understanding academic writing – starting the PhD

Writing is a crucial aspect of doctoral work – indeed all the scholarly work you will undertake from now on. Writing is integral to scholarship. Whether you are in or out of higher education, if you are researching, you are writing. Writing and its associated activities reading and talking, are the major ways in which we make sense of what we are doing. Writing is how we communicate results, ideas and interpretations to others.

But there is “stuff’ that can get in the way of writing. 

It’s very easy to compare yourself as a writer to your peers. Perhaps they write more than you do. They never seem to fret over a blank screen. They seem supremely confident, whereas you feel very uncertain. But you already know that comparison is really unhelpful and unhealthy. Appearances can be very deceptive. Don’t give in to the temptation to make yourself feel inadequate. Everyone has their own writing history which has led them to the doctorate, and everyone has different approaches to and experiences of writing. The reality is that there are many writing routes through to the thesis. The important thing is that you find your pathway, the one that works for you.

If you have a tendency to look sideways at other people’s apparent writing successes, then just remember this. If you have made it into a doctoral programme, you are by definition good enough at academic writing. Throw any notion that you can’t write out the window, now. If you already think you are good at academic writing, that’s a fantastic start. You’re here, so you are. 

The doctorate is the time to build your own repertoire of writing approaches. But these new strategies may be not exactly what you’ve been doing up till now. Scholarly writing is not quite the same as you’ve done to get here, and that you will do from now on. For a start it’s ongoing. And it’s also different. Let me explain this a bit more. 

You may have developed some writing habits that stood you in good stead in your previous study and perhaps professional work. They may not stretch to the kinds and volume of writing you now have to do.

The PhD is a long haul.  There are not a lot of deadlines. Your institution will set a few milestones and your supervisor will try to get you to plan and set regular goals – these are often built around writing. Setting goals is important because you can’t leave things to almost-the-last-minute in the doctorate – you need to be building up your knowledge and know-how throughout your candidature.

The PhD is a lot about information work – gathering “stuff” together, storing and labelling it so you can find it again, cultivating and working it so that it grows and changes over time.  Writing is your friend in this endeavour.  

At the start of the PhD you will need to become much more systematic at using writing to support your reading – in tasks like note-taking, summarising and synthesising. It can help to keep a reading journal and/or another kind of document or journal in which you record your developing ideas. So you do have to write, and write regularly.

If you find the volume of PhD writing difficult then there is advice and support to help. You can use voice-to-text software, which is improving all the time. You can join a regular Shut Up and Write session, or start one of your own. You can join one of the increasing number of online writing rooms. And you are now likely to be able to access writing workshops in your university. 

However, this writing also needs to help you to move away from being a “student”. 

I said earlier that scholarly writing was different from the writing you’ve done up till now. And it’s not just about volume, frequency and regularity. It’s also about the kind of writing you need to do.

Scholarly writing is not the same as undergraduate or taught course writing. The thesis, just like journal articles, chapters and books, is different from essay writing. In an essay the student’s job is to say everything there is to know about a topic. The good taught university student can reasonably expect good marks for coverage and clever interpretation, and outstanding grades for giving a brilliant answer to the question someone else has set. 

But as a researcher, you now have to argue and persuade – you write in relation to your topic, you use literatures and evidence to support the case that you are making. So getting practice at writing for another reader – your supervisor – is very helpful. Helpful if you can see this writing for your supervisor as learning how to become scholarly, rather than a performance you have to get right. When your supervisor comments on your writing, it is not about whether you are correct or not. Their comments are designed to support you to make the shift to thinking and writing as an expert, as an authority.

You generally don’t get to know how to write as if you are expert straight away. So do be forgiving to yourself it this doesn’t all jell at once. It’s learning – it takes time.  

And the academic writing you do is based in your particular discipline. Every discipline has a load of writing conventions, particular terminology and hidden rules you need to know about. Getting on top of these “hidden” aspects of writing happens over time. But your supervisor is likely to be very helpful here too, they can make these covert practices more explicit. 

However, it’s good to know that academic writing generally isn’t just one homogenous thing – even the most apparently stodgy disciplines can encompass various genres and styles of writing. While a few rules, such as citation to acknowledge when you’ve used other people’s work, rarely go away, there is often more room to move in academic writing than is sometimes acknowledged.

So it’s important that at the start of the PhD that you don’t try to copy what appears to be the academic style of writing. Your job at the beginning of the PhD is to get on top of ideas, lexicon and argumentation. And you can use your writing to help you think through all of the “stuff” and the experience, and to communicate your current thinking clearly and economically. 

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Posted in argument, essay, starting the PhD, writing regularly | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

starting the PhD? 25 things to consider

Are you just starting a PhD? Worried? Excited? Nervous?

Fear not.:There’s lots of support and help available to you. Your institution is likely to provide an induction programme where you’ll find out about all the internal procedures and timelines you have to follow. But there’ll also be more. You’ll also get details of what training is available to you. Your institution will encourage you to make connections with your peers, and to engage with what’s on offer outside your faculty.

There’s also veritable truckloads of advice available to you from other sources – facebook and what’s app support groups, youtube, twitter accounts, and books which address doctoral progress, writing the thesis and examinations.

I’ve written a fair few posts over the years about starting the PhD. And had a few guests write about early doctoral issues too. I’ve gathered twenty five (well actually twenty six) together here, so you don’t need to go rummaging through the patter archive. And I do answer questions in the form of new posts if there are things missing from this getting going list!

Getting down and dirty with scholarly cultures

Getting to grips with “the university” – this post looks at what it means to work in a very peculiar particular kind of organisation

Learning new vocabulary – the post talks about the process of acquiring a new disciplinary and research lexicon

Being “critical” – looks at what it means to evaluate and develop a “helicopter” view of your reading

Write and write regularly – well what it says, the importance of setting up a regular writing time, space and habit

Choosing your words – this post examines the strengths and limitations of using academic phrase banks to underpin your academic writing practice

Don’t try to write “classy” – this post looks at why explaining your ideas clearly is a better goal than trying to sound “academic”

Keeping a journal – it’s a very good idea to keep track of your reading, experiences and ideas

The very first thing you are asked to do in the PhD – read and write

Refining your research topic – looks at how you focus down the big messy idea you started with

Digging into the reading – this post offers some beginning strategies for actually getting going, choosing between all of the texts that are on offer

Putting the search into research – offers some advice on how to approach the process of searching

Searching the field – this post suggests that a key task in initial reading is not just to find material relevant to your study but also to get a handle on your field 

How to start your literature review – Three different approaches to the big reading and writing task

Finding the literatures you need – offers some strategies for locating the work relevant to your project

Comparing and contrasting papers – this post is a take on what you need to do when you are reading

Seven prompts for writing with literatures – this post offers strategies for doing the early writing your supervisor will ask for

How much should doctoral researchers read? – suggests its better to think about what’s desirable and possible in the time

Why supervisions can be hard – looks at moving from being marked right and wrong to being asked questions which extend your thinking. It’s good to also read this post Troubleshooting research supervision

Some practical issues 

Selling up and leaving home – tells the story of moving countries to do a PhD and all that this means

Money matters – talks about the importance of thinking about costs and budgets for the whole PhD period

Tech matters– sorting out your computer equipment and software is pretty important

Managing expectations – this post looks at some of the predictable “tough points” in the PhD ahead

Anticipate tasks and timings – this post suggests that it is helpful to get a long term overview of what happens when and why

Setting up your routine – advice on developing the habits that will get you through the long haul

Get organised now – this post suggests that being in control of where you work, and how you work, is key to success.

Don’t panic – talks about PhD highs and lows and that feeling that you don’t know what you are doing. Relax, everyone feels this.

Photo by Will O on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, reading, reading routine, routine, starting the PhD, writing regularly, writing routine, writing to learn | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

ruthlessly realistic with annual plans

Ah, another new academic year. Time to make plans. Take stock. Write goals. Start filling up the diary.

Given the disruption we’ve experienced over the last eighteen months, it’s really tempting to think that it’ll be possible to get back to something like our usual routine. This year there’ll finally be time to catch up on all the things that were put aside. Abandoned, but not forgotten.

Now, you don’t have to have a PhD to work out that a normal workload plus catching up is likely to be a lot more than there is actually time for. After all, the usual workload in your average university is generally pretty demanding. So why now think of adding even more?

If this is you – and it has been me until quite recently – then it’s time to get realistic.

First of all, let’s not assume that this year is going to proceed smoothly. I don’t know about you, but I am starting out with hybrid teaching – some heavily-masked face to face, and some online. I’m pretty uncertain about whether this mix will continue or will be disrupted. Perhaps I will need to replan and revise my course, yet again. And there’s some field work happening in my biggest research project, but who knows if that will go on. So I may need to be “flexible” about teaching and research. Not much point in making plans which don’t allow for change.

In the light of potential changes, I’ve thought about my diary in two ways – time that I will need if things go on as they are now. And additional time that will be needed if things get worse again. If research has to be reorganised, if different methods are required, if there’s a need to give people in the field some space. Not forgetting teaching which may retreat to the safety of the virtual, with accompanying challenges, more students working remotely in different time zones with different kinds of access.

After going through this matching-jobs-to-diary exercise, there’s quite a bit of time already committed – blocks for teaching, meetings, mentoring, admin, research – and some contingency time shaded in, just in case.

But what about the absent writing and publishing? Writing the things that I am committed to, and the things that I want to do. Writing has taken a battering in the last eighteen months. I am way beyond way behind, particularly on big writing projects. I have been saying no to most new writing projects for some time but I am still left with a big list of writing must-dos and want-to-dos.

Just like a lot of people I get pretty agitated when I am a very long way behind where I need or want to be. I feel really overwhelmed by having too many tasks due at once, and too little time. Adding writing to my annual plan surfaces this likelihood.

So here is where a bit of ruthless self-management comes in handy. I’ve just made a list of what’s in my two categories of writing – the must do and the desirable. I’ve looked at how much time each of them will take. I’ve plotted this writing time against the time I am likely to have if things go as well as they might this year. I’ve also looked at what time is available if things don’t go to plan. And I’ve had to prune back everything but the essentials.

There was writing that I wanted to do that I probably won’t get time to do. Rather than continue to feel bad about never getting to it, that writing is on the back burner now, rather than having it haunt me for the entire year. I still have a list of things I want to publish, but I know most of it wont happen straight away.

And I’ve made some decisions about the things I do outside of my workload, things that take up a fair bit of time. I’m giving up on the vast majority of external talks and workshops I usually do. For the foreseeable. My diary exercise showed me that there are some important jobs that won’t be done if I keep the outside work in.

In a nutshell, looking at what I can actually do, given the likely year, has pushed me to be more realistic and pragmatic.

This more granular approach to annual planning – matching commitments and desirable activities to the actual time likely to be available, and allowing for contingencies – feels pretty alien to me. In the past I’ve had much looser plans. But I really don’t want another year of feeling submerged in the alligator pool. Being realistic does restore a sense of autonomy and control. I have made choices about what I will try to get done and what I won’t. And I’m prepared to revisit my goals and plans again during the year, if events really spin out.

PhDers in particular also need to plan realistically. Working backwards from submission date is a key to working out what needs to be done, by when. Thinking of the Phd as project to be managed can really help. But if the PhD demands don’t meet the available time then you, like me, need to make some decisions about how to adjust your programme. This is not about giving up, but discussing progress with your supervisor, using the provisions available to you for modifying your timeline, finding peer groups and institutional programmes that can help you to keep going, and seeking help if you feel in need of additional support.

Don’t wait till you feel like it’s all too much, as I did last year. The trick is not to ignore either demands or time, but to take charge of them.

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Posted in pandemic, planning, time | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

making the most of research leftovers

You all know about leftovers. The bits of a meal that you couldn’t quite finish. The remnants that end up in a plastic box or a covered bowl in the fridge. Mostly you get round to eating them for lunch afterwards, yum. But occasionally you find a long forgotten leftover lurking behind jars – it’s no longer so appetising. Perhaps it’s become an inedible science experiment. Still, it’s great for the compost.

Researchers also often have leftovers. Yes, research leftovers. Research leftovers can be little scraps of stuff. The odd bit and piece that just didn’t make it into the final argument. But sometimes the leftovers are rather more substantial. Data we’ve not used because we just had too much. Extra data generated just in case, but only needed as general gist. A test analysis rejected in favour of something more persuasive. A theorisation abandoned as a more plausible approach muscled in. A vignette excised because it didn’t fit within the word limit. A set of interesting categories that weren’t robust enough to support the current argument. A side story we had no time to tell.

A lot of us end up with research project leftovers. Once upon a time I interviewed a group of people who I thought were going to be important to my study. The interviews ended up being quite peripheral to the issue I was focusing on. I didn’t need to say much more in the final text than they weren’t much involved, and then wonder why. But I did then have interviews surplus to requirements. Leftovers. I never used them I’m afraid and I still have vaguely guilty feelings about people’s gift of time and words even though they did help me understand the situation I was researching. But I can still muster up echoes of frustration about ‘wasting’ data. I had stuff there that I might have been able to do something with. But I didn’t.

You’d think I’d have learnt from that experience but alas. My colleague Chris and I always generate a lot of material in our funded projects. But the pressure to publish and get more funding in limited time frames means we never quite get around to using it all. We have leftovers. But we are getting better at going back to this data and thinking about what it might have to offer.

I hope those of you doing PhDs take some comfort from the fact that it’s pretty common to have research leftovers. We just don’t talk about them that much. But if you ask, you will find that it’s not entirely unusual to generate stuff that you don’t get around to working with. Mostly this is not about a lack of will, and more often the practicalities of contemporary scholarship. I’m also betting there’s many a PhDer who has had to unwillingly part with painstakingly generated ‘stuff’ in order to craft the thesis text to a word limit and get it submitted on time.

But here’s the thing. Letfovers can be re-used. All those little scraps, jottings, worked samples, playful experiments, reluctantly abandoned theories, unloved interview transcripts and apparently irrelevant cross tabulations might just be the basis for a something new. Rather like turning the leftover vege stew into a pasta sauce, it is often the case that apparently stand-alone research bits and bobs can have a life of their own.

It’s always worth keeping an eye on the research leftovers. Keep them somewhere handy. Make sure you know where you’ve put them in case you work out how to re-engage. Keep an ear out for any insistent whispers that there is still have some life left in the material. That these fragments were not spent effort, they can still be interesting and useful. They can be re-approached and re-worked and re-imagined.

Leftovers often come into their own after you’ve been awarded the Doctor title. At the time when you want a rest from the thesis. When you just can’t face the text or the data again. It’s too soon. You’re over it. But well-meaning others are telling you to get going. And you do want to get cracking and write and publish. Put yourself out there as the newly Doctored scholar. But you feel the energy draining away every time you sit down at the computer.

Or perhaps you are the more experienced researcher who is just feeling stale. Perhaps you too just can’t face going back – to a research report that ought to become something else, to the stuff that ought to become a book or the killer article. Or it may feel that you’ve got nothing much to say. That you’re worn out, drained, done. You can’t line up for more peer reviews. You’ve had enough of publication churn – but you know you must.

This is a pretty good time to check out the leftovers. There may well be something that you put aside that is now suddenly tempting. Maybe there’s an idea worth pursuing. There’s material here that might just say something new. The stuff seemed a bit off-piste at the time, but now you look at it, there might be something there. Or there’s an entirely new project just waiting to be developed.

Don’t give up on the research leftovers. They benefit from being warmed up again – lo and behold, they’ve matured and got more tasty. And once you’ve found the reusable stuff, how about a bit of a brainstorm, a bit of a free-write to see what you might be able to do. Generate a few possibilities. Get creative. Playful. Think laterally.

Perhaps those leftovers are different enough from the PhD, or the funded project, to get you going again. (And if they don’t, that’s OK too.)

Photo by Kate Trifo on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, data, data analysis, leftover, Pat Thomson, research | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

revision – the “make it better” exercise

Occasionally I offer strategies that you can try to see if they work for you. If they do, and not everything works for everybody, then you can add them to your academic writing repertoire. Today I’ve got an exercise designed to support diagnosis of your own writing weaknesses.

In the quiet of your own work space, find a passage of text written by someone other than you. A text which seems to you to be not as well written as it might be. Read the text. Take note of where you think there might be some clunky writing.

Now read it again. Identify the problems.
Here’s a starter list of some things to look for.
Headings – too many? Not enough? Too vague? Don’t seem to be what the text is about? Too clever by half?
Meta-commentary – you can’t work out the point of reading this? Where does the writer tell you what they are doing? What do they say? Alternatively, too much meta commentary? (I get it, stop now please.)
Paragraphs – not clear what the paragraph is about? Sentences seem in the wrong order? Doesn’t connect to the paragraph before or after (there is a big leap in topic and sentence subject between paragraphs)? Too long, goes on for ever through multiple ideas and points? Argument doesn’t seem to have all of the steps – the paragraph doesn’t seem to be in the right order? Seems like there is a missing step?
Other people’s work – Too many quotations? Too many authors as subjects of sentences? So many citations you can’t keep track of what’s being said? Too many assertions – where is the support for key statements?
Sentences – too long? Too short? All the same length? Do they all start the same way? Too many phrases and clauses and you can’t keep track? Everything is written in the passive voice?
Words – loads of abstract multi-syllabled words (nominalisations)? Word repetition? Specialist terms not defined? Too many obscure words ( you have to go to the dictionary too often)?
Dull – Needs livening up, could use a few more engaging words? Could do with an interesting and memorable category, a metaphor, an anecdote?

Now, you get to play with the text. Your goal is to try to make the passage ‘better’. Remove what you can of any unnecessary text. Change things, move them about, add and rewrite.

Read again. Does the text now seem better? Why? Were some of the improvements you made more important than others? What is ‘better’? What might this exercise help you understand about the writing you aspire to do?

Reflect. Think about what this exercise might tell you about your own writing.

Now go to a first draft or a text that you suspect needs a lot more work. Use the same process. Ask the same questions. Remove. Change. Add and rewrite. Read again and reflect on how this might influence what and how you write next. Use the understandings you gain to help you work on subsequent messy first drafts.

This exercise is named after and inspired by a creative writing strategy developed by Beth Kephart in We are the words (p. 119)

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Posted in make it better, revision, revision strategy | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

recycling your thesis text – is it self plagiarism?

The term self-plagiarism is usually associated with re-using your own work, recycling slabs of material already published, cutting and pasting from one text to another, producing something which duplicates something that has already appeared elsewhere.

Self-plagiarism is not the same as stealing someone else’s work and passing it off as your own, that’s plagiarism. Nor is it the same as violating copyright – using other people’s text without permission, or even re-using your own work when the copyright has been signed over to someone else. We all know these practices are wrong, so if self plagiarism is like these, it must be too.

The idea of self-plagiarism is scary. We all know that plagiarists get punished if they are found out. They can be sacked, their work pulped or retracted. And universities and publishers are increasingly on the lookout for plagiarism, using automatic software to detect it. So the notion of plagiarising your own work carries with it the spectre of the surveillance and punishment.

But recycling your own work is more often discussed as an ethical question not a legal one. A question of deliberate deceit perhaps. Reuse of your own writing can be regarded as a form of ‘cheating’ – you’ve written something which is published and then you don’t do the hard work of writing something new, you take the easy way out by dragging and dropping the text you made earlier. You aren’t producing something new or original, this version of recycling goes, and to make things worse, you’re tricking the reader into thinking that the work is new. You’re double-dipping – writing without integrity. Some people even see such recycling of text as a form of academic fraud.

But the reuse situation isn’t that straightforward. There may well be circumstances where recycling doesn’t seem unethical, but sensible. Where it’s not simply a question of saving the effort of producing a new version of material.

Think of descriptions of research projects which appear in methods sections of journal articles and in books. It’s not just that there are only so many ways that you can present the same information about the one research project – it’s more that you actually want the way in which you report your project, and its design and processes, to be consistent across publications. Similarly, if you have developed a novel interpretation or heuristic or model which you then use as the basis of future work, you also want there to be a through line from the initial work to the latter. While some of this origin tracing can and should be done via citation, there may also be some common wording that you want to use, something longer than a quotation, perhaps something more like a big chunk of a chapter. Re-use is often key to iterative knowledge-building.

Duplicating thesis text, repurposing it for publication often bothers PhDers. Sometimes a lot. That’s understandable. The PhD is most often now a digital text and is a publication in its own right, but the PhD is also the basis for papers and perhaps a book. Let me explain the most common examples of re-use.

Publishing before the thesis and then reusing it in the thesis text. Publishing prior to the PhD being finalised is quite common and is often done as disciplinary convention, as reputational move and/or as a means of developing a line of argument for the thesis itself. This isn’t a huge issue.

In the PhD by publication, the papers are by definition part of the thesis text. They often appear in their final published form, which may be copyrighted to a journal, not the final author version. I am not aware than any publisher has taken issue with the practice of using the final copyrighted version. But they could I guess. In which case you’d use the final author version as is often now done in university repositories.

By contrast, in the monograph PhD, the text of a previously published paper is usually incorporated into the text and an acknowledgement made, either at the beginning of the text or when the text appears, that some of the material has been published elsewhere. There are however some disciplinary differences here about how acceptable this practice is, and it is always worth checking out rules and conventions with your supervisor and/or your university librarian.

Publishing after the thesis is completed and publicly available. The situation is a little different when the thesis becomes the basis for post-graduation publications. Here the question is how much you can cut and paste from the digital thesis into another, usually shorter, form. There is an a priori question of course about how much you should recycle given that the thesis is written for a different audience and a particular purpose. Most books of the PhD are actually very substantially rewritten. Put that issue aside for a moment. The question is how much should, and can you, re-use of the thesis? What are the risks and wrongs?

Theres a lot of rumour about cutting and pasting from your big book. Everyone seems to have heard of the publisher who refuses a book proposal on the grounds that it will be substantially the same as an e-thesis. However, there seems little actual evidence of this happening. A study by UCL librarians Brown and Sadler found no cases of this happening in the UK, although fears and worries about the possibility were rife particularly among PhDers and their supervisors. But…

Because no one is quite sure about recycling from the thesis you may get various forms of advice. If you want to re-use substantial thesis extracts for a book you may be advised to restrict access to your thesis for a period of time so that the new publication become the major source. Embargo to avoid problems. Or you may be advised to discuss the re-use of thesis material with the publisher if you are writing the-book-of-the-thesis. Or you may be encouraged to learn about open access so that you can have a conversation with an editor about the benefits of having both the thesis and a new book version of the work available at the same time.

Maybe you’re not writing a book but journal articles and book chapters. Reuse here is different. You aren’t very likely to be carrying over thesis literature work – too long. Your methods chapter will be too big. So we are probably talking about bits of what appears in your thesis as results and discussion. For example, there may be tables, graphs or diagrammes. There may be descriptions of participants or places. Most likely there are chunks of worked analyses that you want to cut and paste. Usually it seems to be enough to say in the text of the paper or chapter that the material is based on doctoral work, providing a citation to the thesis online. But there’s always the possibility of something more sinister happening. Again loads of urban myths here.

So is recycling a real problem? Are we just getting worked up over not very much? The first problem seems to be that we don’t even agree on what self plagiarism is, let alone whether it’s a serious issue or not.

My own view, which won’t be everyone’s, is that provided you recycle thesis material in ways that are acknowledged, then some re-use in journal papers and book chapters is not only acceptable but also sensible. After all, you slogged over these chunks for quite some time and worked hard on making them as good as you could. You may find of course when you revisit them that you do still want to tinker with the wording, or add a bit more/cut some things out. For me, the key thing is to own up to this re-use and not to try to hide it. As long as you make sure to check with the relevant editors and journal rules then transposing some text from a thesis or research report to book or journal seems to me to be quite in keeping with the spirit of scholarly publication ethics.

But, as always, do check this out. If in doubt who to ask, start with your university library.

And help may be at hand. Do look at this research project on text recycling which offers some very helpful guidelines for how to steer through murky re-use territory. One of the things the project suggests is doing away with the ambiguous term self plagiarism – Yes!!!- and adopting a more specific set of terms – see the note at the end of this post.

Recognising the reality of text re-use, the project’s guidelines for researchers say:

  1. Authors should recycle text where consistency of language is needed for accurate communication. This consistency can be especially important when describing methods and instrumentation that are common across studies. If the amount of recycled material is substantial, authors should determine whether permissions are needed (see Recycling Text Legally) and whether it is acceptable for the outlet (see Recycling Text Transparently).
  2. Authors may recycle text so long as the recycled material is accurate and appropriate for the new work and does not infringe copyright or violate publisher policies.
  3. Authors should be careful not to recycle text in ways that might mislead readers or editors about the novelty of the new work.

Sounds good to me. Can we all decide this is the way to go?


The Text Recycling Project is based at Duke University and is directed by Cary Moskowitz. It is primarily concerned with practices in STEM but is of much wider interest and application. The project has produced a number of scholarly papers on reuse.

A recent and open access paper written by Moskowitz proposes a new taxonomy for re-use – developmental recycling, generative recycling, adaptive publication and duplicate publication. The paper is open access and well worth reading. I for one will be adopting his terms.

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Posted in academic writing, plagiarism, re-use, self-plagiarism, thesis | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

missing working at work?

Eighteen months of working from home. Or WFH, WTF!! as you will now hear me say. Often.

I want to WAW (work at work). I’m not desperate about it yet, but I really do miss WAW.

Pre pandemic, a whole lifetime ago it seems but really only eighteen months, it was different. Working at work was ho-hum. Same old same old. WAW was always about the meetings, teaching, and sundry administration and some professional-social time with colleagues.

To be fair, responding to emails happened both at work and at home, as did some administrative work. But the work I did at home was mainly reading and writing, and quite often messing about with the stuff of research.

Now I have to own up here. I have the privilege of a separate office at work and at home. Two offices that are all mine! I know many other people would happily sell the naming rights to their most recent publication for such luxury. I am acutely that many of the PhDers I work with have no such space and have been trying to keep up with their research in their bedrooms, on their kitchen tables, in shared spaces. And of course I no longer have onerous caring responsibilities. Only Ruby (she hates to be called “the dog”) demands occasional attention and is allowed to interrupt office-working-time. I’m not tutoring children at home, nor worrying about older family members. So this is indeed a story of an academic’s advantage.

Bear with me however as there may still be something in this narrative. My point really is about separations. Borders. Corralling. Sequestering. Severing. And it’s about the consequences of prolonged blurring.

My home office is in the loft, so I leave the rest of the house behind me as I climb the stairs. The stairs are a tangible demarcation separating the work I do at home from other home-based activities. Just as the drive to work separates the WFH from the work at the office, the WAW. Two border to cross each day.

My pre-pandemic life was a taken-for-granted set of working arrangements that I really didn’t appreciate. I used to really enjoy being able to work at home. It always felt vaguely naughty to go up to the office when I could be at work, even though I was actually working from home. And WFH was very much part of my writing routine. When I was writing I was in the loft. When I wasn’t writing, I was mostly elsewhere. The WAW was my carefully carved out writing-reading-thinking-just-messing-about-with-ideas-and-stuff place.

Why am I blathering on about this you might wonder? Aren’t we all in the same boat? Well yes. We are. And that’s really the point. I think I may not be the only one feeling a little less enthusiastic about some of the things I used to do at home and finding it more difficult to get the energy to do them.

In my case, this means I have noticed that I am just not writing as much as I used to. And when I write, it takes quite a bit of will to get going. And quite a bit to keep on going. Writing is just less enjoyable. It’s more like work!! It’s no longer a vaguely guilty pleasure to skive off upstairs first thing in the morning and write. I can no longer look at my morning’s words and then leave the house to go do something else. Everything happens in the same space, the same chair, the same screen, the same, the same.

Working from home and working from work together are completely blurred together, morphed into one.

I don’t like it. I think I need both a special time and space to write. I need to be able to mark off more “contemplative” and creative” academic work from other activities. Many of the PhDers stuck in the bedroom, kitchen, and shared spaces need their offices even more.

So it was an absolute treat to go into work last week. A real pleasure to have a face-to-face meeting. Admittedly, the meeting was about research so it was already off to a good start. But nobody apologised for a flaky connection. Nobody’s mike was on mute. Nobody got interrupted by the postal service. And – joy – we could work as a team in a room with huge whiteboards. And use markers. And project our docs in the Teams folder onto the whiteboard and not all end up peering at our own separate screens. And use chart paper spread out on tables if we wanted to. Rush off to the copier. Grab a book from our shelves.

Of course we had windows open and the building was deserted. But still, we had an actual team meeting. And then – we got to go off to have a coffee and sit outside – and the autumnal wind didn’t matter a bit.

I’m now all in for some real old fashioned WAW. I want it to be safe of course. And I’m prepared to keep doing WFH if it’s necessary. But I do think that my writing won’t really recover until I’m doing less in my home office, and more at work.

Having more geographical balance in my life now seems important.

Did I ever think I’d say I really wanted go into work? Hear me now. Work office, I miss you, as do my ever receding deadlines. Anyone else feel the same?

Image: Atrium, School of Education, University of Nottingham.

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“showing” and “telling” in the thesis

The thesis must show and tell your examiner that its writer is ready to be called Dr. Yep. Dr (insert your surname here.)

What do I mean by show and tell? Well, even if these are not the usual definitions, in the context of the thesis I mean:

  • showing is when the writer provides carefully selected information for the reader, some might call this “evidencing”. That is, there is some important stuff that you need to make sure your examiner can see.
  • telling is when the writer is explicit about what the reader is to think, interpret, conclude. That is, there are some things that you need to make clear to your examiner in the text, and not leave it up to them to guess at.

Now, you don’t necessarily do show and tell together. You might do the two things at once, but very often you need to do one or the other, or make one or the other your main focus. Let me explain.

The thesis must show that its writer has done their research well. Put another way, it’s not good enough to simply tell the examiner “I did my research thoroughly and rigorously” and expect them to take your word for it. You need to show them. You have to provide enough information for them to have no doubt that you did your research well. That it meets doctoral standards. That the examiner can let you loose on the world complete with the testamur and floppy hat which attests that you have real research expertise.

The usual caveats apply here – showing you know how to do good research varies from discipline to discipline, and method to method, and text type to text type. The audit trail you provide is bespoke to your project. In some contexts, you’ll need to provide extensive data sets which can be checked, or detailed descriptions of procedures, or analytic workings of data. In other contexts, examples of data and your analytic approach will be sufficient.

You’ll also need to show the examiner that you can justify your design and your choices and the decisions you made along the way. You usually do this through a combination of description and reasoning, but you may also need to refer to research traditions and precedents (found in the research methods literatures) You’ll have to show the examiner that you understand any ethical issues, again through a combination of description and discussion of how you applied general ethical principles. And of course, you’ll need to show that you understand what your research does and doesn’t do, not only through description but also in the way in which you make claims on the basis of your results.

Similarly, you don’t just say that you have read a lot of literature and you know your field and you can pinpoint where your research sits. Yes, yes. Of course you’d never dream of doing this. You show your examiner that you know your field through the literatures that you use and cite – and many examiners do look at your reference list very carefully, and often first of all, to check what you’ve read and how much. And of course, as you use literatures to situate and support your research – constructing an argument for and about your study, grouping and categorising texts, naming pertinent debates and key figures – you demonstrate your command of the scholarship in the field. Your examiner has the evidence they need to tick off this aspect of doctorateness.

However, when it comes to the contribution that your research makes, you need to switch your attention to telling. Yes, your writing about the research must demonstrate that your contribution to knowledge is sound and defensible, but you can’t leave it to the examiner to work out what it actually is. It’s not enough to simply report what you have done. The thesis is not a set of clues from which an examiner can detect the significance of your project and work out the implications for themselves. You have to tell the examiner, in no uncertain terms, what your research achieves.

It is important that you spell out to the examiner the novelty and innovation in your work, both at the start of the thesis and at its end. What have you added that wasn’t known before? What does the examiner know at the end of the thesis that they didn’t know before? You have to be open and explicit about the importance of your work, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable. You need to tell the examiner why it was worth you spending years of your life on this research. What about the question or hypothesis was most interesting or compelling for you? You need to firmly connect your results with your overall contribution – What is different about your research from other research that has already been done? You need to say what about your research is most valuable and why. Why do we need to know this about your topic? Why now? What will happen or could/might happen as a result of your research? Where does the field go next?

You may well get questions about contribution and significance in a viva. But you may also get asked to put more in the thesis if you haven’t done enough telling – in the introduction, where you set up the warrant for the research, and the conclusion, where you are expected to provide much more than a succinct summary of your “answer” to the question you posed at the start.

Yes, you’re right, this is not all that there is to showing and telling in the thesis. You may for instance in some research fields be expected to tell the examiner more about your personal professional relationship with the research, or to tell the examiner what you learnt from the process. You can work out with your supervisor what in particular you need to show and what you need to tell.

They key thing is to keep asking yourself if you have adequately addressed what matters most in doctoral examinations. Have you shown the examiner that you know how to research? Have you told the examiner why your research makes a noteworthy and new contribution?

Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, audit trail, conclusion, introduction, literature reviews, methods, show and tell, thesis | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

should you publish during your PhD?

So you are not doing PhD by publication. You’re not in a country and/or discipline which expects you to publish during your PhD – yes really, some do. And you hear conflicting advice about whether publishing during your PhD is a good idea or not. Some people say that writing a paper for publication (or a book chapter), while you are doing your PhD, means you won’t complete your PhD on time. Or that you don’t yet have anything worth saying. They hold one or both of these reasons for not publishing during the doctorate as a blanket rule which covers all situations, and all people, and all kinds of research.

So why even think about during-doctorate publication? I have a different view. I think that there are reasons why it can be a good idea to write during the PhD – yes, even at the same time as you are writing the thesis.

Before I start, it is important to say that not all PhD research projects lend themselves to pre-thesis and pre-examination paper writing. Sometimes you just can’t pull a paper out prior to completing your entire analysis and subsequent results chapters. And for some people, saving the material for the book of the PhD may be more important than writing a paper or two midway.

That said, here are six possible reasons for writing a paper during the PhD. The first five focus on what writing a paper can do for you, and your PhD.

  1. Writing a paper can help you to test out a theoretical or analytical approach. It can be very instructive to take a piece of “stuff” and see how it plays out when you take a particular approach to it. It can even accelerate your meaning making process. Once you’ve test driven an approach you can decide whether it is a good line to pursue or not. If it is, then you take on the rest of the analysis and/or writing with a greater sense of security about what you are doing. You’ve tried out a strategy and you know how it goes.
  2. Writing a paper can help consolidate your sense of your “self” as a scholar. Putting something out into the world means you not only see yourself, but also are seen as someone who has something of importance to contribute. You are knowledgeable. You have expertise. So writing a paper can do important identity work. Seeing your work and your scholarly self in print can be a pretty helpful confidence boost. I’m real. I’ve done it. I can do it. This in turn can help you write the thesis text with a greater sense of authority.
  3. Writing a paper helps you to sort out your scholarly “persona”, the way you present yourself in textual form. As you make authorial choices about composition – your choice of words, syntax, sentence length, use of metaphors, narratives, examples, figures, who you do and don’t build on, challenge and/or cite, and so on – you make yourself into a particular kind of writer/scholar. Beginning to create the scholarly you in writing, prior to completing the thesis, focuses you on the decisions you need to make about your thesis text. (This is also text work/identity work, like number 2 above.)
  4. Writing a paper means that you start to get your stuff out into the world. Scholarly work is about communication, about linking into scholarly conversations and connecting with various professional/policy communities. Taking on the activities associated with writing a paper – using print, audio and social media to let people know it has been published for example – is integral to locating other people who are interested in your work. Going public adds to the sense that you have of yourself as a scholar, not just as a “student”.
  5. Writing a paper means that you open yourself up to peer review and to scholarly exchange. This is the most risky aspect of writing during the PhD and, let’s be honest, it can be a bruising experience. Thoughtless or cruel feedback can put you off for a long time – and in these situations writing a paper can turn out to be a bad idea. So you need to take steps to minimise the risks. Maybe you want to co-write the paper, or enlist the support of a mentor during the writing. You may also want more experienced help to decode the feedback you receive. You’ll want to choose the journal carefully too, going for one which is “good enough” and therefore “quick enough” – finding out the results of submission can drag on. Some journals are better at being constructively critical than others – ask around so you lessen the chance of encountering mean-hearted Reviewer 2s. The up side of being reviewed, yes there is an up side, is that when your paper is accepted you’ll not only feel great. You’ll also have some experience of critique outside supervision. Getting a taste of what it means to have your writing subject to critical examination – and considering how to revise in light of comments, where to defend and where to do more work – is useful for you in writing the thesis as well as dealing with the viva.

There is of course a much more instrumental reason for publishing during the PhD. It is a reason that I have left to last as I have less positive feelings about it.

6. If you are looking for a postdoctoral position then, in some locations and in some disciplines, the more you have already published the more likely you are to be in the race. You may well be competing with people who have done PhDs by publication and who already have three or four papers published. So getting a start while you are doing the big book PhD can be a help. Publishing signals to funders/employers that you know you have to get your stuff into print. But this cutthroat postdoc and job situation is pretty grim and inequitable. I don’t condone it, there’s no “level playing field”, people are variously able to publish. However, it would be remiss of me to omit reason 6, as it is something that you need to make a decision about.

My six reasons don’t add up to saying you must publish during your PhD. Not at all. It is something to discuss with your supervisor. The six reasons are however worth considering when you are making your decision whether to do this additional writing, or not.

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does a thesis conclusion have “recommendations”?

I’ve seen many a thesis which concludes with a set of recommendations that arise from the research. This practice troubles me. I’ve got two basic concerns about putting recommendations in a thesis conclusion. My position may be a bit contentious – I don’t know whether or how much, as I can’t recollect reading much discussion about conclusions and recommendations per se in the doctoral writing literatures.

So here goes. My first concern is about whether the claims on which any recommendations are based actually fit with the research that’s been done.

Some doctoral research is, either by virtue of its method, theory or size, able to make far-reaching claims. But much of the doctoral research that I see doesn’t have the kind of scale, duration, or comprehensiveness that would be the basis for recommendations.

OK – I need to provide an example. Pardon my disciplinary context – but you’ll get the drift. Interviews with sixteen school leaders aren’t a great footing for developing a sweeping set of recommendations about education policy or professional development programmes. That’s like building your house on shifting sands. However, sixteen interviews with school leaders may very well enhance and deepen existing understandings of identities, events, meaning-making, processes and/or practices. And sixteen interviews may well be the basis for theory-building, depending on the approach used.

Now let me just say the obvious. It’s not that small and detailed research is not worth doing, it is. I’m an ethnographer by heart and the last thing I would do is slag off the small and intense inquiry. But its being real about what this kind of research can do, and what it can’t. Small scale studies with depth or even of moderate scope are not for recommendations per se, but they are often the basis for developing a set of possibilities, or raising questions, or even developing a new research agenda.

So it is always important when writing the doctoral thesis to ask yourself whether your conclusions sit comfortably with the purposes of your research – was your research initially designed to influence policy or to build theory or enhance understandings? Has it fulfilled this goal? Or has the connection to change emerged – and if so what can your claims “say” in relation to the research actually undertaken and your results?

There’s a parallel here with the old Gilbert and Sullivan song about the punishment fitting the crime. The claims made in the conclusion of the thesis have to fit with its results. 

My second concern is about the audience for the thesis and the need to write in the appropriate genre. 

The thesis is written for an academic audience. In the first instance, the readers are the examiners, and then whoever happens across the text in digital thesis collections. So let’s think about what an examiner and a wider academic readership expects and can actually do. And can’t.

I’ll first of all talk from my experience. Mostly, the theses I see which have recommendations assume a different, non-academic audience from me. One that is able to take up and implement their recommended agenda. In this situation, as an examiner, I am left asking myself how am I to do anything with these recommendations? Change education policy? If only! I wish! Who does this person think is going to read their thesis and be able to act on it?

Of course sometimes a doctoral thesis recommends something that readers can do something about – perhaps it is the doctoral candidate themselves, they’ve written a thesis that is relevant to their professional practice and they can therefore recommend something that they might do, or take up within their institution, union or network. Of perhaps its to do with university teaching or supervision or academic cultures. There are exceptions where academic readers might be recommended to because they can take the recommendations up. But mostly academic readers aren’t the target of thesis recommendations.

Now, an important clarification. I am absolutely not suggesting that doctoral theses can’t develop an agenda for action and change from results. Of course, they can and they often do. But I am suggesting that thinking about your research and change isn’t the same as making recommendations.

In the thesis conclusion, proposals for change most often come in the form of implications for policy and practice and/or thinking about what a change agenda might be. The results of the research are x which suggests strongly that any future policy agenda which is going to address y needs to include/do the following z things.

But don’t despair if you want to do more than spell out some implications. It is important for those doctoral researchers who really want their research to influence or produce change, and have an urge to make recommendations, to act. Here’s two suggestions to avoid the ‘Who me?” examiner response.

1. You might find an imaginative way to formulate recommendations – introduce a section by saying that if you were making key recommendations to someone, then these are what they’d be. Or include a letter or pamphlet you might write to show how your results would ideally be taken up. A creative approach to the relationship between research results and their application will show the examiner that you understand that a specific audience needs to be informed about your research, listen and act. This connects to the next suggestion.

2. You can write something specifically for the audience who needs to hear about your work or who would be interested in it. You may well need to write this kind of text in a different or shorter form, using different language perhaps, and/or using different media. It’s good news that other audiences for research also often prefer other text types, maybe a short leaflet which references a longer document. Perhaps it’s material which appears on a website or a short punchy paper in a professional publication or a film…

In the UK the practice of research “translation”, or follow-on activity, is often referred to as public engagement. In fact, all publicly funded researchers are expected to develop public engagement plans to take their research results to relevant audiences. And the resulting public texts may well have action points or develop an agenda for change. You won’t be the only one working on further texts from your research. More good news, there are models to look at.

My view is that putting recommendations in the thesis is a kind of genre confusion. It’s not theses but research reports which usually have executive summary and recommendations. Commissioned research uses a report genre, as does research that is directed to particular policy or professional readers. These are texts written for the readers who can act on the recommendations.

But a thesis is not a research report per se, even if there is reporting within it. In the first instance and in its the first iteration, the thesis is an argument for your particular and distinctive contribution. Like other texts in its academic family (monographs, peer reviewed papers etc), the thesis is designed for scholarly action – enjoyment, use, assessment and peer review.

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