lots of stuff involving grants and such in many fields), defend the thesis proposal, do the research, write the thesis, defend it. So there’s a lot of major hoops to jump thru just to get to “Hey, here’s my thesis.” stage.

It’s like claiming to throw a 100+mph fastball and expecting to start with the Yankees next week. There’s a lot more than speed in being able to pitch at the major league level. Having 100+ pages of something written down won’t make you a major leaguer in academics either.

It’s a deliberately tough, stressful process. People get weeded out on purpose. At one school, we had a promising PhD student who committed suicide. The media view of the cushy life of academics is a complete myth.

(BTW, in my experience in CS, if your thesis doesn’t have at least a couple of publishable papers within it, it’s not going to pass muster. Many people have 3 papers (including my own PhD students) and I had 4.)

*“Back in the day” in Computer Science, since there weren’t many undergrad programs in CS, we’d take people with Math and whatnot degrees. But that’s quite uncommon now.

But could the fact that you have already written a thesis(or dissertation) or have made substantial progress toward one actually count toward admission?


Professor: “We normally wouldn’t admit someone with your background to the Master of Science in Quarky Fnooks without prior study, but I see that you have already written a draft thesis on an original topic in the field. You’ll need to take these classes and pass qualifying exams, but you’ll be able to relax come thesis time because this is, honestly, pretty good and you’ll only need to adjust your style here and there and find a more recent reference for the cite on page 5. The fact that you pretty much already wrote an original thesis demonstrates to me that you are likely to do well in the classes and the qualifying exams, good luck!”

There’s some research suggesting that doing research and writing a dissertation requires a very different skillset from taking classes and passing qualifying exams, so it’s not clear that such a candidate would make it through the program. Really, things like this would be handled on a case-by-case basis, as there’s no value in having a policy regarding events that just don’t happen.

One thing I think some people are confused about is thinking that the thesis is the sole purpose of going thru a PhD program. The whole program is training people to become professional contributors to the field. The thesis is just one component of that process.

You need a bunch of skill sets to make it thru. Possibly having one of those skills (writing something long), doesn’t mean you have the other ones.

Plus most academics (including me) have seen way too many cranks to automatically take seriously some nobody off the street who claims to have written a publishable thesis. First instinct: You’re a crank. Second instinct: You’re a crank.

There’s a lot of people applying for admission. Why takes chances on a possible crank?

If you really do have something amazing, don’t mention it at all. Just apply like a regular person, go thru the first couple years of classes and exams. Then sort of bring it up in a round about way. (This is not wasting your time. You have to do that stuff anyway.)

Note: Especially in the Sciences, profs have areas of research interest, grants covering certain topics, goals to fulfill, etc. If your thesis doesn’t match up with a prof, you might not find anyone who will take you on as a student. Their time and resources are finite. Reality is what it is.

Well, it was kind of a joke that anyone with a doctorate goes straight to Associate. But what wasn’t a joke is that in many ways gaining a doctorate is kind of an indoctrination into academia – you learn trivial things about power structures and inside dirt on supposedly-vaunted academics. That’s all BS, but you become an academic by spending years “working” (for often very little pay/stipends) in academia.

BTW I don’t know about physical sciences – I spent about seven years, including a two-year teaching fellowship (well-paid) working on my doctorate in Comparative Literature, but just burned myself out, despite having a team of three ready to advise and sit for my dissertation. And not the bad kind of Comp Lit either – the kind that uses hard science as a foundation for literary criticism. IE not the bad French kind. Sounds kind of similar thing, though.