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«The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research Gordon Rugg Marian Petre THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PHD RESEARCH THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PHD RESEARCH Gordon Rugg and ...»

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Critical reflections section Some people favour a critical reflections section in which the writer reflects on what they have learned during the research process, and on what they would do differently knowing what they know now. Other people believe that this is pretentious navel-gazing at best, and gratuitous pouring of blood into the water at worst, not to mention a gross breach of the third golden rule (don’t panic and blurt out the truth). We can appreciate the arguments on both sides.

Sometimes a critical reflections section is a requirement for MSc theses. If you are an MSc student reading this book with an eye to the future, and this is the case for you in your MSc, then you don’t have a lot of choice about omitting the critical reflections section completely. All is not lost, however, if you are in this situation. Here are two examples.

Bad example I realize now that my questionnaire was poorly constructed, and would pay more attention to constructing it better if I started again.

(Subtext: I am a raw amateur, ignorant and low in self-worth; there is no good in me.) Good example It would be interesting to compare the rough set theoretic analysis used here against Rosch’s concept of prototypical set membership with fuzzy boundaries.

(Subtext: I analysed my respondents’ categories using a state-of-the-art mathematical approach which few people have even heard of, instead of boring old standard content analysis. I am also familiar with a completely different approach from a completely different discipline, which not


many people have heard of. I am not the sort of person who pours blood into the water at any time, and I certainly don’t plan to start doing it now.) As might be apparent from the closing sentence of the allegedly good example, there are potential dangers in sending out too strong a signal of this sort, so this approach needs to be used with discretion.

Reading a lot You need to read a lot. You need to read a lot in your own discipline (so that you have a thorough grasp of what it is all about) and in other disciplines, both apparently relevant and apparently irrelevant. Much of the best work comes from cross-fertilization between apparently unconnected fields.

In your own field, you should read in depth and in breadth and in time – you should have a detailed knowledge of the relevant literature in your chosen area, and a general knowledge of the main work in related areas, and of previous work in your area for as far back as possible. For your own area, you should be reading everything up to and including the most specialized journal articles. For other areas, you might find book chapters a more appropriate level (though be careful about the level of the book – don’t even think about popular books for the lay public, and be wary of textbooks unless they are prestigious ones).

Reading habits of lifelong readers

• Steady consumption. The idea is not so much to read voraciously as to read regularly. Use a tortoise strategy, rather than a hare.

• Always carry reading with you – use the ten minutes on the train platform, or while you’re waiting for your supervisor, or between seminars, or while dinner is cooking.

• Leave papers in the loo.

• Keep an annotated bibliography – and keep it up to date.

• Find a regular reading time, about an hour a day. For many, this is first thing in the morning. Don’t go straight to your office; go to the library first for your hour.

• Read books as well as papers.

• Most great readers are a little obsessive and like to get a sense of ‘completeness’ when they’re reading on a new subject. Many ‘map’ the key writers.

• Make sure all your photocopies of papers have full citations on them, down to the ISSN or ISBN and page numbers.

• Most great readers maintain more than one reading strand – so morning time may be technical reading, but bedtime is philosophy reading.


• Read a chapter every night before you sleep, no matter how tired you are.

• At conferences, carry the proceedings to the sessions with you and annotate the paper with your notes during the talk.

• Even when you find a paper uninteresting, cast your eye over the remainder, so that you have a portrait of the contents.

• Use your network to filter your reading, hence increasing the interest level of what you pick up.

• Join (or form) a reading group, or find a reading buddy.

• From Feynman (as recalled by Michael Jackson): when reading something difficult, if you get stuck reading something, start again from the beginning (this allows you to rehearse the early sections, correct misunderstandings that accumulate and benefit from elapsed time).

• Elapsed time can help: skim-read the material, then set it aside briefly before coming back to read it thoroughly.

Using material from the literature You will never lose by giving credit. Indeed, you are likely to gain respect and trust by doing so fastidiously.

Plagiarism The interpretation of what constitutes plagiarism is subject to cultural variation, but it’s the British academic interpretation that applies to your work, and the British academic interpretation is strict: plagiarism is using someone else’s ideas, words or material – directly or indirectly – without giving them credit.

The rules are very clear:

• Any time you use ideas, words or material of any sort that relates to a specific source, you must attribute it to that source. Paraphrasing (restating) still requires attribution.

• Any time you use someone else’s works verbatim, you must put them in quotation marks and attribute them to that person.

Let’s be absolutely clear. Plagiarism is academic suicide. In British academia, plagiarism is a ‘mortal sin’. If your dissertation plagiarizes, you will fail. If you submit work for publication that plagiarizes, your work will be rejected and you will be blacklisted. So, if in doubt, attribute.

Uses of citation Authors convey many things through their use of the literature. Some of what they ‘say’ is about the content of the paper (instrumental use). But some is

about themselves (expressive use):


• establishing your authority;

• siting your work in existing knowledge;

• coverage – showing that you know the conventions, what is expected;

• depth – showing you’ve come to grips with esoteric aspects of the literature;

• excluding areas you don’t want to cover, while indicating that you do so informedly;

• showing respect for your referees;

• establishing a justification for your research question;

• establishing a justification for your methodology;

• establishing a justification for your analysis;

• providing a theoretical context or perspective;

• corroborating your findings.

Consider the following:

• If you cite a philosophical text from 1925, what are you saying?

• If your bibliography contains mainly books, what are you saying?

• If your bibliography includes the three key players in the field, what are you saying?

• If your bibliography includes only papers published in the last two years, what are you saying?

• If half of your bibliography is self-reference, what are you saying?

• If your citations appear in clumps (e.g. Sponge 1982; Bloogs 1998; Gloomer 2002), what are you saying?

Now try the following:

• Look at the first page of a few published research papers.

• How many citations are there?

• How are they grouped?

• Where does the first citation arise?

• What sorts of paper are cited? Are the titles general, or specific?

• When were they published? Who are the authors?

• Look at the discussion/conclusion portion of the papers.

• How many citations are there?

• How are they used?

• Are they the same citations that appeared in the background/introduction, or are they different?

–  –  –

A critical flaw in classic Marxist theory, identified clearly in Mackay’s classic work on the topic, is that Marx was not only writing before system theory, but also before even deterministic game theory. Mackay’s recasting the Marxist enterprise in terms of system optimization versus subsystem optimization via multi-goal stochastic game theory, brilliantly synthesized with a version of possibility theory which incorporates schemata usage in implicit behaviour and provides a firm grounding for political thought in what might be termed the mathematics of virtue.

After some frenzied work with an encyclopaedia and the internet to discover what the technical terms mean, you realize that you have stumbled across a fleeting allusion to what appears not only to be a coherent, solidly based critique of Marx, but also a solid, coherently based model for a viable neoMarxism, with enormous implications for politics and economics. This looks like something which could devastate your thesis, so you turn to the references to find out more about Mackay’s classic work. And you find that there’s no mention of it in the references. Nor is there any mention of any Mackay in any of the co-authored works in the references. Nor is there any mention of Mackay anywhere else in the text. A quick despairing search session in the library confirms your suspicion that there are a lot of Mackays in the world, but none of them appears to have written the text in question. You find yourself wishing that you could slowly torture the perpetrator of that missing reference to death. In desperation, you try to contact the perpetrator to ask them for more information, only to find that they died some years ago (perhaps at the hands of someone else who encountered the same missing reference).

You are now faced with a hard set of decisions. Do you continue with your thesis knowing that there might be a fatal flaw at the heart of it? Do you spend years trying to track down the missing reference? Do you abandon your approach because it looks fatally flawed? Do you give way to the dark side, use Mackay’s approach, pretend that it was your own bright idea, and wake every night screaming from a dream in which your supervisor introduces you at your viva to your external examiner, one Dr MacKay, who has apparently taken considerable interest in your work?

An extreme scenario, perhaps, but many – perhaps most – researchers have had the experience of stumbling quite by chance across a piece of work in an unrelated discipline which has enormous implications for their own work.

That has happened to us. It is enormously frustrating to have to spend months or years trying to track down the relevant article because the person who mentioned it does not give an adequate reference. That has also happened to us.

And this is why references are taken so seriously by professional researchers.


What’s the difference between a literature survey and a literature review?

Students’ use of the literature usually matures and focuses during the course of their research in a way that corresponds to the development of their research question. The development goes through several phases, as shown in Table 2.

So, the difference between a literature survey and a literature review is the difference between report and critique. Ideally, the completing student should have developed a ‘critical voice’. The literature review in the dissertation should ‘make sense’ of the literature in terms of the thesis. If the literature review is well-structured and appropriately critical, then, ultimately, the research question ‘emerges’ as an ‘inevitable’ conclusion of the literature review.

Keeping an annotated bibliography The core literature repertoire One of the things that established researchers have is a working knowledge of the relevant literature. Most established researchers have a core repertoire of some 100–150 works on which they can draw readily. These are a useful selection from the hundreds or thousands of articles and books the researcher has digested over time. The repertoire gives a researcher a context in which to place ideas: the collection characterizes the major strands of thinking in the field, identifies the major researchers, and provides research models and examples. Of course the repertoire evolves and must be updated.

Part of doctoral study is acquiring one’s own core repertoire. The annotated bibliography is an effective mechanism for facilitating this acquisition – and for keeping a record of the majority of papers that fall outside the core. The annotated bibliography is a powerful research tool. It should be a personal tool, keying into the way you think about and classify things.

Table 2 Development of students’ use of literature

–  –  –

What the annotated bibliography should include

It should include, as a minimum:

• the usual bibliographic information (i.e. everything you might need to cite the work and find it again);

• the date when you read the work;

• notes on what you found interesting/seminal/infuriating/etc. about it. (The notes should not just be a copy of the abstract; they should reflect your own critical thinking about your reading. They can be informal, ungrammatical, even inflammatory, as long as they retain meaning about your reading. If you read a paper more than once and get different things from it, then add to the notes – but do keep the original notes, which can prove useful even if you’ve changed perspective or opinion.)

It can include many other useful things, such as:

• where the physical copy of the work is (e.g. photocopied paper, book borrowed from the library, book in one’s own collection);

• keywords, possibly different categories of keyword;

• further references to follow up;

• how you found the work (e.g. who recommended it, who cited it);

• pointers to other work to which it relates;

• the author’s abstract.

The discipline Keeping an annotated bibliography is a discipline. It is easiest to establish a discipline of writing notes about papers as soon as you read them and not going on to the next paper until you have done so. It’s much harder to go back and try to catch up. Because keeping the bibliography is an ‘overhead’, and because the point is to maintain access to material, it’s best to keep entries to under a page per paper.

Never delete things from the bibliography. ‘Discards’ can be re-categorized or filed away separately, but one year’s ‘junk’ may be another year’s ‘gem’ (and vice versa). There is also genuine value in keeping track of the changes in categorization: one way is to keep a list of working category ‘definitions’. Don’t discard the old scheme after a revamp; rather, file it as part of the record.

The discipline is to keep up a continual, accumulating record of your reading and thinking.

Other ways the bibliography can help

• It can help you to ‘backtrack’ on your own thinking

• It will reflect the evolution of your reading, of what you found important over time, and of your writing about what you read


• When you find a reference and can’t remember the paper’s particular perspective, the notes can give you the key

• When you reread a paper just before your viva and say: ‘Oh no, it doesn’t say that at all, what could I have been thinking?’ then the notes will be invaluable The bibliography can help you to manage your reading effectively and keep accessible much more information than you can remember without aid.

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