Writing Thesis with Examples Tutorial 2019
Thesis or Science writing should be objective and accurate. Many of the elements that give literature its strength—nuance, ambiguity, metaphor, sensuality—are inappropriate for technical work. In contrast to popular science writing, the primary objective is to inform, not entertain.
On the other hand, use of awkward, convoluted language is perhaps the most common fault in scientific writing; a direct, uncomplicated style is appropriate. Aim for austerity, not pomposity. This tutorial explains the 50 Tips and Tricks for Styling Research Papers and Thesis with examples in 2019.
Thesis writing must by its nature be plain and straightforward—the need for it to be accurate and clear makes poetry inappropriate. But this does not mean that Thesis writing has to be dull.
It can have style, and moreover, the desire to communicate clearly is not the only reason to make good use of English. Lively writing suggests a lively mind with interesting ideas to discuss.
Text should be taught. The length of a paper should reflect its content—it is admirable to use only as many words as are required. Every sentence should be necessary.
Papers are not made more important by padding with long-winded sentences; they are made less readable. In the following example, the italicized text can be discarded without affecting the intent.
Taut writing is a consequence of careful, frequent revision. Aim to delete superfluous words, simplify sentence structure, and establish a logical flow. That is, convey information without unnecessary dressing.
Revise in a critical frame of mind, and avoid a sense of showing off or being clever. Be egoless—ready to dislike anything you have previously written. Expect to revise several times, perhaps many times.
Simple writing follows from a few simple rules:
Have one idea per sentence or paragraph and one topic per section.
Have a straightforward, logical organization.
Use short words.
Use short sentences with a simple structure.
Keep paragraphs short.
Avoid buzzwords, clichés, and slang.
Avoid excess, in length or style.
Omit unnecessary material.
Be specific, not vague or abstract.
Break these rules if there is a good reason to do so.
Sometimes a long word or a complex sentence is the best option. Use these when necessary, but not otherwise. Another common fault in science writing is to over qualify, that is, to modify every claim with caveats and cautions. Such writing is a natural consequence of the scientist’s desire to not make unfounded claims, but it can be taken too far.
The results show that, for the given data, less memory is likely to be required by the new structure, depending on the magnitude of the numbers to be stored and the access pattern.
The results show that less memory was required by the new structure. Whether this result holds for other data sets will depend on the magnitude of the numbers and the access pattern, but we expect that the new structure will usually require less memory than the old.
Use direct statements and expressions involving “we” or “I”—that is, the active voice—to make reading more pleasant and to help distinguish new results from old. (Voice is discussed later in this chapter.)
There is nothing wrong with using a casual or conversational tone in technical writing, so long as it does not degenerate into slang. Technical writing is not a good outlet for artistic impulses. The following is from a commercial software requirements document.
The system should be developed with the end users clearly in view. It must, therefore, run the gamut from simplicity to sophistication, robustness to flexibility, all in the context of the inpidual user.
From the first tentative familiarization steps, the consultation process has been used to refine the requirements by continued scrutiny and rigorous analysis until, by some alchemical process, those needs have been transmuted into specifications.
These specifications distill the quintessence of the existing system. The above extract has the excuse that it forms part of a sales pitch, but the following is from a scientific paper on concurrent database systems.
Sometimes the local network stalls for a few seconds. We first noticed this effect during an experimental measurement of the impact of server configuration on network traffic.
Use an example whenever it adds clarification. A small example often means the difference between communication and confusion, particularly if the concept being illustrated is fundamental to understanding the paper.
People learn by generalizing from concrete instances, and examples can give substance to abstract concepts.
In a semi-static model, each symbol has an associated probability representing its likelihood of occurrence.
For example, if the symbols are characters in the text, then common characteristics such as “e” might have an associated probability of 12 %. Each example should be an illustration of one concept; if you don’t know what an example is illustrating, change it.
Many authors take considerable trouble over the structure of their papers but don’t make the structure obvious to the reader. Not only should the parts of a paper be ordered in a logical way, but this logic needs to be communicated.
The introduction usually gives some indication of the organization of the paper, by outlining the results and their context, and may include a list of the parts of the paper, but these measures by themselves are not sufficient. Brief summaries at the start and end of each section are helpful, as sentence connecting one section to the next;
for example, a well-written section might conclude with: Together these results show that the hypothesis holds for linear coefficients. The difficulties presented by non-linear coefficients are considered in the next section.
Link text together as a narrative—each section should have a clear story to tell. The connection between one paragraph and the next should be obvious. This principle is sometimes expressed as: Tell the reader what you are going to say, then say it, and then tell the reader that you have said it.
A common error is to include material such as definitions or theorems without indicating why the material is used.
Usually, the problem is lack of explanation; sometimes it is symptomatic of an ordering problem, such as including material before the need for it is obvious. Never assume that a series of definitions, theorems, or algorithms—or even the need for the series—is self-explanatory.
Motivate the reader at each major step in the exposition: explain how a definition (theorem, lemma, whatever) is to be used, or why it is interesting, or how it fits into the overall plan.
The authors of a paper are almost always better informed than their readers. Even expert readers won’t be familiar with some of the details of a problem, whereas the author has probably been studying the problem intimately for months or years, and takes many difficult issues for granted.
You should explain everything that is not common knowledge to the paper’s readership; what constitutes common knowledge depends on the paper’s subject and on where it is published.
At each part of a paper, you should consider what the reader has learned so far, whether this knowledge is sufficient to allow understanding of what follows, and whether each part follows from what has already been said.
within a paper, each topic should be discussed to a similar depth. A paragraph on a previous algorithm followed by seven pages on your refinements to it is unbalanced. If one paper merits half a page, other papers of equal relevance should not be dismissed in a line.
An algorithm that is only sketched does not merit twenty graphs and tables; an algorithm that is described in detail needs a substantial analysis or other justification. A four-page rambling introduction is unlikely to be readable.
The length of a paper is a consequence of how much material is included and of how much detail is given, that is, the depth to which each topic is discussed. When a paper must be kept within a length limit, some compromise is required.
Some of the discussion must be omitted, or the graphs selected more carefully, or the text condensed. Perhaps it will even be necessary to omit a proof or a series of results. Such changes should not be used as an excuse for unbalancing the paper.
Avoid excessive use of indirect statements (passive voice), particularly descriptions of actions that don’t indicate who or what performs them. The following theorem can now be proved. We can now prove the following theorem. The direct style (active voice) is often less stilted and easier to read.
Another unpleasant indirect style is the artificial use of verbs like “perform” or “utilize”, perhaps in the false belief that such writing is more precise or scientific. These words can often be removed. Tree structures can be utilized for dynamic storage of terms. Terms can be stored in dynamic tree structures.
Local packet transmission was performed to test error rates. Error rates were tested by local packet transmission. Other words often used in this way include “achieved”, “carried out”, “conducted”, “done”, “occurred”, and “affected”.
Change of voice sometimes changes the meaning and often changes emphasis. If passive voice is necessary, use it. The complete absence of active voice is unpleasant, but that does not mean that all use of passive voice is poor.
Use of “we” is valuable when trying to distinguish between the contributions made in your paper and existing results in a field, particularly in an abstract or introduction.
For example, in “it is shown that stable graphs are closed”, the reader may have difficulty deciding who is doing the showing, and in “it is hypothesized that”, the reader will be unsure whether the hypothesis was posted in your paper or elsewhere.
Use of “we” can allow some kinds of statements to be simplified—consider “we show” versus “in this paper, it is shown that”. “We” is preferable to pretentious expressions such as “the authors”.
Some authors use phrases such as “this paper shows” and “this section argues”. These phrases, with their implication that the paper, not the author, is doing the arguing, should generally be avoided.
In some cases the use of “we” is wrong. When we conducted the experiment it showed that our conjecture was correct. Here, the use of “we” seems to hint that the outcome might be different if the experiment was run by someone else.
The experiment showed that our conjecture was correct.
I do not particularly like the use of “I” in scientific writing, except when it is used to indicate that what follows is the author’s opinion. The use of “I” in place of “we” in papers with only one author is uncommon.
Use of personal pronouns has been a contentious issue in technical writing. Some people argue that it undermines objectivity by introducing the author’s personality and is therefore unacceptable, even unscientific.
Others argue that to suggest that a paper is not the work of inpiduals is intellectually dishonest, and that use of personal pronouns makes papers easier to read. Although opinions on this topic are pided, use of “we” is an accepted norm.
Don't Use Difficult terms and things
Some authors seem to have a superiority complex—a need to prove that they know more or are smarter than their readers. Perhaps the most appropriate word for this behavior is swagger.
One form of swagger is implying familiarity with material that most scientists will never read; an example is a reference to philosophers such as Wittgenstein or Hegel, or statements such as “the argument proceeds on Voltarian principles”.
Another form is the unnecessary inclusion of difficult mathematics or offhand remarks such as “analysis of this method is, of course, a straightforward application of tensor calculus”. Yet another form is a citation of obscure, inaccessible references.
This kind of showing off, of attempting to gain the upper hand over the reader, is snobbish and tiresome. Since the intention is to make statements the reader won’t understand, the only information conveyed is an impression of the author’s ego. Write for an ordinary reader, as your equal.
Obfuscation is the making of statements in ambiguous or convoluted terms, with the intention of hiding meaning, or of appearing to say much while actually saying little. It can be used, for example, to give the impression of having done something without actually claiming to have done it.
Experiments, with the improved version of the algorithm as we have described, are the step that confirms our speculation that performance would improve. The previous version of the algorithm is rather slow on our test data and improvements lead to better performance.
Note the use of bland statements such as “experiments… are the step that confirms our speculation” (true, but not informative) and “improvements lead to better performance” (tautologous). The implication is that experiments were undertaken, but there is no direct claim that experiments actually took place.
In science writing, vague statements are regrettably common. It is always preferable to be specific: exceptions are or are not possible, data was transmitted at a certain rate, and so on. Stating that “there may be exceptions in some circumstances” or “data was transmitted fast” is not helpful.
Obfuscation can arise in other ways: exaggeration, the omission of relevant information, or bold statements of conclusions based on flimsy evidence. Use of stilted or long-winded sentences—often due to an unnecessary attempt to introduce formality—can obfuscate.
The status of the system is such that a number of components are now able to be operated. Some obfuscation arises because processes are unnecessarily complex, are presented in unnecessary detail, or are outright unnecessary. The following was written as part of a tender process.
These draft guidelines are part of a process for seeking comments on the proposed stages for identifying the officers responsible for participating in the development of the initial specification.
Analogies are curious things: what seems perfectly alike or parallel to one person may seem entirely unlike to another. Writing a program is like building a model with connector blocks. What are “connector blocks”?
How are they like programming? Even if the similarity is obvious to a programmer, is it obvious to a novice? For an analogy to be worthwhile, it should significantly reduce the work of understanding the concept being described.
Another drawback to analogies is that they can take your reasoning astray—two situations with marked similarities may nonetheless have fundamental differences that the analogy leads you to ignore.
I have seen more bad analogies than good in computing research papers; however, simple analogies can undoubtedly help illustrate unfamiliar concepts.
Contrasting look-ahead graph traversal with standard approaches, look-ahead uses a bird’s-eye view of the local neighborhood to avoid dead ends, but at a significant cost: it is necessary to feed the bird and wait for it to return after each observation.
A straw man is an indefensible hypothesis that an author describes for the sole purpose of criticizing it. A paraphrasing of an instance in a published paper is “it can be argued that databases do not require indexes”, in which the author and reader are well aware that a database without an index is as practical as a library without a catalog.
Such writing says more about the author than it does about the subject. For example, occasionally an author will write something like: As the scale of data on the Web grows to billions of pages, searchers can no longer find answers to queries.
Another form of straw man is the contrasting of a new idea with some impossibly bad alternative, to put the new idea in a favorable light. This form is obnoxious because it can lead the reader to believe that the impossibly bad idea might be worthwhile and that the new idea is more important that is, in fact, the case. Contrasts should be between the new and the current, not the new and the fictitious.
A more subtle form of straw man is a comparison between the new and the ancient.
For example, criticisms based on results in old papers are sometimes unreasonable, because many of the factors that affected the results (architecture, scale, kinds of data, beliefs about algorithms, and so on) have changed dramatically in the meanwhile.
Likewise, decisions that look poor in retrospect may have been perfectly rational at the time. Since the invention of the internet, researchers have been using the Web to publish data.
Researchers working on computer image generation initially failed to consider the benefits of parallel processing. Considering that those researchers were working in the 1970s, they were unlikely to have had access to more than a single, sequential computer.
A straw man is an example of rhetoric—of attempting to win an argument through presentation rather than reasoning. Other forms of rhetoric are an appeal to authority, appeal to intuitively obvious truth, and presentation of received wisdom as fact.
Reference and Citation
You need to explain the relationship of your new work to existing work, showing how your work builds on previous knowledge and how it differs from contributions in other, relevant papers.
The existing work is identified by reference to published theses, articles, and books. All papers include a bibliography, that is, a list of such references in a standardized format, and embedded in each paper’s text there are citations to the publications.
References and discussion of them serve three main purposes. They help demonstrate that work is new: claims of originality are much more convincing in the context of references to existing work that (from the reader’s perspective) appears to be similar.
They demonstrate your knowledge of the research area, which helps the reader to judge whether your statements are reliable. And they are pointers to background reading.
Before including a reference, consider whether it will be of service to the reader. A reference should be relevant, up-to-date, and reasonably accessible; and it should be necessary. Don’t add citations just to pad the bibliography.
Refer to an original paper in preference to a secondary source; to well-written material in preference to bad; to a book, conference paper, or journal article in preference to a workshop paper; to a workshop paper in preference to a manuscript (which have the disadvantage of being unrefereed); and to formally published documents rather than Web pages.
Avoid reference to private communications and information provided in forums such as seminars or talks—such information cannot be accessed or verified by the reader. In the rare circumstance that you must refer to such material, do so via a footnote, parenthetical remark, or acknowledgment.
If you discuss a paper or note some particular contribution it makes, it must be cited. Otherwise, consider whether a reader needs the paper for knowledge in addition to that in the other papers you cite.
If the answer is no, perhaps it should be omitted. At the same time, ensure that it is clear to the reader that you know all the pertinent background literature.
Don’t cite to support common knowledge. For example, use of a binary tree in an algorithm doesn’t require a reference to a data structures text.
But claims, statements of fact, and discussion of previous work should be substantiated by reference if not substantiated within your write-up. This rule even applies to minor points. For some readers, the minor points could be of major interest.
In many papers, some of the references are to previous publications by the same author. Such references establish the author’s credentials as someone who understands the area, establish a research history for the paper, and allow the interested reader to gain a deeper understanding of the research by following it from its inception.
Gratuitous self-reference, however, undermines these purposes; it is frustrating for readers to discover that references are not relevant.
On rare occasions, it is necessary to refer to a result in an inaccessible paper. For example, suppose that in 1981 Dawson wrote “Kelly (1959) shows that stable graphs are closed”
But Kelly (1959) is inaccessible and Dawson (1981) does not give the details. In your write-up, do not refer directly to Kelly—after all, you can’t check the details yourself, and Dawson may have made a mistake.
According to Dawson (1981), stable graphs have been shown to be closed. According to Kelly (1959; as quoted by Dawson 1981), stable graphs are closed.
The second form tells readers who originated the result without the effort of obtaining Dawson first. Kelly’s entry in the bibliography should clearly show that the reference is second-hand.
Regardless of whether you have access to original sources, be careful to attribute work correctly. For example, some authors have referred to “Knuth’s Soundex algorithm”, although Knuth is not the author and the algorithm was at least fifty years old when Knuth discussed it.
Some readers of a paper will not have access to the publications it cites, and so may rely on the paper’s description of them. For this reason alone you should describe results from other papers fairly and accurately.
Any criticisms should be based on sound argument. That is, it is acceptable to make reasoned criticisms, and a careful assessment of past work is of great value because ultimately it is how a paper is regarded that determines its worth.
However, only rarely is it acceptable to offer opinions, and it is never acceptable to use flattery or scorn. Neither belittle papers, regardless of your personal opinion of their merits nor overstate their significance; and beware of statements that might be interpreted as pejorative.
Careful wording is needed in these circumstances. When referring to the work of Robinson, you might write that “Robinson thinks that…”, but this implies that you believe he is wrong and has a faint odor of insult;
You might write that “Robinson has shown that…”, but this implies that he is incontrovertibly right, or you might write that “Robinson has argued that…”, but then should make clear whether you agree.
A simple method of avoiding such pitfalls is to quote from the reference, particularly if it contains a short, memorable statement—one or two sentences, say— that is directly pertinent. The quotation also allows you to clearly distinguish between what you are saying and what others have said and is far preferable to plagiarism.
The cited material often uses different terminology, spelling, or notation, or is written for an entirely different context. When you use results from other papers, be sure to show the relationship to your own work.
For example, a reference might show a general case, but you use a special case; then you need to show that it is a special case. If you claim that concepts are equivalent, ensure that the equivalence is clear to the reader.
References that are discussed should not be anonymous.
Other work  has used an approach in which… Marsden  has used an approach in which…
Other work (Marsden 2018) has used an approach in which…
The modified versions provide more information to the reader, and “Marsden” is easier to remember than “” if the same paper is discussed later on.
Likewise, self-references should not be anonymous—it should be clear to the reader that references used to support your argument are your own papers, not independent authorities.
Smith et al.  found compressed lists to be…
In Smith et al. , we found compressed lists to be… Other references that are not discussed can just be listed. Better performance might be possible with string hashing techniques that do not use multiplication [11, 30].
Avoid unnecessary discussion of references
A common style is to use superscripted ordinal numbers, as in “… is discussed elsewhere”. Another style is the use of uppercase abbreviations, where references are denoted by strings.
This is not a good style: the abbreviations seem to encourage poor writing and, because uppercase characters stand out from the text, they are rather distracting.
Note, however, that many publishers insist on a particular style. (Some also insist that bibliographic entries be ordered alphabetically, which is convenient for the reader, or that they appear by order of citation, which is convenient for traditional typesetting.)
Your writing should be designed to survive a change in the style of citation. When discussing a reference with more than two authors, all but the first author’s name can be replaced by “et al.”
In a variant of this style, the full list is given at the first citation and the abbreviated form thereafter. Note the stop: “et al.” is an abbreviation. reference list Each entry in the should include enough detail to allow readers to find the paper.
Other than in extreme cases, the names of all authors should usually be given—don’t use “et al.” in the reference list. Be guided by the common practices in your research area.
The journal name should be given in full, and author names, paper title, year, volume, number, and pages must be provided. Consider also giving the month.
The conference name should be complete, and authors, title, year, and pages must be provided. Information such as publisher, conference location, month, and editors should also be given.
Give the title, authors, publisher, year, and, where relevant, edition and volume. If the reference is to a specific part of the book, give page numbers; for example, write “(Howing 1994; pp. 22–31)” rather than just “(Howing 1994)”. If the reference is to a chapter, give its title, pages, and, if applicable, authors.
In addition to the title, authors, year, and report number, you need to provide the address of the publisher (which is usually the authors’ home institution). If the report is available online, give its URL.
Given that technical reports are now so rare, and are relatively unreliable as a source of scientific knowledge, consider removing such references from the bibliography and citing directly from the text via a footnote.
If you cite a Web page, attempt to find a durable URL that is unlikely to change if, for example, a researcher changes the institution. In addition to the usual details, give the URL; they can include unusual characters, so make sure you represent these correctly.
It is a preferred practice to also include the date on which the Web page was accessed. However, as for technical reports, it is usually better to refer to such material in a footnote rather than as a formal entry in a bibliography. You should still provide sufficient details, of course, and a durable URL.
An email from a colleague is not a durable document, and should never be cited. If you have to mention it, use a footnote.
Take particular care to provide as much information as possible. If the reference is obscure, but you feel that you must refer to the First Scandinavian Workshop on Backward Compatibility, consider explaining how to obtain the proceedings or a copy of the paper.
Any of these kinds of references might have a DOI or some other form of permanent URL. If such a URL is available, you should include it.
Quotations are text from another source, usually included in a paper to support an argument. The copied text, if short, is enclosed in double quotes (which are more visible than single quotes and cannot be confused with apostrophes). Longer quotes are set aside in an indented block.
Computer security forensics is “the study of matching an intrusion event to an IP address, location, and inpidual” (Brinton 1997).
As described by Kang , there are three stages:
First, each distinct word is extracted from the data. During this phase, statistics are gathered about the frequency of occurrence. Second, the set of words is analyzed, to decide which are to be discarded and what weights to allocate to those that remain. Third, the data is processed again to determine likely aliases for the remaining words.
The quoted material should be an exact transcription of the original text; some syntactic changes are permissible, so long as the meaning of the text is unaltered, but the changes should be held to a minimum.
Changes of font, particularly the addition of emphasis by changing words to italics, should be explicitly identified, as should changes of nomenclature.
Long quotations, and quotation in full of material such as algorithms or figures, require permission from the publisher and from the author of the original.
In the acknowledgments of a write-up, you should thank everyone who made a contribution, whether advice, proofreading, coding, or whatever: include research students, research assistants, technical support, and colleagues. Funding sources should also be acknowledged.
It is usual to thank only those who contributed to the scientific content—don’t thank your parents or your cat unless they really helped with the research. Books and theses often have broader acknowledgments, however, to include thanks for people who have helped in non-technical ways.
Consider showing your acknowledgment to the people you wish to thank, in case they object to the wording or to the presence of their name in the paper.
There are two common forms of acknowledgment. One is to simply list the people who have helped with the paper.
I am grateful to Dale Washman, Kim Micale, and Dong Wen. I thank the Foundation for Science and Development for financial support.
The other common form is to explain each person’s contribution. On the one hand, don’t make your thanks too broad; if Kim and Dong constructed the proof, why aren’t they listed as authors? On the other hand, too much detail can damn with faint praise.
I am grateful to Dale Washman and Kim Micale for our fruitful discussions, and to Dong Wen for programming assistance. I thank the Foundation for Science and Development for financial support.
RESEARCH HYPOTHESES, PURPOSES, AND QUESTIONS
A research hypothesis is a prediction of the outcome of a study. The prediction may be based on an educated guess or a formal theory. Example 1 is a hypothesis for a nonexperimental study.
Hypothesis 1: First-grade girls have better reading comprehension than first-grade boys.
In Example 1, the researcher predicts that he or she will find higher reading comprehension among girls than boys. To test the prediction, a nonexperimental study is appropriate because the hypothesis does not suggest that treatments will reveal meaningful information. A simple research hypothesis predicts a relationship between two variables.
The two variables in Example 1 are (1) gender and (2) reading comprehension. The hypothesis states that reading comprehension is related to gender. The hypothesis in Example 2 is for an experimental study.
Hypothesis 2: Children who are shown a video that depicts mild violence will be more aggressive on the playground than those who are shown a similar video without violence.
In Example 2, the independent variable is violence (mild vs. no violence), and the dependent variable is aggressiveness on the playground. The hypotheses in Examples 1 and 2 are both examples of directional hypotheses because researchers predict the direction of the outcome (better scores or more aggression). Sometimes, researchers have a nondirectional hypothesis. Consider Example 3.
Hypothesis 3: The child-rearing practices of blue-collar parents are different from those of white-collar parents.
The author of Example 3 states that there will be a difference, but the author does not predict the direction of the difference. This is perfectly acceptable when there is no basis for making an educated guess as to the outcome of a study.
Instead of a nondirectional hypothesis, a researcher might state a research purpose. Example 4 shows a research purpose that corresponds to the nondirectional hypothesis in Example 3.
The research purpose is to explore differences in child-rearing practices between blue-collar and white-collar parents.
A research question may also be substituted for a nondirectional hypothesis. Example 5 shows a research question that corresponds to the nondirectional hypothesis in Example 3 and the research purpose in Example 4.
The research question is “How do the child-rearing practices differ between blue-collar and white-collar parents?”
When using a research question as the basis for research, researchers usually do not state it as a question that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no,” as is the case in Example 6.
The research question is “Do the child-rearing practices of blue-collar and white-collar parents differ?”
Example 6 merely asks, “Do they differ?” This is not a very interesting research question because it implies that the results of the research will be only a simple “yes” or “no.”
Example 5 is superior because it asks, “How do they differ?”—a question that implies that the results will be complex and, thus, more interesting and informative.
The choice between organizing research using a nondirectional hypothesis, a research purpose, or a research question is purely a matter of personal taste—all are acceptable in the scientific community.
When researchers are willing and able to predict the outcome of a study, they state a directional hypothesis—not a research purpose or question. In other words, a research purpose or a research question is a suitable substitute for a nondirectional hypothesis. It is inappropriate to use these as substitutes for a directional hypothesis.
Those who have read research reports in journals may have encountered references to another type of hypothesis: the null hypothesis. The null hypothesis is one that the researcher tries to disprove.
“Null” is the default position that no relationship exists between two or more variables. This is a statistical hypothesis that needs to be considered when analyzing results obtained from samples in quantitative research studies.
Formatting the Thesis
Margins and Spaces
This section begins with its title, in full capitals, with left-hand justification (but it could also be centered on the page). The chapter bears a number, in this case, an Arabic numeral (below we will see the available alternatives).
Then, after three or four blank lines, the title of the section appears to flush left, underlined and preceded by the Arabic numeral of the chapter and that of the section.
Then the title of the subsection appears two lines below (or double-spaced). The title of the subsection is not underlined, so as to distinguish it from that of the section. The text begins three lines under this title, and the first word is indented two spaces.
You can decide to indent the text only at the beginning of a section or at the beginning of each paragraph, as we are doing on this page. The indentation for a new paragraph is important because it shows at a glance that the previous paragraph has ended and that the argument restarts after a pause. As we have already seen, it is good to begin a new paragraph often, but not randomly.
The new paragraph means that a logical period, comprised of various sentences, has organically ended and a new portion of the argument is beginning. It is as if we were to pause while talking to say, "Understood?
Agreed? Good, let us proceed." Once all have agreed, we begin a new paragraph and proceed, exactly as we are doing in this case.
Once the section is finished, leave three lines between the end of the text and the title of the new section. (This is triple spacing.) Although this chapter is double-spaced, a thesis may be triple- spaced, so that it is more readable so that it appears to be longer, and so that it is easier to substitute a retyped page.
When the thesis is triple-spaced, the distance between the title of a chapter, the title of a section, and any other subhead increases by one line.
If a typist types the thesis, the typist knows how much margin to leave on all four sides of the page. If you type it, consider that the pages will have some sort of binding which will require some space between binding and text, and the pages must remain legible on that side. (It is also a good idea to leave some space on the other side of the page.)
This chapter on formatting, as we have already established, takes the form of typewritten pages of a thesis, insofar as the format of this book allows. Therefore, while this chapter refers to your thesis, it also refers to itself. In this chapter, I underline terms to show you how and when to underline;
I insert notes to show you how to insert notes; and I subpide chapters, sections, and subsections to show you the criteria by which to subpide these.
Underlining and Capitalizing
The typewriter does not include italic type, only roman type. Therefore, in a thesis, you must underline what in a book you would italicize. If the thesis were the typescript for a book, the typographer would then compose in italics all the words you underlined.
What should you then underline? It depends on the type of thesis, but in general, underline the following:
1. Foreign words of uncommon use (do not underline those that are already anglicized or currently in use, like the Italian words "ciao" and "paparazzi," but also "chiaroscuro," "manifesto," and "libretto"; in a thesis on particle physics, do not underline words common in that field such as "neutrino");
2. Scientific names such as "felis catus"
3. Technical terms: "the method of coring in the processes of oil prospecting ...";
4. Titles of books (not of book chapters or journal articles);
5. Titles of dramatic works, paintings, and sculptures
6. Names of newspapers, magazines, and journals
7. Titles of films published musical scores, and lyric operas.
Do not underline other authors' quotes. Underlining too much is like crying wolf: if you do it too many times, nobody will take notice. An underline must always correspond to that special intonation you would give to your voice if you were to read the text. It must attract the attention of your listeners, even if they are distracted.
You can decide to underline (sparingly) single terms of particular technical importance, such as your work's keywords. Here is an example:
Hjelmslev uses the term sign function for the correlation between two functions belonging to the two otherwise independent planes of expression and content. This definition challenges the notion of the sign as an autonomous entity.
Let it be clear that every time you introduce an underlined technical term you must define it immediately before or after. Do not underline for emphasis ("We believe what we have discovered decisively proves our argument that ..."). In general, avoid emphasis of any kind, including exclamation points.
Also, avoid ellipsis points used for anything other than to indicate a specific omission from a text you have quoted. Exclamation points, ellipses used to suspend a thought or sentence and underlined nontechnical terms are typical of amateur writers and appear only in self-published books.
A section can have a number of subsections, as in this chapter. If you underline the title of a section, not underlining the title of a subsection will suffice to distinguish the two, even if their distance from the text is the same. On the other hand, as you can see, strategic numbering can also help distinguish a section from a subsection.
Readers will understand that the first Arabic numeral indicates the chapter, the second Arabic numeral indicates the section, and the third indicates the subsection.
Sections Here I have repeated the title of this subsection to illustrate another system for formatting it. In this system, the title is underlined and run into the first paragraph of text.
This system is perfectly fine, except it prevents you from using the same method for a further subpision of the subsection, something that may at times be useful (as we shall see in this chapter). You could also use a numbering system without titles. For example, here is an alternative way to introduce the subsection you are reading:
Notice that the text begins immediately after the numbers; ideally, two blank lines would separate the new subsection from the previous one. Not with standing, the use of titles not only helps the reader but also requires coherence on the author's part, because it obliges him to define the section in question (and consequently, by highlighting its essence, to justify it).
With or without titles, the numbers that identify the chapters and the paragraphs can vary. Remember that the structure of the table of contents (the numbers and titles of the chapters and sections) must mirror the exact structure of the text.
Quotation Marks and Other Signs
Use quotation marks in the following cases:
1. To quote another author's sentence or sentences in the body of the text, as I will do here by mentioning that, according to Campbell and Ballou, "direct quotations not over three typewritten lines in length are enclosed in quotation marks and are run into the text."
1. William Giles Campbell and Stephen Vaughan Ballou, Form and Style, 4th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), 40.
2. To quote another author's inpidual terms, as I will do by mentioning that, according to the already-cited Campbell and Ballou, there are two types of footnotes: "content" and "reference."
After the first use of the terms, if we accept our authors' terminology and adopt these technical terms in our thesis, we will no longer use quotation marks when we repeat these terms.
3. To add the connotation of "so-called" to terms of common usage, or terms that are used by other authors. For example, we can write that what idealist aesthetics called "poetry" did not have the same breadth that the term has when it appears in a publisher's catalog as a technical term opposed to fiction and nonfiction.
Similarly, we will say that Hjelmslev's notion of sign function challenges the current notion of "sign." We do not recommend, as some do, using quotation marks to emphasize a word, as an underline better fulfills this function.
4. To quote lines in a dramatic work. When quoting a dramatic work, it is not incorrect to write that Hamlet pronounces the line, "To be or not to be, that is the question," but instead we recommend the following:
Hamlet: To be or not to be, that is the question.
Use the second format unless the critical literature that you are consulting uses other systems by tradition.
And how should you indicate a quote within another quote? Use single quotation marks for the quote within a quote, as in the following example, in which according to Smith, the famous line "To be or not to be, that is the question' has been the warhorse of all Shakespearean actors."
And what if Smith said that Brown said that Wolfram said something? Some writers solve this problem by writing that, according to Smith's well-known statement, "all who agree with Brown in 'refusing Wolfram's principle that "being and not being coincide"' incur an unjustifiable error."
Some European writers use a third kind of quotation marks known as guillemets or French quotation marks. It is rare to find them in an Italian thesis because the typewriter cannot produce them. Yet recently I found myself in need of them in one of my own texts.
I was already using double quotation marks for short quotes and for the "so-called" connotation, and I had to distinguish the use of a term as a /signifier/ (by enclosing it in slashes) and as a ‹‹signified›› (by enclosing it in guillemets).
Therefore, I was able to write that the word /dog/ means ‹‹carnivorous and quadruped animal, etc.››, and similar statements. These are rare cases, and you will have to make a decision based on the critical literature that you are using, working by hand with a pen in the typewritten thesis, just as I have done in this page.
Specific topics require other signs. It is not possible to give general instructions for these, although we can provide some examples here. For some projects in logic, mathematics, or non-European languages, you can only write these signs by hand.
This is certainly difficult work. However, you may find that your typewriter can produce alternative graphemes.
Naturally, you will have to ask your advisor if you can make these substitutions, or consult the critical literature on your topic.
You may encounter similar issues if you are working in linguistics, where a phoneme can be represented as [b] but also as /b/. In other kinds of formalization, parenthetical systems can be reduced to sequences of parentheses.
Similarly, the author of a thesis in transformational linguistics knows that he can use parentheses to represent syntactic tree branching. In any case, anyone embarking on these kinds of specialized projects probably already knows these special conventions.
Transliterations and Diacritics
To transliterate is to transcribe a text using the closest corresponding letters from an alphabet that is different from the original. Transliteration does not attempt to give a phonetic interpretation of a text but reproduces the original letter by letter so that anyone can reconstruct the text in its original spelling if they know both alphabets.
Transliteration is used for the majority of historic geographical names, as well as for words that do not have an English-language equivalent
Punctuation, Foreign Accents, and Abbreviations
There are differences in the use of punctuation and the conventions for quotation marks, notes, and accents, even among the major presses. A thesis can be less precise than a typescript ready for publication. Nevertheless, it is useful to understand and apply the general criteria for punctuation.
As a model, I will reproduce the instructions provided by Bompiani Editore, the press that published the original Italian version of this book, but we caution that other publishers may use different criteria. What matters here are not the criteria themselves, but the coherence of their application.
Periods and commas.
When periods and commas follow quotes enclosed in quotation marks, they must be inserted inside the quotation marks, provided that the quoted text is a complete sentence. For example, we will say that, in commenting on Wolfram's theory, Smith asks whether we should accept Wolfram's opinion that "being is identical to not being from any possible point of view."
As you can see, the final period is inside the quotation marks because Wolfram's quote also ended with a period. On the other hand, we will say that Smith does not agree with Wolfram's statement that "being is identical to not being".
Here we put the period after the quotation mark because only a portion of Wolfram’s sentence is quoted. We will do the same thing for commas: we will say that Smith, after quoting Wolfram's opinion that "being is identical to not being", very convincingly refutes it. And we will proceed differently when we quote, for example, the following sentence: "I truly do not believe," he said, "that this is possible."
We can also see that a comma is omitted before an open parenthesis. Therefore, we will not write, "he loved variegated words, fragrant sounds, (a symbolist idea), and velvety pulses" but instead "he loved variegated words, fragrant sounds (a symbolist idea), and velvety pulses".
Superscript note reference numbers. Insert the superscript note reference number after the punctuation mark. You will, therefore, write for example:
The best literature review on the topic, second only to Vulpius',1 is the one written by Krahenbuhl. The latter does not satisfy Pepper's standards of "clarity", but is defined by Grumpz4 as a "model of completeness."
1. This is a dummy note, inserted to illustrate the correct format; the author is fictional.
2. Fictional author.
3. Fictional author.
4. Fictional author.
Some other Tips
When you open quotation marks of any kind, always close them. This seems like an obvious recommendation, but it is one of the most common oversights in typewritten texts. A quote begins, and nobody knows where it ends.
Reread the typescript! Do this not only to correct the typographical errors (especially foreign words and proper nouns), but also to check that the note numbers correspond to the superscript numbers in the text and that the page numbers in the works you have cited are correct. Be absolutely sure to check the following:
Pages: Are they numbered consecutively? Cross-references: Do they correspond to the right chapter or page?
Quotes: Are they enclosed in quotation marks, and have you closed all quotations? Have you been consistent in using ellipses, square brackets, and indentations? Is each quote properly cited? Notes: Does the superscript note reference number in the text correspond to the actual note number?
If you are using footnotes, is the note appropriately separated from the body of the text? Are the notes numbered consecutively, or are there missing numbers? Bibliography: Are authors in alphabetical order?
Did you mix up any first and last names? Are all the bibliographical references complete? Did you include accessory details (e.g. the series title) for some entries, but not for others? Did you clearly distinguish books from journal articles and book chapters? Does each entry ends with a period?
The Final Bibliography
Additionally, let us say first of all that a thesis must have a final bibliography, notwithstanding the detail and precision of the references in the notes. You cannot force your reader to shuffle through pages of text to find needed information. For some theses, the final bibliography is a useful if not essential addition.
For others, the final bibliography may constitute the most interesting part: studies on the critical literature of a given topic; a thesis on all the published and unpublished works of a given author; or a thesis centered on bibliographical research, such as "Studies on Fascism from 1945 to 1950," where obviously the final bibliography is not an aid but the primary goal.
Finally, we just need to add a few instructions on how to structure a bibliography. Let us imagine, for example, a thesis on Bertrand Russell. We will pide the bibliography into "Works by Bertrand Russell" and "Works on Bertrand Russell." Russell's works will appear in chronological order while the critical literature on
Russell will appear in alphabetical order unless the topic of the thesis is "Studies on Bertrand Russell from 1950 to 1960 in England," in which case the critical literature should also appear in chronological order.
In a thesis about Watergate, we could pide the bibliography as follows: excerpts from the Nixon White House tapes, court transcripts and other court documents, official statements, media coverage, and critical literature. (We might also include a section of relevant works on contemporary American politics.)
As you can see, the format will change according to the thesis type, and the goal is to organize your bibliography so that it allows readers to identify and distinguish between primary and secondary sources, rigorous critical studies and less reliable secondary sources, etc.
In essence, and based on what we have said in the previous chapters, the aims of a bibliography are: (a) to clearly identify a source; (b) to enable the reader to find the source if needed; (c) to demonstrate the author's familiarity with the chosen discipline.
Demonstrating familiarity with the discipline entails demonstrating both knowledge of all the literature on your topic and a command of the discipline’s bibliographical conventions.
Regarding the latter, it may be that the standard conventions described in this book are not the best for your situation, and for this reason, you should model your work on the critical literature in your specific field.
Regarding the former, you will need to decide whether to include only the works you have consulted or all those that exist on a particular topic.
The most obvious answer is that the bibliography of a thesis must list only the works you have consulted and that any other solution would be dishonest. But here too, it depends on the type of thesis you are writing.
For example, the specific aim of your research project may include compiling all the written texts on a specific topic, even though it may be humanly impossible to read them all before you graduate.
In this case, you should clearly state that you did not consult all the works in the bibliography, and should indicate those you did read, perhaps with an asterisk.
But such a project is valid only where there are no existing complete bibliographies so that your work consists precisely of compiling references that were once scattered.
If by chance there is already a complete bibliography, it is better to refer the reader to it, and to include in your bibliography only the works you have actually consulted.
Often the reliability of a bibliography is evident from its title. Readers will have very different expectations from titles such as "Bibliographical References," "Works Cited," and "General Bibliography on Topic X." You cannot use the title "Bibliography on the Second World War" for a meager bibliography of thirty titles in English. Instead, simply call it "Works Cited" and hope for the best.
And no matter how meager your bibliography is, at least make an effort to put it in the correct alphabetical order. There are some rules: begin with the last name, and obviously, titles of nobility like "de" and "von" do not belong to the last name, while capitalized prepositions do. So include "D'Annunzio" under D, but "Ferdinand de Saussure" under S, as "Saussure,
Here too, keep an eye on the critical literature and follow its conventions. For example, for ancient authors (and until the fourteenth century), alphabetize by the first name. Do not alphabetize by what might seem to be the last name but is actually a patronymic or an indication of the place of birth.
In conclusion, below is a standard pision for the final bibliography of a generic thesis:
Secondary sources on the topic or the author (perhaps pided into sections for books and articles) Additional material (interviews, documents, statements).
In some cases, the appendix or appendices are indispensable. If you are writing a thesis in philology and discussing a rare text that you have found and transcribed, you can present this text in the appendix, and this may be the most original contribution of the entire work.
In a thesis in history in which you often refer to a certain document, you could present it in the appendix, even if it has already been published.
A thesis in law that discusses a law or a body of laws should present these in the appendix (unless they are part of current, widely accessible codes). Place tables, diagrams, and statistical data in the appendix, unless they are short examples that you can insert into the main text.
In general, place particular materials in the appendix to prevent long and boring quotes in the body of the text, and to facilitate quick reference. Place in the appendix all the data and documents that would burden the text and make reading difficult.
On the other hand, numerous references to the appendix can also make reading difficult, especially if they force the reader to constantly page back and forth between the section he is reading and the end of the thesis.
In these cases, you should follow common sense, if nothing else, by doing everything you can to make the text clear, inserting short citations, and summarizing the content of the material which appears in the appendix.
If you think it is fitting to develop a certain theoretical point, yet you realize that it interferes with the development of your overall argument because it is an accessory to or an extension of your topic, you can place the treatment of that point in the appendix.
Suppose you are writing a thesis on the influence of Aristotle's Poetics and Rhetoric on Renaissance thought, and you discover that, in the twentieth century, the Chicago School has offered contemporary reinterpretations of these texts.
If the observations of the Chicago School are useful to clarify the relationship between Aristotle and Renaissance thought, you will cite them in the text.
But it may be interesting to go deeper into the topic in a separate appendix, where you can use the example of the Chicago School's reinterpretations to illustrate how not only Renaissance scholars but also scholars in our century have made an effort to revitalize the Aristotelian texts.
Similarly, you may find yourself writing a thesis in Romance philology on the character of Tristan and dedicating an appendix to the myth's use by the Decadent movement, from Wagner to Thomas Mann.
This topic is not immediately relevant to the philological topic of your thesis, but you may wish to argue that Wagner's interpretation provides interesting suggestions to the philologist or, on the contrary, that it represents a model of flawed philology, perhaps suggesting further reflection and investigation.
This kind of appendix is not recommended for a thesis, because it better suits the work of a mature scholar who can take the liberty of venturing into erudite digressions and various modes of criticism.
However, I am suggesting it for psychological reasons. Inspired by your enthusiasm, you will sometimes discover complementary or alternative avenues of research, and you will not resist the temptation to discuss these insights.
By reserving these insights for the appendix, you will be able to satisfy your need to express them without compromising the rigor of your thesis.
The Table of Contents
In the table of contents, you must record all the chapters, sections, and subsections of the text, and you must exactly match their numbering, pages, and wording. This may seem like obvious advice, but before handing in the thesis, you should carefully verify that you have met these requirements.
The table of contents is an indispensable service that you provide both to the reader and to yourself, as it helps one to quickly locate a particular topic.
Generally, in English and also in many German books, it appears at the beginning; in Italian and French books, it appears at the end. (Recently, some Italian publishers have also begun placing the table of contents at the beginning.)
I think the table of contents is more convenient at the beginning of a work. You can find it after a few pages, whereas you have to exert more energy to consult it at the end. But if it is at the beginning, it should truly be at the beginning.
Some English books place it after the preface, but often after the preface comes an introduction to the first edition, then an introduction to the second edition. This is an outrage. They may as well place the table of contents in the middle of the book.
An alternative is to place a table of contents proper (listing only the chapters) at the very beginning of a work, and a more detailed version with exhaustive subpisions at the end.
Another alternative is to place the table of contents with the chapters at the beginning, and an index of subjects at the end, generally accompanied by an index of names.
However, this is not necessary in a thesis. It is sufficient to write a detailed table of contents, and preferably to place it at the beginning of the thesis, right after the title page.
The structure of the table of contents must mirror that of the text, as must the format. You could number the table of contents shown as follows:
A. FIRST CHAPTER
A.1. First Section
A.2. Second Section
A.2.1. First Subsection
A.2.2. Second Subsection
Or you could present it this way:
I. FIRST CHAPTER
I.1. First Section
I.2. Second Section
I.2.1. First Subsection
I.2.2. Second Subsection
You can even choose other criteria, as long as they provide the same immediate clarity and evidence.
I would like to conclude with two observations. First, writing a thesis should be fun. Second, writing a thesis is like cooking a pig: nothing goes to waste.
If you lack research experience and are afraid to begin your thesis, you may be terrorized after reading this book. Confronted with all these rules and instructions, you may feel that it is impossible to get out alive. But remember this: for the sake of completeness, I wrote this book for a hypothetical student without any experience.
My blog can then serve as a reminder, bringing to awareness what many of you have already absorbed without realizing it. A driver, when he is confronted with a record of his own actions, realizes that he is a prodigious machine that makes vital decisions within a fraction of a second, with no margin for error.
And still, almost everyone drives a car, and (as the moderate number of car accident victims indicates) the vast majority of drivers and passengers get out alive.
What really matters is that you write your thesis with gusto. If you choose a topic that interests you, and if you truly dedicate to your thesis the time you have allotted, however short (we have set a minimum of six months), you will experience the thesis as a game, as a bet, or as a treasure hunt.
There is the satisfaction of competitive sports in hunting a text that is difficult to find; and there is the satisfaction of solving an enigma in discovering, after long reflection, the solution to an apparently insoluble problem. You must experience the thesis as a challenge. You are the challenger.
At the beginning you posed a question which you did not yet know how to answer. The challenge is to find the solution in a finite number of moves. Sometimes, you can experience the thesis as a game between you and your author;
He seems to conceal his secret from you, and you must trick him, question him gently, compel him to say what he does not want to say, but what he should have said. Sometimes, the thesis is a game of solitaire; you have all the pieces, and the challenge is to make them fall into place.
If you play the game with competitive gusto, you will write a good thesis. But if you begin with the idea that it is a meaningless ritual in which you have no interest, you have lost before you have begun.
If this is the case, as I have already told you (and I do not wish repeat this illegal advice), have someone else write it for you. Or copy it. Do not waste your time, or that of your advisor, the person who must aid you and read your thesis from beginning to end.
If you write the thesis with gusto, you will be inspired to continue. Usually, while a student begins working on his thesis, he thinks only about finishing it, and he dreams of the vacation that will follow. But if you work rigorously, it is not abnormal for you to become obsessed with your work, unable to stop.
You want to explore in depth all the points that you have omitted, you want to chase all the tangential ideas that struck you but that you eliminated for brevity, you want to read other books, and you want to write essays.
This is the sign that the thesis has activated your intellectual metabolism, and that it has been a positive experience. It is the sign that you are the victim of a compulsion to research, somewhat like Charlie Chaplin’s character in Modern Times, a factory worker who keeps tightening screws even after a long day of work. Like Chaplin, you will have to make an effort to restrain yourself.
But once you have temporarily contained this urge, you may realize that you have a calling for research, that the thesis was not simply the means to a degree, and the degree was not simply the means to career advancement, or to please your parents. However, your motivation to continue research does not necessarily have to translate into a university career.
It also does not preclude you from accepting a job offer upon graduation. You can dedicate a reasonable amount of time to research while working another job, without expecting a university appointment. In many fields, a good professional must also continue to study.
If you devote yourself to your research, you will find that a thesis done well is a product of which nothing goes to waste. You can convert your finished thesis into one or more scholarly articles, or maybe even a book (with some revision).
But in time, you may return to your thesis to find material to quote for other projects, or to reuse your readings index cards, maybe using parts that did not make it to the final draft of your first work.
The marginal parts of your thesis may present themselves anew, as the beginning of new research projects. You may even decide to return to your thesis after decades. Your thesis is like your first love: it will be difficult to forget. In the end, it will represent your first serious and rigorous academic work, and this is no small thing.
Developing Your Research Question
The Importance of Good Questions
Remember: research is a decision-making journey. The process, in fact, demands that you constantly engage in decision-making that is logical, consistent and coherent.
And what do you think is the benchmark for logical, consistent and coherent decision-making? It’s that the choices you make take you one step closer to being able to answer your research question credibly. So without a clear articulation of your question, you are really traveling blind.
Research questions are essential because of they:
Define an investigation
A well-articulated research question can provide both you and your eventual readers with information about your project. It can: define the topic – youth suicide, environmental degradation, secularization, etc.; define the nature of the research endeavour – to discover, explore, explain, describe or compare;
Define the questions you are interested in – what, where, how, when, why; define your constructs and variables – income, age, education, gender, self-esteem, pollution, etc.; and indicate whether you foresee a relationship between variables – impacts, increases, decreases, relationships, correlations, causes, etc.
Set boundaries – Along with your research journey you are likely to find yourself facing plenty of tangents, detours, and persions, and a well-defined question can help you set boundaries. When faced with an interesting tangent, ask yourself: ‘What does this have to do with my question?’ I would suggest that there are three potential answers:
(1) actually very little – I will have to leave it and maybe pick it up in my next project; (2) actually it is quite relevant – if you think about it, it really does relate to … (this can be exciting and add new dimensions to your work); and (3) well, nothing really, but I actually think this is at the heart of what I want to know – perhaps I need to rethink my question.
Provide direction –
A well-defined, well-articulated research question will act as a blueprint for your project. It will point you towards the theory you need to explore; the literature you need to review; the data you need to gather; and the methods you need to call on.
In fact, I would suggest that it is nearly impossible to define a clear methodology for an ill-defined research question. If you do not know what you want to know, you will not be in a position to know how to find it out.
Act as a frame of reference for assessing your work –
Not only does your question provide continuity and set the agenda for your entire study, but it also acts as a benchmark for assessing decision-making. The criteria for all decisions related to your project will be whether or not choices lead you closer to credible answers to your research question.
Now I don’t want to make it sound like research questions are reductionist devices that take all exploration, creativity, and fluidity out of the research process. Not at all.
Research questions themselves can be designed so that they are open and exploratory. As well, research questions can and often do, change, shift and evolve during the early stages of a project.
This is as it should be since your engagement in the literature evolves both your knowledge and thinking. Yes, research questions define an investigation and provide direction, but it is up to the researcher to define and redefine questions so that they can most appropriately accomplish these tasks.
The Preliminaries: Defining Your Topic
All this talk about the importance of research questions is fine, but what if you’re not even sure what interests to pursue? Well, you are not alone.
Yes, there are plenty of students who are quite clear about what they want to research, but there are also a lot who really struggle with the idea of generating a research topic. In fact, many feel that coming up with something worthy of research is beyond them.
So how do you focus in on a topic? You work on generating ideas by homing in on your curiosity and creativity; looking for inspiration and exploring your options with an eye towards practicalities. It is the first step in moving from real challenges and opportunities to research questions.
Curiosity and Creativity
Discovery consists in seeing what everyone else has seen and thinking what no one else has thought. Albert Szent-Györgyi
Ideas for research are generated any time curiosity or passion is aroused. Every day we are surrounded by events, situations, and interactions that make us wonder, stop and think, or bring joy, frustration, relief or anger bubbling to the surface. This is the rich and fertile ground from which research ideas are born.
Think about what stirs you, what you argue about with your friends, family, and peers, and what issues are topical in the world, at home or in your workplace. You will soon find that research topics abound. If you can learn to catch yourself thinking, ‘Gee, I wonder …’, you will have an unending supply of ideas.
An option worth trying here is a concept map. Mapping allows you the freedom to think laterally as well as linearly. It uses free association to encourage the mind to jump from one idea to another, thereby enhancing creative processes.
Concept mapping can facilitate brainstorming, drawing out connections and building themes; and can also be a great tool for overcoming writer’s block.
Turning to Literature
The importance of reading for research cannot be overemphasized. Never do we know everything about our topic, and rarely do we know enough. Getting abreast of the background, context, controversies, academic debates and political agendas surrounding your area of interest is time well spent.
It will certainly help you identify research interests and research needs. You may find yourself drawn to the exploration of an important aspect of a problem that has been ignored in the literature.
You may want to question some of the assumptions that underpin common understandings. You may decide to add to a raging debate with an innovative approach.
You may want to take up an opportunity to gather definitive data evidence for much needed evidence-based decision-making. You may want to take up the challenge of answering further questions posed at the end of a research paper.
In addition to topical literature, you might also develop questions through your engagement with theory. This happens when you are reading ‘theory’ and it suddenly resonates. You think ‘aha’, maybe that is why a particular situation is a way it is, or perhaps that is why they do what they do.
A student of mine had such a moment when he read a work by Althusser highlighting the role that institutions such as the family, schools and the Church have in embedding government ideology into inpidual consciousness.
The student began to view the role of the Church in a new light and decided to investigate if and how the Irish Catholic Church operates as an arm of the government in the socialization of its citizens.
An early literature task is the preliminary literature review. This is an attempt to become aware of the scope of research that has been conducted in your area.
By understanding what has been researched, what has not been researched, the methods employed and the efficacy of those methods/projects, you can begin to understand the need for and scope of potential projects in your space. An early literature review is an excellent way to begin to narrow into your research.
Looking for Inspiration
Another approach for narrowing in on your topic is to be highly attuned to the world around you. Inspiration might be drawn from:
Personal insights and experiences –
Everyone has experience and insight they can draw on. Take the workplace, for example. Just about anyone who has ever had a job will tell you that workplaces are rife with problems: red tape, inefficiencies, ineptitude, incompetence, decision-makers not in touch with the coal-face, corruption, profit before service, morale, and motivation.
Your own frustrations are often tied to the frustrations of many and if they can also be tied to the goals, aims, objectives, and vision of the organization, community or institution in which they sit, then there is a good chance those very frustrations will have ‘research’ potential.
An observation –
It can be quite hard to see what surrounds us, so viewing the world through fresh eyes can provide powerful research insights. This happened to a student of mine who was on a train when he suddenly became fascinated by the unwritten rules of personal space.
He found himself intrigued by the rules that governed who sat where, how close they sat, who moved away from whom and under what circumstances. He watched with fascination as people jockeyed for seats as the number of carriage occupants changed with each stop, and decided that he wanted to study the rules that govern such behavior.
Sometimes an old topic can take on fresh life. A topic might suddenly become an agenda at the workplace or may even become the focus of global attention. The Western world’s interest in, fascination with and judgment of Islamic faith is a case in point.
‘Angles’ become easy to find and questions such as ‘How are the media covering the topic?’, ‘What are the policy, practice, and rhetoric of government?’ and ‘What impact is this having on schoolyard racism?’ become quite easy to generate.
Identifying stakeholder needs
Stakeholder needs can be extremely broad and can range from the need for an equitable health-care system to a need for remediation of blue-green algae blooms in the local catchment to a need to motivate students to stay in school.
Identifying needs can come from following media coverage, reading letters to the editor or listening to stakeholders at various forums including town council meetings, workplace meetings or any other place where stakeholders may gather to express their concerns.
Selecting Issues Suitable for Research
Below is a list of research topics some of my students are working on and how/why these issues were selected.
The impact of the accessibility of pornography on the sexual expectation of teens – Selected by a high school counselor concerned over what he sees as a worrying trend.
The inclusion of climate change risk as a factor in fire management planning – Selected by a manager in the New South Wales Rural Fire Service who recognized the need for currency in planning processes.
A large percentage of non-recyclable materials in household recycle bins – Selected by a frustrated council officer in charge of waste management who was undertaking a higher degree.
Decision-making in a health promotion center without any evidence base – Selected by the new center director who was unsure how to prioritize issues.
Violence towards nursing staff in emergency wards – Selected by a former nurse undertaking an occupational health and safety postgraduate degree after being forced into a career change by a patient attack.
Bastardization and ritual hazing at university – Selected by a student who went through such practices in her first year at university.
Subcontractors in the construction industry with poor safety records – Selected by an occupational health and safety student because of current media coverage related to the topic.
Underutilization of experiential learning in the classroom – Selected by an education student through the literature she came across in the course of her degree.
The motivations of inpiduals adopting strategies to mitigate climate change –Selected by a student fascinated by apathy in spite of inpiduals’ knowledge of a threat.
Disregard of fire alarms in Hong Kong high-rises – Selected by a fire safety officer undertaking a higher degree, who was in charge of an investigation where seven people died because they ignored an alarm.
I have a question!
Do I have unlimited scope in choosing my research topic?
In a word. No. As limiting as it may seem, all budding topics need to be checked against practicalities. No matter how interesting a topic appears, in the end, your project must be ‘doable’.
At the stage of topic definition, ‘doability’ includes: (1) Appropriateness – some ideas are simply not relevant to the degree you are undertaking. Even if a topic has potential, it may be at odds with your academic programme.
If this is the case, it is a signal to sit down and really think about your research, academic, and career goals … and seek alignment. (2) Supervision – not many students manage to negotiate a major research project without a great deal of supervisory support.
Finding out whether appropriate supervision for your topic is available before you lock yourself into a project is well advised.
(3) Funding body/employer requirements – if a funding body or employer has sponsored you to conduct research in a particular area, you may not be able to shift topics.
Keep in mind, however, that even within a defined project, there can be scope to concentrate on particular aspects or bring a fresh perspective to an issue. Open negotiation and even a ‘sales pitch’ covering the relevance and possible benefits of your proposed research can give you more creative potential.
From Interesting Topics to Researchable Questions
Hopefully, you now recognize the importance of developing a clear research question and have an interesting topic in mind. It’s time to begin narrowing in on your question.
While expansive questions can be the focus of good research, ambiguity can arise when questions are broad and unwieldy. Being bounded and precisely makes the research task easier to accomplish.
If you are worried about being too limited, keep in mind that each question can be likened to a window that can be used to explore rich theory and depth in understanding.
‘Focused’ is not a synonym for ‘superficial’. There are two strategies I recommend for narrowing in. The first is to revisit your concept map, while the second is to work through the four-step question generation process outlined below.
Four-step Question Generation Process
A more linear process than concept mapping is to work through the following four steps:
Using only one- or two-word responses, write down the answers to the following questions:
1. What is your topic? For example, back pain, recycling, independent learning, social media bullying …
2. What is the context for your research? For example, a school, local authority, hospital, community …
3. What do you want to achieve? For example, to discover, to describe, to change, to explore, to explain, to develop, to understand …
4. What is the nature of your question? Is it a what, who, where, how, when or why question?
5. Are there any potential relationships you want to explore? For example, impacts, increases, decreases, relationships, correlations, causes …
2. Starting with the nature of the question – who, what, where, how, when – begin to piece together the answers generated in step 1 until you feel comfortable with the eventual question or questions.
Suppose your problem was the large percentage of non-recyclable materials in household recycling bins. The answers from step 1 might lead to a number of questions:
1.Topic: recycling. Context: domestic/community. Goal: to explore why there is a lack of efficiency. Nature of your question: who and why.
Relationship: correlation between demographic characteristics and inefficient recycling.
Question: Is there a relationship between household recycling behaviors and demographic characteristics?
(b) Topic: recycling. Context: domestic/households. Goal: to understand how inpiduals go about the task of recycling. Nature of your question: how. Relationship: N/A.
Question: How do inpiduals engage in decision-making processes related to household domestic waste management?
(c) Topic: recycling. Context: domestic/community. Goal: to describe the nature of recycling inefficiencies so that an effective community awareness campaign can be developed. Nature of your question: what. Relationship: N/A.
Question: What are the most common non-recyclable items found in household recycling bins?
3 If you have developed more than one question (remember: anyone problem can lead to a multitude of research questions), decide on your main question based on interest and practicalities as well as the advice of your supervisor.
4 Narrow and clarify until your question is as concise and well-articulated as possible. Remember: the first articulation of any research question is unlikely to be as clear, helpful and unambiguous as the third, fourth or even fifth attempt.
These two processes should go a long way in helping you define a solid research question – something essential for setting you on the right methodological path. But getting there can be a process.
The Evolution of a ‘Good’ Research Question
Initial Question: How should schools deal with child abuse?
Problems: High ambiguity – need to define schools; need to define child abuse; need to define ‘abusers’; need to define ‘deal with’.
After several iterations that included consultation with literature, key stakeholders and supervisor …
Final Question: What is best practice for UK elementary schools in managing allegations of physical, emotional or sexual mistreatment of school children by school staff?
Initial Question: Does mandatory reporting decrease domestic violence?
Problems: Ambiguity – need to define mandatory reporting; need to define domestic violence; need to define stakeholders. Possibly wrong question – questions that start with ‘Does’ are yes/no questions; not generally what you want.
After several iterations that included consultation with literature, key stakeholders and supervisor …
Final Question: Have the Northern Territory Domestic and Family Violence Act amendments introducing mandatory reporting of domestic violence decreased incidents of violence, in spite of statistics that show an increase in reported events?
Initial Question: Should Facebook be open to exploration by researchers?
Problems: Ambiguity – need to define what aspects of Facebook; need to define researchers; need to define exploration. Possibly wrong question – another yes/no question; worth reconsidering what you really want to know that sits under this articulation. After several iterations that included consultation with literature, key stakeholders and supervisor …
Final Question: Under what circumstances might an analysis of Facebook posts be warranted by professional researchers and how can this be managed in an ethical fashion?
The Need to Redefine
You now have the perfect research question. You are on track and ready to set that question in stone. Well, perhaps not – research questions can, and often do, change, shift and evolve during the early stages of a project; and not only is this fine, but it is also actually appropriate as your engagement in the research process evolves both your knowledge and thinking
Developing a clear question is essential for direction setting, but it is important to remember that the research journey is rarely linear. It is a process that generates as many questions as it answers, and is bound to take you in unexpected directions.
Consider the following. In order to do research, you need to:
1. Define your research question so that you can identify the body of literature you need to become conversant with and eventually review.
2. Read and review a body of literature so that you are in a position to form appropriate, researchable questions.
So what comes first, the chicken or the egg? In the case of reading and question setting, one does not necessarily precede the other. They should, in fact, be intertwined.
Research generally starts with an idea, which might come from any number of sources. The idea should then lead to reading; this reading should lead to the development of a potentially researchable question; the potential question should lead to more specific reading, and the specific reading should modify the question.
A similar situation can occur when you begin to explore your methodology. Delving into ‘how’ your research might unfold can pique your interest in aspects of your topic not reflected in your currently defined question. Yet without that defined question, you might not have gone as far in exploring potential methods.
In fact, as you get going with your research, you may come across any number of factors that can lead you to query your aims and objectives; modify your question; add questions, or even find new questions.
The challenge is assessing whether these factors are sending you off the track, or whether they represent developments and refinements that are positive for your work. Discussing the issues with your supervisor can provide invaluable support in making such determinations.
The Hypothesis Dilemma
‘Do I need a “hypothesis”?’ This must be one of the most common questions asked by students, and there seem to be two clearly defined paradigmatic schools of thought driving the answers.
Positivists believe that the hypothesis is the cornerstone of the scientific method and that it is an absolutely necessary component of the research process. Post-positivists, however, often view the hypothesis as a reductionist device designed to constrain social research.
Unfortunately, this tendency for dichotomization offers little assistance to students struggling to figure out if a hypothesis should drive their research. To answer this question, students need to know two things: what a hypothesis actually does; and whether a hypothesis is appropriate given their research question.
A hypothesis takes your research question a step further by offering a clear and concise statement of what you think you will find in relation to your variables, and what you are going to test. It is a tentative proposition that is subject to verification through subsequent investigation. And it can be very useful in the right context.
Suppose you are interested in research on porce. Your research question is: ‘What factors contribute to a couple’s decision to porce?’ Your hunch is that it has a lot to do with money – financial problems lead to porce.
Here you have all the factors needed for a hypothesis: logical conjecture (your hunch); variables (porce and financial problems); and a relationship that can be tested (leads to). It is, therefore, a perfect question for a hypothesis – maybe something like ‘Financial problems increase the likelihood of porce’.
A question like ‘Is there a relationship between the hour's teenagers spend on social media and their self-esteem?’ is also a fairly good candidate for hypothesis development. Your hunch is that social media engagement has an impact on self-esteem. What is needed, however, is a directionality in the relationship.
Do you suspect that self-esteem is positively or negatively correlated with social media engagement? Once that is determined you have all the factors needed for a hypothesis: logical conjecture (your hunch);
variables (social media engagement and self-esteem); and a relationship that can be tested (self-esteem increases or decreases in relation to media engagement). Your hypothesis might end up as ‘Teens who spend a large amount of free time on social media have high levels of self-esteem’.
Basically, if you have (1) a clearly defined research question, (2) variables to explore and (3) a hunch about the relationship between those variables that (4) can be tested, a hypothesis is quite easy to formulate.
Now not all research questions will lend themselves to hypothesis development. Take the question ‘How do high school students engage in decision-making processes related to career/further study options?’
Remember: a hypothesis is designed to express ‘relationships between variables’. This question, however, does not aim to look at variables and their relationships. The goal of this question is to uncover and describe a process, so a hypothesis would not be appropriate.
Generally, a hypothesis will not be appropriate if:
You do not have a hunch or educated guess about a particular situation – For example, you may want to study alcoholism in the South Pacific, but you do not feel you are in a position to hypothesize because you are without an appropriate cultural context for educated guessing.
You do not have a set of defined variables – Your research may be explorative in a bid to name the contributing factors to a particular situation. In the case of alcoholism in the Pacific Islands, your research aim may be to identify the factors or variables involved.
Your question centers on phenomenological description – For example, you may be interested in the question, ‘What is the experience of drinking like for Pacific Islanders?’ A relationship between variables does not come into play.
Your question centers on an ethnographic study of a cultural group – For example, you might want to ask ‘What is the cultural response to a defined problem of alcoholism in a South Pacific village?’ In this situation, force-fitting a hypothesis can limit the potential for rich description.
Your aim is to engage in, and research, the process of collaborative change
– In ‘action research’, the methodology is both collaborative and emergent, making predetermined hypotheses impractical to use.
In short, whether a hypothesis is appropriate for your question depends on the nature of your inquiry. If your question boils down to a ‘relationship between variables’, then a hypothesis can clarify your study to an extent even beyond a well-defined research question. If your question, however, does not explore such a relationship, then force-fitting a hypothesis simply won’t work.
Characteristics of Good Questions
Once you come up with a research question, you need to assess if it is going to be researchable at a practical level. Try running through the following checklist. If you find yourself feeling uncomfortable with the answers, it may indicate a need to rethink your question.
Is the Question Right for Me?
Common wisdom suggests that setting a realistic research plan involves assessing (1) your level of commitment and (2) the hours you think you will need to dedicate to the task – then double both. You need to consider whether your question has the potential to hold your interest for the duration.
There is, however, a flipside. Questions that can truly sustain your interest are usually the ones that best bring out your biases and subjectivities, these subjectivities need to be carefully explored and managed in ways that will ensure the integrity of the research process. You may want to give careful consideration to:
Researching questions where you know you have an ax to grind. Deep-seated prejudices do not generally lend themselves to credible research. Researching issues that are too close to homes, such as domestic violence or sexual abuse. While researching such issues can be healing and cathartic, mixing personal and professional motivations in an intense fashion can be potentially detrimental to both agendas.
Is the Question Right for the Field?
The role of research is to do one or more of the following: advance knowledge in a particular area/field; improve professional practice; impact on policy or aid inpiduals. Research questions need to be significant – not only to you but to a wider academic or professional audience as well.
I often ask my students to imagine they are applying for competitive funds that will cover the cost of their research. Before they can even begin to make arguments that will convince a funding body they are competent to do the research and that their approach is likely to give meaningful and credible results, they will need to convince the body that the topic itself is worth funding. They need to be able to articulate:
Why knowledge is important.
What the societal significance is.
How the findings will lead to societal advances.
What improvements to professional practice and/or policy may come from their research.
An early task in the research process is to be able to clearly articulate a rationale for your study that outlines the significance of the project. Your question needs to be informed by the literature and be seen as significant.
Is the Question Well Articulated?
A research question not only indicates the theory and literature you need to explore and review, but also points to the data you will need to gather, and the methods you will need to adopt. This makes clear articulation of research questions particularly important. Terms need to be unambiguous and clearly defined.
Take the question ‘Is health care a problem in the USA?’ As a question for general debate, it is probably fine. As a research question, however, it needs a fair bit of clarification. How are you defining ‘health care’? What boundaries are you putting on the term? How are you defining ‘problem’?
Social, moral, economic, legal or all of these? And who are you speaking for? A problem for whom? The more clarity in the question, the more work the question can do, making the direction of the study that much more defined.
Another point to consider is whether your question rests on unfounded assumptions. Take the question ‘How can women in Fijian villages overthrow the patriarchal structures that oppress them?’ There are a few assumptions here that need to be checked:
1. That there are patriarchal structures. This information might exist and be found in the literature. Assuming this is true …
2.That these patriarchal structures are indeed oppressive to the women concerned.
3.That there is a desire on the part of Fijian women to change these patriarchal structures.
4.That ‘overthrowing’ is the only option mentioned for change. It is a loaded term that alludes to strong personal subjectivities.
Is the Question Doable?
Perhaps the main criterion of any good research question is that you will be able to undertake the research necessary to answer the question. Now that may sound incredibly obvious, but there are many questions that cannot be answered through the research process. Take, for example, the question ‘Does a difficult labor impact on a newborn’s ability to love its mother?’
Not researchable. How do you define ‘love’? And even if you could define it, you would need to find a way to measure a newborn’s ability to love. And even if you could do that, you are left with the dilemma of correlating that ability to love to a difficult labor. Interesting question, but not researchable.
Other questions might be researchable in theory, but not in practice. Student research projects are often constrained by:
a lack of time
a lack of funds
a lack of expertise
a lack of access
a lack of ethical clearance.
Making sure your question is feasible and that it can lead to a completed project is worth doing early. Nothing is worse than realizing your project is not doable after investing a large amount of time and energy.
Does the Question Get the Tick of Approval from Those in the Know?
When it comes to articulating the final question it makes sense to ask the advice of those who know and do research. Most supervisors have a wealth of research and supervisory experience, and generally know what questions are ‘researchable’ and what questions will leave you with a massive headache.
Run your question past lecturers in the field, your supervisor and any ‘experts’ you may know.
Is the question right for me?
Will the question hold my interest?
Can I manage any potential biases/subjectivities I may have?
Is the question right for the field?
Will the findings be considered significant?
Will it make a contribution to knowledge?
Does it have the ability to effect change?
Is the question well articulated?
Are the terms well defined?
Are there any unchecked assumptions?
Is the question doable?
Can information be collected in an attempt to answer the question?
Do I have the skills and expertise necessary to access this information? If not, can the skills be developed?
Will I be able to get it all done within my time constraints?
Are costs likely to exceed my budget?
Are there any potential ethical problems?
Does the question get the tick of approval from those in the know?
Does my supervisor think I am on the right track?
Do ‘experts’ in the field think my question is relevant/important/doable?