Academic Observer

Great Dissertations: Mark I

A year ago in the Observer, I wrote a column on “Dissertation Dilemmas” which focused on varying perspectives on the dissertation. In some scholars’ views, the dissertation should represent a grand intellectual achievement, whereas in other conceptions it is simply a modest hoop through which a student jumps to satisfy a requirement. Because all graduate students must write a dissertation and because it is at least intended (in the criteria set forward by most universities) to represent “a significant contribution to knowledge,” I suggested that it would be useful to have a list of “Great Dissertations in Psychology.” There could even be a course offered by that name in graduate school, so students could prepare for their own magnum opus by reviewing great works that had preceded them. I invited APS members to write to me with nominations of “great dissertations” so that I could publish the list, and I specified some criteria that might be met for such a distinction.

I have received many letters, comments and nominations resulting from this column. I suggested in the column that a great dissertation should be one that had impact on the field and I adopted (rather arbitrarily) the criterion that a published dissertation should be cited over two hundred times to be considered a classic dissertation. After receiving objections from many, I backed off on this criterion. For purposes of this column and the list that accompanies it, I used the criterion of 100 citations (and yes, that is arbitrary, too). Citations measure impact of an article on the field, but of course other definitions are possible. Perhaps the dissertation won an award. Many universities give awards for “best dissertation” and some APA divisions offer such awards, as do other organizations. These dissertations may be quite deserving, but an award-winning dissertation may never even be published and therefore never make much of any impact on the field. (“Famous unpublished doctoral dissertations” is not quite an oxymoron, but would have to be the topic of another column.) Dissertations that were published and that were widely cited did, by definition, make an impact on the intellectual field to which they belong.

The list accompanying this column is somewhat arbitrary in other ways besides being based on citations. To make an obvious point, a dissertation had to be nominated by someone. The list is no doubt woefully incomplete. Dissertations that had a great impact but were not called to my attention did not make the list. (Don’t blame me if you think of one; blame yourself for failing to nominate it). I suspect there are biases of area built into the list, too, because many cognitive psychology dissertations appear on it. I suspect this is not because more classic dissertations are likely to emerge from cognitive psychology, but instead that my friends are more likely to read my columns and write to me than are people in other fields. Someone wrote in with a nomination of a master’s thesis, so I thought I should add that to the list. After all, sometimes there is not much difference between master’s work and dissertation work. So far I have only found one person whose master’s thesis and dissertation both became classics – Mary Susan Weldon of the University of California, Santa Cruz.

One difficulty in defining a classic is the fact that it may take years for 100 citations to accrue to a very good piece of work. A dissertation published in 2000 could not be listed as a classic here unless it were cited 25 times a year over four years, which is rather unlikely. As a partial solution to this problem, the list of dissertations is ordered by mean citations per year (that is, total citations divided by the number of years since publication). Patricia Devine’s dissertation, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology as “Stereotypes and prejudice: Their automatic and controlled components” clearly stands out among relatively recent dissertations. It has been cited 798 times since 1989, or an average of over 53 times a year!

There were nominations of articles that did not make this list, usually because of citations. My record keeping over the past year may also have caused inadvertent omissions; my apologies in advance for oversights. This list will appear on the APS Web site and will be expanded in the future. If you have a nomination, please send it to the Observer.

In future issues of the Observer, the editor will invite the authors of the great dissertations and masters’ theses to write articles about them. Where did the idea come from? What was the role of the major professor? Of the committee? Was the dissertation considered high risk by the committee? Did some people advise against doing this project for the dissertation? What snags had to be overcome along the way? How difficult was it to convert the long dissertation into a compact journal article? What were the reviewers’ and editor’s reaction to the submission? Did the paper get immediately accepted with glowing remarks (not very likely)? What advice should be given to someone just embarking on a doctoral dissertation?

By the way, for those of you recalling my laments from last year’s column about my own dissertation, it (Roediger, 1973) has inched its way up to 90 citations, according to the Web of Science database. Therefore, give it another decade or so and it might be a citation classic, as long as one does not factor the rate of achieving 100 citations as part of the measure of a “classic” – and as long as one does not subtract self citations. In that case, it might never make it. Another criterion could be that a great dissertation must achieve 100 citations within 10 years of publication, not over 30 years. I’ll turn this issue over my psychometrically inclined friends.

Author’s Note: Jane McConnell helped in the citation counting for this article.

Great Dissertations

Submit a nomination for a great dissertation to Nominations must include name, title, publication, date, and number of citations to be considered.

The list of great dissertations is ordered by mean citations per year (total citations divided by the number of years since publication). Dissertations must have 100 citations to be eligible.

Name Title/Journal Year Published Citations Mean
Devine, P.G. Sterotypes and prejudice: Their automatic and controlled components. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 56 1989 798 53.2
Kaiser, H.F. The varimax criterion in factor analysis. Psychometrika, 23 1958 1986 43.2
Markus, H. Self-schemata and processing information in the self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35 1977 1119 41.4
Neely, J.H. Semantic priming and retrieval from lexical memory: Roles of inhibitionless spreading activation and limited-capacity attention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 106 1977 1081 40.0
Blaxton, Teresa Investigation dissociations among memory measures: Support for a transfer appropiate processing framework. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 15 1989 415 27.7
Rajaram, S. Remembering and knowing: Two means of access to the personal past. Memory & Cognition, 21 1993 237 21.5
Sperling, G The information available in brief visual presentation. Psychological Monographs 74(11, Whole No. 498) 1960 933 21.2
Jones, T.A. & Schallert, T. Use-dependent growth of pyramidal neurons after neocortex damage. Journal of Neuroscience, 14 1994 185 18.5
Aserinsky E. & Kleitman, N. Regularly occurring periods of eye motility, and concomitant phenomena, during sleep. Science, 118 1953 784 15.4
McDermott, K.B. The persistence of false memories in list recall. Journal of Memory & Language Special Issue: Illusions of memory, 35 1996 116 14.5
Barsalou L.W. Ad hoc categories. Memory & Cognition 1983 297 14.1
Swets, J.A. Decision processes in perception. Psychological Review, 68 1983 297 14.1
Weldon, M.S. Mechanisms underlying priming on perceptual tests. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 17 1991 158 12.2
Weldon, M.S. & Roediger, H.L. Altering retieval demands reverses the picture superiority effect. Memory & Cognition, 15 1987 179 10.5
Neill, W.T. Inhibitory and facilitatory processes in selective attention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance, 3 1977 269 10.0
Loevinger, J. Objective tests as instruments of psychological theory. Psychological Reports, 3 1957 397 8.4
Eich, J.E. The cue-dependent nature of state-dependent retrieval. Memory & Cognition 1980 192 8.0
Balota, D.A. Automatic semantic activation and episodic memory encoding. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 22 1983 161 7.7
Reber, A.S. Implicit learning of artificial grammars. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 6 1967 254 6.9
Thorndike, E.L. Animal intelligence: An experimental study of the associative processes in animals. Psychological Review, Monograph Suppl., 2 1898 306 2.9

More Great Dissertations

Great dissertation nominations did not appear in the original article. Nominations still must have 100 citations to be eligible. Nomination accuracy is the responsibility of the nominator.

Name Title/Journal Year Published Citations Mean
Abramson, L. Learned helplessness in humans: critque and reformulation, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 87, 49-74. 1978 2356 90.6
Schneider W., & Shiffrin, R. M. Controlled and automatic human information processing: I. Detection, search and attention, Psychological Review, 84, 1-66. 1977 1729 64
Coyne, J. C. Depression and response of others. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 85(2), 186-193. 1976 548 19.6
Fischhoff, B. Hindsight = foresight: The effect of outcome knowledge on judgment under uncertainty. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 104, 288-299. 1975 533 18.4
Meyer, B. J. F. The organization of prose and its effects on memory (book). Amsterdam: NorthHolland. 1975 498 17.2
Coyne, J. C. Toward an interactional description of depression. Psychiatry, 39, 28-40. 1976 456 16.3
Templer, D. I. The construction and validation of a Death Anxiety Scale. Journal of General Psychology, 82, 165-77. 1970 447 12.8
Curran, T., & Hintzman, D. L. Violations of the independence assumption in process dissociation. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 21, 531-547. 1995 113 12.6
Marsolek, C. J., Kosslyn, S. M., & Squire, L. R. Form-specific visual priming in the right cerebral hemisphere. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 18, 492-508 1992 149 12.4
Reicher, G. M. Perceptual recognition as a function of meaningfulness of stimulus material. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 81, 274-280. 1969 365 10.4
Reder, L. M., & Ritter, F. E. What determines initial feeling of knowing? Familiarity with question terms, not the answer. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 18(3), 435-451. 1992 119 9.9
Wheeler, D. D. Processes in word recognition. Cognitive Psychology, 1, 59-85. 1970 315 9.5
McNamara, T. P. Mental representations of spatial relations. Cognitive Psychology, 18, 87-121. 1986 153 8.5
Friedman, A. Framing pictures – Role of knowledge in automatized encoding and memory for gist, Journal of Experimental Psychology-General, 108(3), 316-355. 1979 203 8.1
Mitchell, D. B. How many memory systems? Evidence from aging. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 15, 31-49. 1989 117 7.8
Rayner, K. The perceptual span and peripheral cues in reading. Cognitive Psychology, 7, 65-81. 1975 208 7.2
Fischhoff, B. & Beyth, R. “I knew it would happen”: Remembered probabilities of once-future things. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 13, 1-16. 1975 207 7.1
Lee, T.D., & Magill, R.A. The locus of contextual interference in motor skill acquisition. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 9, pp 730-746. 1983 137 6.5
Logan, G. D. Attention in character classification: Evidence for the automaticity of component stages. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Genera, 107, 32-63. 1978 167 6.4
Morrison, R. E. Manipulation of stimulus onset delay in reading: Evidence for parallel programming of saccades. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 10, 667-682. 1984 135 6.4
Rushton, J. P. Socialization and the altruistic behavior of children. Psychological Bulletin, 83, 898-913. 1976 129 4.6
Meyer, B. J. F., & McConkie, G. W. What is recalled after hearing a passage? Journal of Educational Psychology, 65, 109-117. 1973 120 3.9

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