What is a Thesis (2019)

What is a Thesis

What Is a Thesis, and Why Is It Required?

thesis is a typewritten manuscript, usually 100 to 400 pages in length, in which the student addresses a particular problem in his chosen field. Italian law requires students to successfully complete a thesis before they are granted John, currently the terminal humanities degree offered by Italian universities.


Once the student has passed all required exams and finished writing his thesis, he defends it in front of a committee. During this defense, the thesis advisor and one or more readers give a report that may include objections to the candidate’s thesis.


This report sparks a discussion in which other professors participate as members of the committee. The advisor and a second professor identify the strengths and weaknesses of the thesis and evaluate the candidate’s capacity to defend the opinions he expressed in his thesis, and these influence the committee’s final evaluation.


After calculating the student’s grade point average, the committee evaluates the thesis on a numeric scale of 66 to 110 points. The committee may also grant a score of 110 cum laude, and designate the thesis as worthy of publication. This process applies to John in the humanities, as other fields of study may have different requirements.

thesis for a first-level degree

As you may know, most universities around the world do not require a thesis for a first-level degree. In some universities, there are also certain higher-level degrees that are obtainable without a thesis. In others, there is a first-level degree that has similar requirements to the Italian John, obtainable through a series of exams and, in some cases, through completion of a less demanding research project. Still, other universities offer various second-level degrees that require thesis-like research projects of varying complexity.


Some universities outside of Italy also confer a certificate degree, called a licentiate, that shares certain affinities with the Italian John. The licentiate in its various forms verifies a graduate’s competence within a certain profession.


However, outside of Italy, the thesis proper generally applies to the doctorate, a degree pursued by those students who wish to specialize and pursue academic research in a particular discipline. Although the doctorate has various designations in different parts of the world, we will use the common abbreviation “Ph.D..”


Although this is an abbreviation for “doctor of philosophy,” it is generally used internationally to refer to anyone with a doctorate in the humanities, from the sociologist to the ancient Greek scholar. (Scientific disciplines use other abbreviations, such as MD, or doctor of medicine.) The Ph.D. certifies competence in academic research, and most Ph.D. graduates appropriately pursue academic careers.


In universities around the world that traditionally grant the Ph.D., the thesis usually refers to a doctoral thesis, known as a “dissertation.” This is a piece of original research through which the candidate must demonstrate his scholarly capability of furthering his discipline. Although there are very young Ph.D.s, the dissertation is generally not undertaken as an Italian student undertakes a John thesis, at the age of 22, but rather when he is older, sometimes as old as 40 or 50.


Why wait so long? Because the dissertation is a piece of original research, in which one must not only know the work of other scholars but also “discover” something that other scholars have not yet said. In the humanities, this “discovery” will rarely be a sweeping invention such as atomic scission, the theory of relativity, or a medicine that cures cancer.


Ph.D. candidates in the humanities make more modest scholarly discoveries: a new way to interpret and understand a classic text, the attribution of a manuscript that illuminates an author’s biography, a reassessment of secondary studies that ripens ideas once wandering lost in various other texts. In any case, the scholar must produce a work that, in theory, other scholars in the field should not ignore, because it says something new.


Therefore, although there may be an occasional John thesis (completed by a particularly gifted student) that attains the quality of a Ph.D. thesis, most do not, nor does the university encourage such an accomplishment. In fact a good John thesis need not be a research thesis in the traditional sense; instead, it can take the form of a “literature review.”


In a literature review, the student simply demonstrates that he has critically read the majority of the existing “critical literature,” or the published writings on a particular topic. The student explains the literature clearly, connects the various points of view of its authors, and thus offers an intelligent review, perhaps useful even to a specialist in the field who had never conducted an in-depth study on that specific topic.


Therefore, the student seeking a John has a choice: he can write a literature review appropriate for a John degree; or he can undertake a research thesis, one that could even attain the level of scholarship appropriate for a Ph.D. A research thesis is always more time-consuming, laborious, and demanding. A literature review can also be laborious and time-consuming (some have taken many years), but will usually require less time and present less risk.

What is Thesis

Writing a literature review in no way precludes a student from later taking the avenue of research; the review can constitute an act of diligence on the part of the young scholar who, before beginning independent research, wants to clarify for himself a few ideas by gathering background information on the topic.


This is certainly preferable to producing a hastily finished work that claims to represent research but is in fact just a bad thesis that annoys readers and does no good for its author.


Accordingly, the choice between a literature review and a research thesis is linked to the student’s ability and maturity. And regrettably, it is often linked to financial factors, because a working student certainly has less time and energy to dedicate to long hours of research and trips to foreign research institutes or libraries, and often lacks money for the purchase of rare and expensive books and other resources.


Sadly, this blog will not offer advice on financial matters. Until a short time ago, research was the privilege of rich students around the world. Today, academic scholarships, travel scholarships, and foreign research grants have hardly solved this problem.


A more just society would be one in which research was a profession funded by the state, and only people with true aspirations to study were compensated. It would be a society in which a piece of paper was not required to find employment or to obtain a promotion in the public sector, and a university graduate would not surpass other qualified applicants simply because the graduate had earned a John.


But this is not the case in the Italian university, nor in the Italian society in which it was born. We can only hope that students of all social classes can attend the university without stressful sacrifices, and then proceed to explain the many ways in which one can write a decent thesis, taking into account one’s available time, energy, and specific aspirations.

For Whom Is This Thesis Written?

For Whom Is This Thesis Written
Given the situation described above, we must assume that there are many students who are forced to write a thesis so that they may graduate quickly and obtain the career advancement that originally motivated their university enrollment. Some of these students may be as old as 40.


They will ask for instructions on how to write a thesis in a month, in such a way as to receive a passing grade and graduate quickly. We should then say resolutely, this blog is not for them.

The Usefulness of a Thesis after Graduation

Usefulness of a Thesis after Graduation

There are two ways to write a thesis that is useful after graduation. A student can write a thesis that becomes the foundation of a broader research project that will continue into the years ahead if he has the means and desire to do so. Additionally, writing a thesis develops valuable professional skills that are useful after graduation.


For example, the director of a local tourist office who authored a thesis titled “From Stephen Hero to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” will have developed skills needed for his profession. He will have done the following:

  • 1. Identified a precise topic,
  • 2. Collected documents on that topic,
  • 3. Ordered these documents,
  • 4. Reexamined the topic in light of the documents collected,
  • 5. Organized all this work into an organic form,
  • 6. Ensured that his readers have understood him,
  • 7. Provided the necessary documentation so that readers may reexamine the topic through his sources.


Writing a thesis requires a student to organize ideas and data, to work methodically, and to build an “object” that in principle will serve others. In reality, the research experience matters more than the topic. The student who was able to carefully research these two versions of Joyce’s novel will have trained himself to methodically collect, organize, and present information, and for other professional responsibilities, he will encounter working at the tourist office.


As a writer myself, I have already published ten books on different topics, but I was able to write the last nine because of the experience of the first, which happened to be a revision of my own John thesis. Without that first effort, I would never have acquired the skills I needed for the others. And, for better or for worse, the other books still show traces of the first.


With time, a writer becomes more astute and knowledgeable, but how he uses his knowledge will always depend on how he originally researched the many things he did not know.

Four Obvious Rules for Choosing a Thesis Topic

Choosing a Thesis Topic

Although we will discuss thesis topics in greater detail in the next section, the following rules will help you get started. They do not apply if the professor pressures you to choose a particular topic, or if you lack interest and are willing to choose any topic so as to graduate quickly. If you are inspired by a particular interest, and your advisor is willing to facilitate this interest, the following rules will guide you:


1. The topic should reflect your previous studies and experience. It should be related to your completed courses; your other research; and your political, cultural, or religious experience.


2. The necessary sources should be materially accessible. You should be near enough to the sources for convenient access, and you should have the permission you need to access them.


3. The necessary sources should be manageable. In other words, you should have the ability, experience, and background knowledge needed to understand the sources.


4. You should have some experience with the methodological framework that you will use in the thesis. For example, if your thesis topic requires you to analyze a Bach violin sonata, you should be versed in music theory and analysis.


Put this way, these four rules seem banal. We could summarize them in this single rule: “You must write a thesis that you are able to write.” This rule may seem trivial, but it is true, and many a thesis has been dramatically aborted precisely because this rule was broken. The following chapters will provide instruction on how to write a thesis that is both manageable and feasible.



Monograph or Survey?
The first temptation of any student is to write a thesis that is too broad. For example, the first impulse of a literature student is to write a thesis titled “Literature Today.” If advised to narrow the scope, the student might choose “Italian Literature from the Postwar Period to the Sixties,” a topic with slightly more focus, but one that is still impossibly vast.


A thesis like this is dangerous. Such a topic will make a seasoned scholar tremble, and will present an impossible challenge for a young student.


Presented with this challenge, a student will either write a tedious survey consisting only of author’s names and current scholarly opinions, or will try to imitate the approach of a mature critic and will inevitably be accused of unforgivable omissions Usually, with a thesis of this kind, the student later accuses the committee members of having failed to understand him. But a thesis that is too broad cannot be understood, and therefore is always an act of pride.


If instead, the student works diligently on a specific topic, he will find himself mastering material unknown to most of the committee members. I am not suggesting a cheap trick. (It may be a trick, but it takes hard work, so it is certainly not cheap.) The candidate simply presents himself as “expert” in front of a less expert audience, and since he worked hard to gain his expertise, it is fair that he benefits from the situation.


As for the sciences, a little blog on the same topic as ours gives advice that is valid for all subjects:


Here, I would suggest the last topic, but only if the candidate really says all there is to say about that damned volcano. I spoke with the student in question. We discussed the possibility of a thesis on the symbol in Freud and Jung, one that would have excluded all other definitions of the term and would have compared only the meanings given to it by these two authors. Then I learned that the student’s only foreign language was English.


We then settled on “The Concept of Symbol in Peirce,” a thesis that would require only English-language skills. Naturally, over the course of the thesis, the student would have described how Peirce’s definition of the term differed from that of authors such as Freud and Jung, but these German-speaking authors would not be central to the thesis.


Nobody could object that the student had read these authors only in translation since the thesis proposed to study only the American author fully and in the original language. In this way, we managed to limit the survey to a medium length, while not changing it into a strict monograph. This solution was acceptable to all.


Finally, remember this fundamental principle: the more you narrow the field, the better and more safely you will work. Always prefer a monograph to a survey. It is better for your thesis to resemble an essay than a complete history or an encyclopedia.


Historical or Theoretical?

Historical or Theoretical

This choice only applies to certain subjects. A thesis in the history of mathematics, Romance philology, history of German literature, and other similar subjects can only be historical. A thesis on experimental subjects such as architectural composition, nuclear reactor physics, or comparative anatomy is usually theoretical.


But there are other subjects such as theoretical philosophy, sociology, cultural anthropology, aesthetics, philosophy of law, pedagogy, or international law that allow a thesis of both kinds.


In a theoretical thesis, a student confronts an abstract problem upon which other works may or may not have already reflected: the nature of human will, the concept of freedom, the notion of social role, the existence of God, or the genetic code. Considered together, such topics may elicit smiles, as they require the writer to compose what Antonio Gramsci called “brief notes on the universe.” And yet illustrious thinkers have devoted themselves to such topics. However, they usually did so after decades of reflection.


Let us hypothesize that the student believes he has understood an important problem. Since nothing is born from nothing, the student must have developed his thoughts under a particular author’s influence. In this case, he should transform his theoretical thesis into a historiographic thesis.


If he is ambitious, he can transform the theoretical thesis that he originally conceived into the final chapter of his historiographic thesis. Consequently, readers will understand his original ideas in the context of a previous thinker, and the concepts he proposes will gain support from their proper frame of reference. The student will always have the chance to develop his own original ideas later in his career.


Ancient or Contemporary?

Ancient or Contemporary
Here I am not attempting to revive the age-old quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns.


Instead, I am here using the term “ancient” in the most general sense of “very old,” referring to authors whose works have survived and been studied by scholars. The choice between an ancient and a contemporary author does not apply to subjects such as the history of contemporary Italian literature, although even a thesis in Latin could involve both Horace and the state of Horatian studies in the last two decades.


Thesis on a past author will provide better training. And even if the student has a flair for contemporary criticism, the thesis can provide a final opportunity for him to challenge himself with the literature of the past, and exercise his taste and reading skills. He would be in good company, for many great contemporary authors, even avant-garde authors, wrote their thesis on Dante or Foscolo rather than Montale or Pound.


To be sure, there are no precise rules, and a good researcher can historically or stylistically analyze a contemporary or past author with equal philological acumen and precision. The problem also varies among disciplines: in philosophy, a thesis on Husserl might provide the student with a more challenging research experience than one on Descartes; and the fact that it is easier to read Pascal than Carnap shows that a modern author may require more laborious reading than an ancient.


Therefore, I can confidently provide only this advice: work on a contemporary author as if he were ancient, and an ancient one as if he were contemporary. You will have more fun and write a better thesis.


How Long Does It Take to Write a Thesis?

How Long Does It Take to Write a Thesis

Let us state from the outset: no longer than three years and no less than six months. This period includes not just the time necessary to write the final draft, which may take only a month or two weeks, depending on the student’s work habits. Instead, this period begins at the genesis of the first idea and ends at the delivery of the final work.


For example, a student may only work on his thesis for a year, but he may use ideas and readings accumulated in the two preceding years, even though he initially did not know what would come from this preliminary research.


A thesis should take no more than three years because, if the student has failed to delimit his topic and find the necessary sources after this period, he has one of the following problems:


1. The student has chosen an overwhelming topic that is beyond his skill level.


2. The student is one of those insatiable persons who would like to write about everything, and who will continue to work on his thesis for 20 years. (A clever scholar will instead set limits, however modest, and produce something definitive within those limits.)


3. The “thesis neurosis” has begun: the student abandons the thesis, returns to it, feels unfulfilled, loses focus, and uses his thesis as an alibi to avoid other challenges in his life that he is too cowardly to address. This student will never graduate.


A thesis should take no less than six months because, even if the student’s goal is a modest journal article of less than 60 typewritten pages, six months pass in a flash. This may not be sufficient time for the student to structure the work, research the bibliography, catalog the sources, and draft the text.


Surely a more experienced scholar can compose an essay in less time, but only because he has years of reading behind him, complete with cataloged notes. The student must instead start from scratch.


In any case, nothing forbids the student from choosing a thesis topic earlier. And nothing forbids the student from choosing it later if he is willing to take more than the prescribed four years to graduate. But the biggest mistake he can make is to fail to allow sufficient time for his thesis.


Considering these risks, a six-month thesis is certainly not the optimum choice, even though it is within our range of acceptability. But as we have implied, it may prove successful if the topic, chosen in the last six months, builds on research and experience gained in the years before. Also, sometimes a student must complete a thesis in six months because of some external necessity.


In these cases, the student must find a topic that he can research thoroughly and that will yield a decent product in that short period of time. Here I do not want to sound too much like a salesman as if I were selling an inexpensive “six-month thesis” and a pricier “three-year thesis,” a thesis to satisfy every kind of customer. Instead, my point is that, without a doubt, a student can produce a decent thesis in as little as six months. There are three requirements for a six-month thesis:


  • 1. The topic should be clearly defined.
  • 2. The topic should be contemporary, eliminating the need to explore a bibliography that goes back to the ancient Greeks. Alternatively, it should be a marginal subject on which little has been written.
  • 3. The primary and secondary sources must be locally available and easily accessible.




This topic describes the structure of a typical research report. Elements of a standard research report are Title, Abstract, Introduction, Literature Review, Method, Results, and Discussion. Reports end with a References section listing all sources that have been used within the report. Each element is covered one by one below.


The first element is the Title. Title wording and other items to be placed on the title page are likely to vary based on the style guide used by journals or instructions from a professor or review committee. Most likely, the title page includes the author’s name and affiliation at a minimum. It may also include word count, pages, or other information.


Be sure to check the applicable source for any specific instructions. A typical title is concise, consisting of about 10 to 15 words, and names the major variable(s). Populations of special interest may also be mentioned in a title. This can be seen in Example 1:


Example 1

Title of a research report: The Relationship Between Political Activism and Socioeconomic Status Among Asian American Voters


The title of this study states the main variables are (1) political activism and (2) socioeconomic status, and the population consists of Asian American voters. Notice that the title in Example 1 does not describe the results of the research. In most cases, this is appropriate because the results of research are usually too complex to summarize in a short title.


Most research reports begin with an Abstract. This is a summary designed to give readers a brief overview of all parts of the report. Abstracts for journal submissions typically have word limits between 100 and 300 words. The goal of an abstract is to help researchers and students quickly determine whether the research is of interest to them.


It often includes details about who is included in the study, the basic gist of the research question, its main components, the methods used to answer it, and a mention of the most important findings. Writing abstracts is covered in more detail in the next topic.


The abstract is followed by an Introduction. In short reports such as journal articles and term projects, the introduction contains the Literature Review.


There is often no main heading for the introduction; it begins immediately after the abstract. In longer reports, the introduction may provide an overview of the topic and its history, and the literature review may be labeled and stand on its own. Some Literature Review sections include subheadings that indicate




TABLE The Typical Parts of a Research Report

  • Title
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Literature Review
  • Method
  • Participants
  • Measures
  • Procedure (optional)
  • Data Analysis (optional)
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • References

Some authors of research reports use the term instrumentation instead of measures to refer to measurement tools. specific topics of related literature that are being reviewed. Consider the length of your publication, or if you are submitting an article for publication, and review other articles as well as the author guidelines for specific journals when deciding how to label this section of your research report.


Following the introduction/literature review is the Method section, which usually has its own major heading. Three areas of the methods used are typically covered here: who participated in the research, what measures were used, and either what procedure was used to carry out or analyze the research (if experiments) or how the data were analyzed (in other forms of qualitative and quantitative research). These are typically covered in this order and given subheadings. 


Under the subheading Participants, researchers state the number of participants, how they were selected, and demographics deemed relevant, such as age and gender. Depending on the nature of the research, the sample may be compared with known parameters of the population, and many writers will create summary tables to help the reader visually see the composition of participants.


Measures is the next subsection under Method. Here the measurement tools used in the research are described. Quantitative researchers use highly structured measures and may focus on information about those measures that establish validity and reliability.


Qualitative researchers use less structured measures, which may be described in this section, including how they were formulated. Some qualitative or quantitative papers may include the full measure (survey or semi-structured interview schedule) as an appendix to offer more information and greater transparency about the research process.


The procedure is an optional subsection under the main heading of Method. This subsection follows Measures and may be used to describe any physical steps taken by the researcher to conduct the research. For instance, if treatments were given in an experiment, the treatments could be described in detail in this subsection.


Data Analysis may be an additional subsection under the main heading of Method, in which the steps are taken to analyze the data are described. This subsection is optional in quantitative research when standard statistical techniques are used, but it is usually needed for describing more about the type of qualitative research used (e.g., describing how grounded theory or consensual qualitative research was implemented to analyze the data;


Results is the next major heading. Results present the data with commentary that explains what the data says. In quantitative results, this includes tables presenting the statistics results. Qualitative results may use visual representations of data but are more likely to present the themes and quotes that support findings.


In the final major heading, Discussion, researchers move away from presenting the details of the findings, now focusing on their interpretations of the outcomes of their research and its significance.




An abstract is an important summary of the research report. More people will read your abstract than your full paper, and their decision to read your report will be based in large part on the combination of your title and abstract. For this reason, the abstract should concisely present the important characteristics of the work and also exhibit good research writing.


Journals often require relatively short abstracts, frequently limiting the number of words to no more than 250. The maximum word count for abstracts used in term papers, theses, and dissertations may vary.


Brief abstracts usually cover these three essential elements:

  • Research hypotheses, purposes, or questions. These may need to be abbreviated or summarized if they are extensive.
  • Highlights of the research methods, including mention of the participants and measures.
  • Highlights of the results.




Typically, the research report launches into the introduction of the topic and proceeds to review the literature immediately following the abstract, without the main heading. Most journals use various formatting techniques to set the abstract separately from the rest of the article, directly under the title and author information so the distinction between the body of the article is obvious.


Introductory comments are commonly integrated with the literature review. In fact, most researchers cite literature in their first paragraph, because there was a discussion on how to summarize the literature, including ways to start a Review section, synthesize the findings, and connect the literature to the current study. These principles apply to the creation of the literature review at the outset of a project or for a proposal, and they can also be useful when writing a research report.


The first purpose of an integrated introduction and literature review is to identify the research problem area. The second purpose is to establish its importance. The first paragraphs of an introduction should be reasonably specific to the research problem, whether or not they are supported by citations to literature.


As a reminder, one effective way to establish the importance of a problem is to cite statistics indicating its prevalence. However, now that you are not only reviewing literature but are introducing your research in the context of the literature, it is important to draw attention to the main areas that the discussion of your data will speak to.


For instance, if the area of your research examines childhood obesity among 6– 12-year-olds in the United States, the first sentence in Example 1 is too global. An improved version is shown in Example 2.


Example 1

Beginning of a research report (too broad for the topic): Obesity is a major public health concern in all industrial nations and is an important threat to the well-being of millions. Worldwide, rates of obesity range from. . .


Example 2

Beginning of a research report (improved; more specific): Childhood obesity is a major public health concern in the United States, where rates of obesity for children 6 to 12 years of age have been estimated to range from. . .


Note that specific statistics should be cited sparingly. Cite only those that are most relevant and can be easily understood out of the context of the original research reports. Readers can consult the original sources for additional statistical details.


Another way to establish the importance of a problem is to describe the severity of its impact on individuals. For instance, a rare mental disease may affect relatively few individuals (low prevalence), yet have a devastating impact on those individuals. The severity of the impact may serve as a justification for researching a problem, even if the problem is not widespread. 


Again, think about how to begin by not only focusing on general facts about this issue, or what the literature says about it. Instead, you want to introduce the report so that the data of your report can respond. If, in the beginning, you describe a problem as rare but severe in its impact, your own results should also speak to this point, either by agreeing and expanding or by contrasting what you found with what you expected to find based on the literature.


the literature review should not consist of a series of summaries of previously published studies. Instead, generalizations about findings (i.e., the trends found in the research) should be stated, with references supporting them grouped together. Example 3 illustrates how this might be done.


Example 3

Grouping references for a generalization: Several studies have indicated the weak effects of the Doe Drug Reduction Intervention Program when it is used with adolescents.


Now that you have completed your research and you are ready to report your results, it is time to review that earlier work in compiling a literature review. Consider the relationship it has to your final project and its findings. It is very important to be concise in your report and to do so, you want to present the findings as completely as possible that relate closely to your topic. 


You do not want to bias your report by only reporting on literature that supports your points or your findings. However, you do want to ensure that you stay focused on your topic. It is easy to wander into facts that are too general or not directly related to your particular variables or findings because they seem interesting. You will have to use judgment to review and remove facts that are interesting, but ultimately are not directly related to your topic.


It is acceptable to discuss selected studies in detail if they are closely related to your work. For instance, if your work is directly responding to another work by replicating the study, or by arguing that it is incorrect or incomplete, it might be appropriate to include in-depth coverage. In most cases, if your report is not responding directly in some way to the work, it is better to summarize.


Many research projects are designed to fill gaps in knowledge on a particular topic. When this is the case, it is important to explicitly point out those gaps in the literature review. This is illustrated in Example 4.


Example 4

Pointing out a gap in the literature (after citing literature to establish that Latino adolescents are subject to stress due to discrimination, the authors state): However, few studies have examined how Latino adolescents cope with discrimination, whether coping strategies might protect against the negative effects of perceived discrimination, and factors that promote the use of effective coping strategies.


If the literature does not cover your area of research and has little of direct relevance to your study, you can describe areas of overlap, showing where they fall short in linking together the aspects you are investigating, and then emphasize the importance of your research in filling a gap.


A combined introduction/literature review should end with a statement of the specific research hypotheses, purposes, and/or questions. When there are several of them, they should be numbered or lettered.



When a quantitative researcher uses a previously published measure, he or she should cite it and include a reference. For instance, a published achievement test would be cited and included in the reference list as a book, where the title of the test is equivalent to the title of a book.


Many specialized measures are published only in the sense that they were included in journal articles. When one of these has been used, the original source should be cited.




The Results section is where the specific outcomes of the research project are presented. This is the place to report specific findings and summaries of data.


When research has tested a hypothesis or multiple hypotheses, these are restated and used to organize the presentation of results. It is usually best to report the results separately for each hypothesis, purpose, or question in the order in which they were introduced. For instance, if there were two hypotheses, restate the first one, and present the data for it. Then, restate the second hypothesis, and present the data for that one.


In reports of quantitative research, researchers typically do not describe the steps required to complete the statistical analyses. The researcher will simply report the means and standard deviations relating to a hypothesis without discussing computational details. The statistical tests that were used and the program in which they were analyzed may be identified here or in the Methods section.


In these reports, descriptive statistics (e.g., mean, standard deviation, and percentage) are reported first, followed by the results of tests of statistical significance (e.g., chi-square, t-test, and ANOVA). 




The last part of the body of a research report is the Discussion. This is the place where the researchers explain the overarching meaning of their project. The introduction and literature review began the project by framing the question, its meaning, and how it fits with prior published research.


The rest of the sections leading up to the discussion provided all the necessary documentation to explain details about the questions, the approach used to answer it, the participants, the measures through which data was collected, the method of data analysis, and the meaning of variables or themes.


The details of the data itself have been presented in the Results section, with explanations as needed to understand it. Now, in the Discussion section, the author does not need to account for these details but can simply describe the relevance and significance of the overall findings.


While there are many ways in which a Discussion section may be organized, certain types of information are usually included. A good way to begin is to restate the original purposes of the research, which may have been stated as research questions, purposes, or hypotheses. Next, indicate the extent to which the purposes were achieved as represented by the research results.


The Discussion section distills the major findings and draws the deeper connections of this report’s relevance to the discipline and to the part of the world under study. The entire process has led up to being able to make claims in this part of the paper. It is important to ensure that the claims are supported by the data, and the generalizations are appropriate to the data that was presented.





Libraries maintain license agreements with database publishers, so most access to electronic databases is freely obtained through a college or university library. This means that you can search for articles, reports, chapters, or books, identify useful sources, and download them in PDF format to read, annotate, and print. Documents can vary in the restrictions on how they can be downloaded, printed, or altered.


few databases, such as ERIC and PubMed/MEDLINE are publicly available with full articles that are free of charge to all individuals via the Internet. To learn more about which databases are available locally or through the exchange, talk to a reference librarian. Reference librarians are a greatly underutilized resource!


The library’s website typically offers a section on databases including tutorials and helpful resources. Often, libraries also organize their available databases in an alphabetical and a subject matter index. It is a good idea to look at the available databases in your subject area to identify those most likely to have the sources that will suit your needs.




ERIC stands for Education Resources Information Center. The ERIC database contains more than 1.3 million abstracts of unpublished documents and published journal articles on educational research and practice. Hundreds of new records are added to the database daily. Visit www.eric.ed.gov for more information.


PubMed/MEDLINE is the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s (NLM) premier bibliographic database covering the fields of medicine, nursing, dentistry, veterinary medicine, the health care system, and the preclinical sciences. PubMed/MEDLINE, the primary subset of PubMed, is available on the Internet through the NLM home page at www.ncbi. nlm.nih.gov/pubmed and can be searched free of charge.


No registration is required. Additional PubMed/MEDLINE services are also provided by organizations that lease the database from NLM. Access to various PubMed/MEDLINE services is often available from medical libraries and many public libraries.


Google Scholar is not a database—it is a search engine that allows users to search specifically for academic and scholarly sources. Instead of going to http://google.com, Google Scholar can be searched by simply going to https://scholar.google.com/. The differences between a search engine and a database can be useful to know in order to use each tool well.


A database subscription typically yields results that also allow access to material, although this depends on the subscription terms. Searching a database is searching an index of the items held in the database.


search engine is not a subscription and does not include access to items. It searches a broader collection of items that may be held in different databases, publishers, or other sources. Google Scholar can help to identify good search terms, authors, and publications as well as earmarking specific articles that fit into one’s research topic. However, it may be necessary to switch to the library in order to gain free access to the sought-after sources.




JSTOR contains the full text from more than 2,300 journals in more than 60 disciplines including social sciences, education, humanities, natural sciences, and health. Not everyone has access to all holdings in JSTOR: each library’s subscription determines the full text that is freely available at that institution. In addition to journal articles, JSTOR includes over 40,000 ebooks from academic publishers.


EBSCOhost is a family of databases, which are all hosted through the EBSCOhost interface. The collection is multidisciplinary across many scientific, social scientific, health, and math topics and international in scope, with total holdings that include over 12,000 full-text journals, of which over 10,000 are peer-reviewed.


The EBSCOhost holdings also include over 60,000 videos from the Associated Press. The available resources will vary depending on the subscription held by the library.


Sociological Abstracts indexes and summarizes articles in more than 1,800 international journals and 29 broad areas of sociology from 1952 to present. Sociological Abstracts also summarizes books and book chapters, dissertations, conference papers, book reviews, film reviews, and game reviews.


PsycINFO indexes and abstracts journal articles from more than 2,497 journals. Books, dissertations, and university and government reports are also included. In addition, PsycAR-TICLES contains more than 154,000 full-text articles (not just abstracts) from 78 journals and selected chapters from books published by the American Psychological Association.


Members of the public can access these databases via the Internet for a daily service fee (charged to a credit card) at American Psychological Association (APA). Consult with the reference librarian at your college or university for information on accessing these databases free of charge through your library’s license agreements.


ProQuest is a platform similar to EBSCO in that it is an interface where many families and combinations of databases are indexed. Collection sizes vary depending on a library’s subscription but may include various business and management databases (ABI/ INFORM) as well as collections in research, technology, biology, agriculture, nursing, music, and the arts.




There are many specialty databases that may be of use. These databases may be useful because of their focus on a single topic or area, with work that cannot be found in the larger database collections. Here are just a few examples:


ABI/INFORM (ProQuest) is a business and management database with abstracts and many full-text articles from U.S. and international publications. Topics include advertising, marketing, economics, human resources, finance, taxation, and computers.


Chicano Database identifies all types of material about Chicanos. It incorporates the Spanish Speaking Mental Health Database, which covers the psychological, sociological, and educational literature.


Child Development and Adolescent Studies include abstracts from professional periodicals and book reviews related to the growth and development of children from 1927 to the present.


Contemporary Women’s Issues provides full-text access to journals, hard-to-find newsletters, reports, pamphlets, fact sheets, and guides on a broad array of gender-related issues published since 1992.


ProQuest Criminal Justice contains full-text articles from criminology and criminal justice journal articles on law enforcement, corrections administration, social work, drug rehabilitation, criminal and family law, industrial security, and other related fields. There are also indexes and abstracts for 425 U.S. and international journals.


Dissertation Abstracts Online is a definitive subject, title, and author guide to virtually every American dissertation accepted at an accredited institution since 1861. Selected master’s theses have been included since 1962. The electronic version indexes doctoral records from July 1980 (Dissertation Abstracts International, Volume 41, Number 1) to the present.


Abstracts are included for master’s theses from spring 1988 (Master’s Abstracts, Volume 26, Number 1) to the present. This database has very wide subject matter coverage including, but not limited to, business and economics, education, fine arts and music, geography, health sciences, political science, language and literature, library and information science, psychology, and sociology.


Family Studies Database contains citations and abstracts for journal articles, books, popular literature, conference papers, and government reports in the fields of family science, human ecology, and human development since 1970.


International Index to Black Periodicals Full Text (IIBP Full Text) draws its current content from more than 150 international scholarly and popular periodicals. It covers a wide array of humanities-related disciplines including art, cultural criticism, economics, education, health, history, language and literature, law, philosophy, politics, religion, and sociology, among others. All records in the current file (1998 forward) contain abstracts.


Project MUSE is a database with articles and books that cover creative arts, writing, theater, humanities, religion, social sciences, and science and technology. The database contains nearly 400,000 articles and almost a million book chapters from over 250 publishers.


Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI) and Social SciSearch provide access to current and retrospective bibliographic information, author abstracts, and cited references found in more than 1,700 of the world’s leading scholarly social science journals, covering more than 50 disciplines. They also cover individually selected, relevant items from approximately 3,300 of the world’s leading science and technology journals.


Note that the Citation Index lists cited authors and their works together with all authors who have discussed the cited works in their publications. This can be very helpful in conducting a literature search if a researcher starts with a classic older article that is highly relevant to the topic.


By searching for all publications in which it was subsequently cited, the researcher can quickly build a collection of references that are likely to be very specific to the topic. Examining these sequentially permits the researcher to trace the history of thought on a topic or theory.





The American Psychological Association publishes a style guide (called Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association) in which a comprehensive set of rules is presented. Short guides can be found for free on the association’s website devoted to this topic, https://www.apastyle.org/.


Most college and university libraries also offer further tutorials and helpful abbreviated guides, and guides from many different colleges and universities can be found in a quick Google search for APA style.


While different styles accomplish the task of citation differently, most citation systems work by “tagging” the text in place with some shorthand marker. This marker indicates to the reader that the information in that sentence came from a source that the author is going to provide. This in-text citation may be a number or, in many cases, it is the last name of the author(s) and a year in parentheses. The latter style is called an “author-date” method and this is the style that APA uses.


The shorthand from the in-text citation can then be matched with an entry in the bibliography at the end of the paper. In the bibliography, the full information is given: name, year, title, publication, volume number, page numbers, and possibly a digital object identifier, or DOI, which is a permanent number tagged to the paper and indexed so it is easy to find in digital archives.


For each unique in-text citation, there should be a full bibliographic reference at the end of the manuscript. In author-date styles, it is important that the “shorthand” in the in-text citation matches the first word in the alphabetized bibliography so the reader can easily pair the two and find the indicated source.




In APA style, in-text citations consist of the last name and year of publication and appear at the end of the sentence in parentheses. There is a comma between the last name and year. Example 1 shows a simple case of a single author, Doe, whose work is from 2013.


Example 1: An In-Text Citation for a Single Author

New data suggest that the influence of the mass media on social norms and customs is growing very rapidly (Doe, 2013).


Example 2 illustrates APA style for an in-text citation of a source with two authors, where an ampersand (&) is used between author names.

The influence of peer group pressure on bullying behavior by girls needs more large-scale investigations (Edwards & Jones, 2013).


When a source with one or two authors is cited multiple times in a manuscript, it is cited the same way each time. However, when there are three to five authors, the authors are all cited in the first in-text citation. Then, in subsequent citations, only the first author’s last name followed by “et al.” is used, as illustrated in Example 3A and 3B, where 3A is the first mention in the text and 3B is a subsequent mention of the same source.


Example 3A: First Time the Source with Three Authors Is Cited

More research is needed on the origins of gender-role socialization (Washington, Yu, & Galvan, 2013).


Example 3B: The Second and Subsequent Times the Source Is Cited Large-scale research on gender-role socialization is relatively rare (Washington et al., 2013).

A source with six or more authors uses “et al.” in all in-text citations, including the first time it is cited.


Often, two or more sources are in substantial agreement. For instance, there might be three sources with data indicating that the XYZ program is strongly supported by most parents. These three sources may be cited within a single set of parentheses, as illustrated in Example 4. Semicolons are used to separate sources, which are listed in alphabetical order.


Example 4: Three Sources Cited Within a Single Set of Parentheses

In three recent surveys, a majority of parents expressed strong support for the XYZ program (Black-stone, 2012; Brown et al., 2011; White & Bright, 2013).

When a source is a group, such as a professional organization, government agency, corporation, or similar entity, cite its authorship using the full name of the group, as shown in Example 5.


Example 5: Full Name of an Organization Cited

The origins of the theory have been traced “as far back as the 1950s” (International Association of Unlicensed Practitioners, 2012, p. 285).


When an author quotes directly from a source, the author should include the page number(s) in the in-text citation, as illustrated in Example 5 above. This is also done when an author wants to call attention to a particular part of a source. Notice how the page number is included. Details matter with citation styles. It appears at the end of the citation, after a comma separating it from the year, and after the abbreviation for the page (“p.”; the abbreviation for pages is “pp.”).


When the authors are mentioned as a part of the sentence, it is always by the last name. Their names do not need to be repeated in the in-text citation. Instead, the authors’ last names become part of a sentence, which is immediately followed by the year of publication in parentheses. No ampersand is used because the names are now part of the sentence, often serving as the sentence subject as illustrated in Example 6. Note that the sentence in Example 6A and 6B contain the same information as Example 3A and 3B.


Example 6A: First Time the Source Is Cited

Washington, Yu, and Galvan (2013) claim that more research is needed on the origins of gender-role socialization.


Example 6B: The Second and Subsequent Times the Source Is Cited

Washington et al. (2013) point out that large-scale research on gender-role socialization is relatively rare.

Non-parenthetical citations emphasize the authors by making the authors’ names more prominent than parenthetical citations do. Neither is right or wrong. The decision on which one to use depends on whether the writer wants to emphasize the authorship or the content.




Example 7 is a reference list that illustrates how to format selected types of references in APA style. In it, the references are listed in alphabetical order, and each reference is formatted with a hanging indent. A paragraph with a hanging indent has its second line and all subsequent lines indented from the left margin.


Example 7: A Reference List in APA Format References

Adams, E. S. (2014). Review of the origins of social sports theories. Journal of Hypothetical Social Studies in Sports, 34, 119–121.


Suresh, G., & Tewksbury, R. (2013). Locations of motor vehicle theft and recovery. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 38, 200–215. doi 10.1007/s12103-012-9161-7 U.S. Travel Association. (2013). Senate Judiciary Approves Immigration Bill with Important Travel Facilitation Provisions. Washington DC: U.S. Travel Association


Viceroy, S. J., & Salinas, J. (2013). The little book of big words (2nd ed.). Any City, NC: False Hopes Press.

West, F. A., Tobble, S., & Chin, C. C. (2012). Life as observed from below. In J. Doe, Bush, and V.N. Carter (Eds.), Observations of New York. New York: Pretend Publishers.


The first two references in Example 7 are for journal articles. The seven elements contained in the journal article references are typically the following:

  • Author’s name inverted. Only initials are used for first and middle names.
  • Year of publication enclosed in parentheses.
  • Title of a journal article (no quotation marks).
  • Title of journal in italics.
  • Volume number, which is 34 in the first reference, in italics.
  • Issue numbers are almost always omitted in APA style.
  • Page numbers; for example, 119–121 in the first reference.


The second reference in Example 7 (Suresh & Tewksbury) illustrates a listing for a journal article with two authors. Both authors’ names are inverted, with the last name first and then the first name initial followed by a period.


Note that instead of the word and, an ampersand (&) is used between the authors’ names. This reference is also available on the Internet, which is indicated by the DOI number. To identify a DOI, go to Digital Object Identifier System, type in a valid DOI, and the source of the article will be identified. The DOI number can also be used in the search field of library searches to find a specific article.


The third reference (U.S. Travel Association) illustrates a document written by an organization and published on the web. It includes the date of retrieval from the Internet.


The next reference (Viceroy & Salinas) in Example 7 is for the second edition of a book, and the last reference is for a book.


See APA’s Publication Manual or the website devoted to APA style (https://wwwAPA Stylefor additional information on formatting many other types of reference materials such as theses and dissertations as well as newspaper and magazine articles, and online sources.



notes and thesis

The uppercase letters DOI are used when discussing digital object identifiers. However, in an APA reference list, the lowercase is used.

Typically, Volume 1 refers to the first year of publication, Volume 2 refers to the second year of publication, and so on. In the rare case in which page numbers are not consecutively numbered throughout a volume, the issue number should be included. See the Publication Manual for details.


Unlike ASA style, APA style does not use elided (abbreviated) numbers.



Google search for ASA style

The American Sociological Association publishes a style guide (called the American Sociological Association Style Guide) in which a comprehensive set of rules is presented. Short guides can be found for free on the association’s website devoted to this topic, https://www.asanet.org/.


Most college and university libraries also offer further tutorials and helpful abbreviated guides, and guides from many different colleges and universities can be found in a quick Google search for ASA style.


While different styles accomplish the task of citation differently, most citation systems work by “tagging” the text in place with some shorthand marker. This marker indicates to the reader that the information in that sentence came from a source that the author is going to provide. This in-text citation may be a number or, in many cases, it is the last name of the author(s) and a year in parentheses. The latter style is called an “author-date” method and this is the style that ASA uses.


The shorthand from the in-text citation can then be matched with an entry in the bibliography at the end of the paper. In the bibliography, the full information is given: name, year, title, publication, volume number, page numbers, and possibly a digital object identifier, or DOI, which is a permanent number tagged to the paper and indexed so it is easy to find in digital archives.


For each unique in-text citation, there should be a full bibliographic reference at the end of the manuscript. In author-date styles, it is important that the “shorthand” in the in-text citation matches the first word in the alphabetized bibliography so the reader can easily pair the two and find the indicated source.




Example 1 illustrates an in-text citation, in which the last name of the author being cited and the year of publication is placed in parentheses at the end of a sentence in the text. It differs from APA style in that there is no comma between name and year.


Example 2: An In-Text Citation of a Source with Two Authors

The influence of peer group pressure on bullying behavior by girls needs more large-scale investigations (Edwards and Jones 2013).


If a source with one or two authors is cited more than once in a given manuscript, it should be cited in the same way each time. However, when there are three authors of a given source, the first time the authors are cited, all names are used. Then, in subsequent citations, only the first author’s last name followed by “et al.” is used, as illustrated in Example 3A and 3B.


Example 3A: First Time the Source with Three Authors Is Cited

More research is needed on the origins of gender-role socialization (Washington, Yu, and Galvan 2013).


Example 3B: The Second and Subsequent Times the Source Is Cited Large-scale research on gender-role socialization is relatively rare (Washington et al. 2013).


When a source being cited has four or more authors, use “et al.” the first and all subsequent times the source is cited. Often, two or more sources are in substantial agreement. For instance, there might be three sources with data indicating that the XYZ program is strongly supported by most parents. These three sources may be cited within a single set of parentheses, as illustrated in Example 4. Note that semicolons are used to separate sources and that the sources are listed in alphabetical order.


Example 4: Three Sources Cited Within a Single Set of Parentheses

In three recent surveys, a majority of parents expressed strong support for the XYZ program (Black 2012; Brown et al. 2011; White and Bright 2013).


When a source is a group such as a professional organization, government agency, corporation, or similar entity, cite its authorship using the full name of the group, as shown in Example 5.


Example 5: Full Name of an Organization Cited

The origins of the BEST program have been traced “as far back as the 1920s” (Association for Hypothetical Studies 2012:7–8).


When an author quotes directly from a source, the author should include the page number(s) in the in-text citation. Illustrated in Example 5 above, the page numbers (7–8) appear immediately after the colon without space and without an abbreviation for the word page. This is also done when an author wants to call attention to a particular part of a source.


At times, the authors’ last names become part of a sentence, while the year of publication remains parenthetical. Typically, the authors’ last names become the subject of a sentence as illustrated in Example 6A and 6B, which contains the same information as Example 3A and 3B.


Example 6A: First Time the Source Is Cited

Washington, Yu, and Galvan (2013) claim that more research is needed on the origins of gender-role socialization.


Example 6B: The Second and Subsequent Times the Source Is Cited

Washington et al. (2013) point out that large-scale research on gender-role socialization is relatively rare.


You can see non-parenthetical citations emphasize the authorship by making the authors’ names more prominent than parenthetical citations do. Neither is right or wrong. The decision on which one to use depends on whether the writer wants to emphasize the authorship or the content.




Example 7 is a reference list that illustrates how to format selected types of references in ASA style. In it, the references are listed in alphabetical order, and each reference is formatted with a hanging indent. A paragraph with a hanging indent has its second line and all subsequent lines indented from the left margin.


Example 7: A Reference List in APA format References


Adams, Eric S. 2014. “Review of the Origins of Social Sports Theories.” Journal of Hypothetical Social Studies in Sports, 34(2):119–21.

Suresh, Geetha, and Richard Tewksbury. 2013. “Locations of Motor Vehicle Theft and Recovery.” American Journal of Criminal Justice, 38(2):200–15. doi 10.1007/ s12103-012-9161-7.


U.S. Travel Association. 2013. “Senate Judiciary Approves Immigration Bill with Important Travel Facilitation Provisions.” Washington DC: U.S. Travel Association. Retrieved June 11, 2013 (https://www.ustravel.org/news/press-releases/ senate-judiciary-approves-immigration-bill-important-travel-facilitation-provisi).


Viceroy, Steven J. and José Salinas. 2013. The Little Book of Big Words. 2nd ed. Any City, NC: False Hopes Press.


West, Fred A., Steve Cobble, and Catherine C. Chin. 2012. “Life as Observed from Below.” Pp. 12–20 in Motivations of Successful Professors, edited by J. Doe, M.M. Bush, and V.N. Carter. New York: Pretend Publishers.


The first two sources in Example 7 are for journal articles. The first one (Adams) illustrates a reference for a journal article with only one author. The seven elements included in the journal reference are:

  • Author’s name inverted.
  • Year of publication.
  • Title of a journal article in “quotation marks.”
  • Title of journal in italics.


Volume number, which is 34 in the first reference. (Typically, Volume 1 refers to the first year of publication; Volume 2 refers to the second year of publication, and so on.)


Issue number in parentheses immediately followed by a colon (typically, there are 4 to 12 issues per year). In the first reference, the issue number is 2, which indicates it is the second issue of the year.

Page numbers (119–21 in the first reference), which are elided (contain an abbreviation). The “21” stands for 121.


The second reference in Example 7 (Suresh and Tewksbury) illustrates a listing for a journal article with two authors. Only the name of the first author (Suresh) is inverted. Also, the word and is used between the authors’ names. In addition to being published in a journal, the second reference is also available on the web, which is indicated by a DOI number.


It is possible to go to Digital Object Identifier System, type in a valid DOI, and the source of the article will be identified. The DOI number can also be used in the search field of library searches to find a specific article.


The third reference (U.S. Travel Association) illustrates a document written by an organization and published on the web. It includes the date of retrieval from the web.


Some Other Topics Related to Thesis

Some Other Topics Related to Thesis


Is It Necessary to Know Foreign Languages?

This section does not concern those students writing a thesis on a foreign language or on foreign literature. One would hope that these students know the language on which they write their thesis. Better still, one would hope that a student studying a French author writes his thesis in French, as many universities around the world rightfully require.


Also, the observations below are no substitute for learning the language by spending time in the country in question. However, this is an expensive solution, and here I would like to advise students who do not have this option.


For now, let us examine some essential requirements:


1. We cannot write a thesis on a foreign author if we do not read his texts in the original language. This seems self-evident if the author is a poet, but many students do not see this as a prerequisite for a thesis on Kant, Freud, or Marx. However, it is required for three reasons. First, not all of the author’s works may be available in translation, and sometimes neglecting even a minor work can lead to a misrepresentation of the author’s intellectual background or his work in general.


Second, most of the secondary sources on a given author are usually in the author’s original language. Even if the author is available in translation, his critics may not be. Finally, the translation does not always do justice to an author’s thought, and writing a thesis involves the act of restoring the author’s original thought from the distortions of translations, and from vulgarizations of various kinds.


2. We cannot write a thesis on a topic on which the most important secondary sources are in a language we do not know. For example, since some of the past decade’s most groundbreaking reassessments of Nietzsche’s German texts have been written in French, a student whose only foreign language was German could not write a thesis on Nietzsche. The same applies to Freud; it would be difficult to reinterpret the Viennese master without considering the American Freudian “revisionists” or the French structuralists.


4. We cannot write a thesis on an author or a topic by reading only the sources written in familiar languages. How can we know beforehand that the most influential secondary source on our author or topic is written in a language in which we are fluent? Surely questions like this can lead to paralysis, so here we should use common sense: rules of academic rigor allow a Western student to acknowledge a secondary source written in Japanese, and to admit that he has not read it.


This “license to ignore” usually extends to non-Western languages and Slavic languages so that a student can complete a rigorous study on Marx and still admit his ignorance of Russian sources. But in these cases, the rigorous scholar will demonstrate that he has explored these sources through reviews or abstracts.


For example, Soviet, Bulgarian, Czechoslovakian, and Israeli academic journals usually provide abstracts of their articles in English or French. Therefore, if the student works on a French author, he may manage with no knowledge of Russian, but he must read at least English.


In any case, before the student chooses a topic, he must have the good sense to consult the existing bibliography in order to avoid considerable linguistic difficulties. In some cases, this is easy to determine: it is unthinkable to write a thesis in Greek philology without knowing German, the language in which there is a flood of important studies on the subject.


Additionally, the thesis will inevitably introduce the student to a smattering of general terminology in all Western languages. For example, even if the student does not read Russian, he must at least be able to recognize the Cyrillic alphabet enough to determine whether a quoted book speaks of art or science.


It takes an evening to gain this familiarity, and after comparing a few titles the student will know that iskusstvo means “art” and Nauka means “science.” Do not let this terrorize you. You should consider your thesis a unique chance to learn skills that will serve you for a lifetime.


Let us form a final, conciliatory hypothesis. Suppose an Italian student is interested in the problem of visual perception pertaining to the topic of art. This student does not know any foreign languages, nor does he have the time to learn them. (Or the student may have some kind of psychological block; there are people who learn Swedish in a week and others who can barely speak French after ten years of practice.)


In addition to these limitations, let us suppose that the student must write a six-month thesis for economic reasons. Although the student must graduate quickly and find employment, he is sincerely interested in his topic, and he eventually plans to study it more deeply when time permits. (We must think of this kind of student as well.)


“Scientific” or Political?


After the student protests in 1968, a widespread opinion emerged that students should write a thesis that is linked to political and social interests, rather than on “cultural” or bookish topics. If we believe this, then the title of this section becomes provocative and deceitful, because it suggests that a “political” thesis is not “scientific.”


Nowadays we often hear about “science,” “being scientific,” “scientific research,” and “the scientific value” of a thesis, and these terms can cause unintentional misunderstandings, mystifications, as well as unfounded suspicions of cultural conservatism.


What Does It Mean to Be Scientific?

What Does It Mean to Be Scientific

Some identify science with natural sciences or quantitative research. In other words, they believe research is only scientific if it contains formulas and diagrams. From this perspective, research on Aristotle’s ethics would not be scientific, nor would a thesis on class consciousness and the peasant revolts during the Protestant Reformation. Clearly, this is not the meaning that academia assigns to the term “scientific.”


Let us try to understand by what reasoning we can call a work scientific. We can still take as a model the natural sciences as they have been defined since the beginning of the modern period. In this sense, research is scientific when it fulfills the following conditions:


1. The research deals with a specific object, defined so that others can identify it. The term “object” need not necessarily have a physical meaning. Even the square root of a number is an object, though it cannot actually be seen or touched. Social class is also an object of research, despite the objection that we can only know individuals or statistical means and not actual classes.


In this sense, the class of all integers above 3,725 also lacks physical reality, though a mathematician could study it. Defining the object, therefore, means defining the conditions by which we can talk about it, based on rules that we establish, or that others have established before us. If we establish the conditions that allow anyone to discern an integer above 3,725 when he encounters it, we have established our object’s rules of identification.


Obviously, problems arise if we must speak, for example, of a fictional being such as the centaur, commonly understood to be nonexistent. At this point, we have three alternatives. First, we can decide to talk about centaurs as they are presented in classical mythology. Here our object becomes publicly recognizable and identifiable because we are dealing with the texts (verbal or visual) in which these mythical creatures appear.


We will then have to determine the characteristics that an object being described in classical mythology must possess for it to be recognized as a centaur. Second, we can conduct a hypothetical investigation to determine which characteristics a creature living in a possible world (that is, not the real world) should possess in order to be a centaur.


Then we would have to define the conditions of existence of this possible world, taking care to inform our readers that all of our discussion is developed within this hypothesis. If we remain rigorously faithful to the initial assumption, we have defined an object appropriate for scientific investigation.


Third, we can produce sufficient evidence to prove that centaurs are in fact real. In this case, to build a real object of discussion, we should present evidence so that others might agree that, regardless of the correctness of our hypothesis, there is something we can talk about.


Obviously, this example is paradoxical, and I can’t believe that anyone would want to write a thesis on centaurs, especially by way of the third alternative. Instead, my purpose is to show how it is always possible, given certain conditions, to constitute a publicly recognizable object of research. And if it is possible with centaurs, it will surely be possible with notions such as moral behavior, desires, values, or the concept of historical progress.


2. The research says things that have not yet been said about this object, or it revises the things that have already been said from a different perspective. A mathematically correct thesis that proved the Pythagorean theorem with traditional methods would not be a scientific work, because it would not add anything to our knowledge.


At best, it would provide clear instruction on how to solve the theorem, much as a manual provides instruction on how to build a doghouse using wood, nails, a plane, a saw, and a hammer. A literature review can also be scientifically useful because the author has collected and organically linked together the opinions expressed by others on a particular topic.


Similarly, an instruction manual on how to build a doghouse is not a scientific work, but a work that discusses and compares all known doghouse-building methods can make a modest claim of scientific value. However, bear in mind that a literature review has scientific value only if something similar does not already exist in a given field. If someone has already written a work comparing the systems used to build a doghouse, writing a similar manual is at best a waste of time, at worst plagiarism.


3. The research is useful to others. An article that presents a new finding on the behavior of the elementary particles of physics is useful. An article that presents a transcription of an unpublished letter by the Italian romantic poet Giacomo Leopardi, and that recounts the circumstances of its discovery, is useful. A work is scientific if, in addition to fulfilling the two conditions above, it advances the knowledge of the community, and if all future works on the topic will have to take it into consideration, at least in theory.


Naturally, the scientific relevance is commensurate with the contribution’s significance. Scholars must take certain contributions into account in order to say anything relevant on a particular topic, while they can leave others behind without serious consequences.


They are small biographical curiosities with no scientific value, even if there are people who build reputations as indefatigable researchers by bringing these trifles to light. We should not discourage those who enjoy pursuing this type of research, but we also should understand that they are not advancing human knowledge.


From a pedagogical perspective, if not from a scientific one, it would be more fruitful for them to write an entertaining popular biography that recounted the author’s life and works.


4. The research provides the elements required to verify or disprove the hypotheses it presents, and therefore it provides the foundation for future research. This is a fundamental requirement. For example, to prove that centaurs live in Peloponnesus I must do the following with precision:


(a) produce proof (as we have already said, at least a tailbone);


(b) recount exactly how I discovered and exhumed the archaeological find;


(c) instruct readers on how more evidence can be unearthed;


(d) if possible, give examples of the precise type of bone (or another archaeological find) that would disprove my hypothesis, were it to be discovered in the future. If I accomplish these four goals, I have not only provided the evidence to support my hypothesis, but I have facilitated the continuation of research that may confirm or challenge it.


The same is true for any topic. Suppose I am writing a thesis on an Italian extraparliamentary movement that took place in 1969, and that is generally believed to have been politically homogeneous. In my thesis, I wish to prove that there were, in fact, two factions, one Leninist and the other Trotskyist.


For my thesis to be successful, I must produce documents (flyers, audio recordings of meetings, articles, etc.) that verify my hypothesis; recount the circumstances of the acquisition of this material to provide a foundation for further research; and present the criteria by which I attribute the supporting documents to the members of the 1969 movement.


For example, let us suppose that I consider a person a member of the group based on evidence from the police, but future research exposes evidence that other members never considered the person in question as a member, and therefore he should not be judged as such. In this way, I have presented not only a hypothesis and supporting evidence but also methods for its verification or falsification.


The various examples that we have discussed demonstrate that a student can apply the requirements for scientific validity to any topic. They also illustrate the artificial opposition between a “scientific” and a “political” thesis. In fact a political thesis can observe all the rules necessary for scientific validity.


For example, I could write a thesis that is both scientific and political, and that would analyze my experience as an activist establishing an independent radio station in a working-class community. The thesis will be scientific to the extent to which it documents my experience in a public and verifiable manner and allows future researchers to reproduce the experience either to obtain the same results or to discover that my results were accidental and not linked to my intervention, but to other factors I failed to consider.


The beauty of a scientific approach is that it does not waste the time of future researchers. If a future researcher is working in the wake of my scientific hypothesis and discovers that it is incorrect, my initial hypothesis has still proven useful. In this example, if my thesis inspires a future researcher to also become an activist in a working-class community, my work has had a positive result, even if my original assumptions were naïve.


In these terms, there is clearly no opposition between a scientific and a political thesis, and as we have seen, one can write a “scientific” thesis without using logarithms and test tubes. On one hand, every scientific work has a positive political value in that it contributes to the development of knowledge (every action that aims at stopping the process of knowledge has a negative political value); but on the other hand, every political enterprise with a chance of success must be grounded in the scientific diligence I have described.


Writing about Direct Social Experience

Writing about Direct Social Experience

Here are initial question returns in a new form: is it more useful to write an erudite thesis on an established, scholarly topic, or one tied to practical experiences and direct social activities?


In other words, is it more useful to write a thesis that involves famous authors or ancient texts, or one that calls for a direct participation in the contemporary world, be it of a theoretical nature (“The Concept of Exploitation in Neocapitalist Ideology”) or of a practical nature (“The Conditions of Slum Dwellers on the Outskirts of Rome”)?


In itself the question is pointless. A student will gravitate toward his interest and experience, and if he has spent four years studying Romance philology we cannot expect him to write on Roman slum dwellers. Similarly, it would be absurd to require an act of “academic humility” from someone who has studied for four years with the Italian social activist and sociologist Danilo Dolci, by asking the student to write a thesis on the royal family of France.


But suppose the person who asks the question is a student in crisis, one who is wondering about the usefulness of his university studies, and especially about what to expect from the thesis experience. Suppose this student has strong political and social interests, and that he is afraid of betraying his calling by choosing a “bookish” topic.


Now, if this student is already immersed in a political social experience that suggests the possibility of building a conclusive argument, he should consider how he could treat his experience in a scientific manner. But if he has not yet had such an experience, then it seems to me that his fear is naïve, albeit noble.


As we have already said, the experience of writing a thesis is always useful for our future work (be it professional or political) not so much for the chosen topic, but instead for the training that it demands, for the experience of rigor it provides, and for the skills required to organize the material.


Secondly, a political thesis risks superficiality because a large segment of “American-style” social research methodology has fetishized quantitative statistical methods, producing enormous studies that are dense with data but not useful for understanding real phenomena.


Consequently, many young politicized people are skeptical of this “sociometry,” and they accuse it of simply serving the system by providing ideological cover. But people who react this way often end up doing no research at all, and their thesis becomes a sequence of flyers, appeals, or purely theoretical statements.


We can avoid this risk in various ways, including consulting “serious” works on similar topics, following the practices of an experienced group of activists, mastering proven methods of gathering and analyzing data, realizing that surveys are long and expensive and cannot be conducted in just a few weeks, etc. But since the problems presented by a historical thesis vary according to different fields, different topics, and students’ skills, it is impossible to give generic advice


How to Avoid Being Exploited by Your Advisor

How to Avoid Being Exploited by Your Advisor

As I’ve mentioned earlier, often a student chooses a topic based on his own interests, but other times a student wishes to work with a particular professor who suggests a topic to the student. Professors tend to follow two different criteria when suggesting a topic: a professor can recommend a familiar topic on which he can easily advise the student, or a professor can recommend an unfamiliar topic on which he would like to know more.


Contrary as it may seem, the second criterion is the more honest and generous. The professor believes that his ability to effectively judge and assist the candidate will require him to devote himself to something new, and thus the professor will expand his horizons. When the professor chooses this second path, it is because he trusts the candidate, and he usually tells the candidate explicitly that the topic is new and interesting to him.


Even though universities currently require professors to advise many students, and therefore incline professors to cater to students’ interests, some professors still refuse to advise a thesis on a banal topic.


However, this approach does pose some possible risks:



1. The professor is absorbed by his own topic to such an extent that he imposes it on a candidate who has no interest in the subject. The student becomes a lackey who wearily gathers material for others to interpret. Although the student will have written a modest thesis, he risks not being credited for his work.


When the professor writes the final research project, he will perhaps fish out some parts of the student’s work from the material he has gathered, but he may use them without citing the student, if only because the student’s specific contribution to the final product is difficult to delineate.


2. The professor is dishonest, requires the student to work on his project, approves the thesis, and then unscrupulously uses the work as if it were his own. Sometimes this dishonesty is almost in good faith; the professor may have followed the thesis with passion and suggested many ideas, but over time he loses the ability to distinguish his students’ ideas from his own, in the same way, that, after a passionate group discussion on a certain topic, we are unable to discern the ideas we introduced from those inspired by others.

How can you avoid these risks? Before approaching the professor, you should assess the professor’s honesty from the opinions of friends and the experiences of graduates whom the professor advised. You should read his books, and pay particular attention to citations of his collaborators. This investigation will take you so far, but you must also intuitively feel some sense of trust and respect toward the professor

Basic Principles of Ethical Research

Although researchers should be excited and enthusiastic about their work (and about publishing that work), the most important thing to remember is that human beings are serving as participants in the research.


The challenges presented by ethical behavioral research have created a whole field of study called ethics. As long as researchers continue to use humans and animals as participants, the way in which these people and animals are treated and how they benefit, even indirectly, from participation are critical issues that must be kept in the forefront of all our considerations.


Protection from Harm

Above all, participants (who used to be referred to as subjects) must be prevented from physical or psychological harm. If there is any doubt at the outset that there is a significant risk involved (relative to the playoffs), then the experiment should not be approved. Notice that risks and benefits are the focus. The most important principle of ethical research is that participants should remain safe and free from harm.


Maintenance of Privacy

Anonymity is most often maintained through the use of a single master sheet that contains both the names of the participants and their participant number. Only the number is placed on scoring sheets, code sheets, or other testing materials. The list of corresponding names and numbers is kept in a secure place out of the public eye and often under lock and key.


Maintaining anonymity is the most important fundamental ethical principles of maintaining privacy. Maintenance of privacy speaks to several concerns, but most directly to anonymity. Being anonymous within a research context means that there is no way that anyone other than the principal investigator (usually the director) can match the results of an experiment with the participant associated with these results.


The second concern regarding privacy is that one does not invade another’s private space to observe behavior and collect data. For example, it would be unethical secretly to record the verbal interaction between therapists and their clients. Although this might be a rich source of information, it would not be legitimate unless the client and therapist agreed to it.



People should not be forced, for whatever reason, into participation in a study. College students, especially those in introductory classes, are the most commonly used population for many different research studies. Is it ethical to require these students to participate in an experiment?


Probably not, yet many students must participate as a course requirement. Similarly, people in the workplace are often required to complete surveys, answer questionnaires, and provide other types of information for research purposes as a part of their job-related duties.


Potential participants in a research study should never be coerced into participating. in using it. The key here is never to force people to participate. If they do not want to participate, then an alternative way to fulfill a course or job requirement should be provided.


Informed Consent

This may be the most important requirement. The informed consent form or letter might be the one tool that ensures ethical behavior. Without question, every research project that uses human participants should have an informed consent form that is read and signed by each participant or the person granting participation (in the case of a minor child with the parent signing).


All parties involved in research should have the opportunity to be fully informed about the nature of the research.


Such a letter contains at least the following information for participants:

  • The purpose of the research
  • Who you are
  • What you are doing
  • How long you will be involved
  • An offer to withdraw from the experiment at any time for any reason
  • Potential benefits to you as well as to society
  • Potential harm or risks for discomfort to you
  • An assurance that the results will be kept in strictest confidence
  • How you can get a copy of the results
  • How you can be reached should anyone have questions


A place for the prospective subjects (or their parents) to sign, indicating that they agree to participate and that they understand the purpose of the research, also appears on the form.



Whereas anonymity means that records cannot be linked with names, confidentiality is maintained when anything that is learned about the participant is held in the strictest of confidence. This means that information is disguised when necessary (which touches on anonymity as well) but, more important, all the data are kept in a controlled situation.

Along with the anonymity of the participants in a research experiment, results must be confidential and only shared when and where absolutely needed.



Another component of sharing the results of an experiment occurs when a particular group of subjects needs to be debriefed. For example, you design an experiment in which one group of participants is asked to do something for a reason other than which they are told.


A famous experiment (and there have been many on the same theme of coercion) involving deception asked individuals to apply electric shock (or so the participants thought) to their counterpart in the experiment (who was not really being shocked) to see how far the participants would go before stopping.


Once the experiment is completed, it is your responsibility to inform them that they have been deceived to some extent for the purposes of the experiment. Most people will take that as just fine, but some will get upset when they learn that they have been manipulated. If they remain angry, it is difficult to do anything other than apologize and try to set the record straight.


The easiest way to debrief participants is to talk with them immediately following the session or to send a newsletter telling participants the general intent and results of the study but leaving out specifics such as names. At the conclusion of an experiment, the opportunity to share outcomes must be available to participants.


Sharing Benefits

This last principle may be the one that is least often observed. Here is the scenario: In an experiment, a treatment was used to increase the memory of older people with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease, a devastating and almost


1. Do a computer simulation in which data are constructed and subjected to the effects of various treatments. For example, mathematical psychologists and statisticians often use Monte Carlo studies to examine the effects of a change in one variable (such as sample size) on another (such as accuracy of measurement).


Elaborate models of human behavior can be constructed and different assumptions can be tested and conclusions are drawn about human behavior. Although this is somewhat advanced work, it does give you an idea of how certain experiments can be conducted with the participants being nothing more than values generated by a computer.


Ethical standards across many different disciplines can be summarized as a general group of what’s important. always fatal illness. Let’s say that the researcher uses two groups, one that receives the treatment (the experimental group) and one that does not (the control group). Much to the researcher’s pleasure, the treatment group learns faster and remembers much more for much longer. Success!


All research participants should be exposed to the benefits of a treatment if the treatment were beneficial.


What is the concern? Simply that the group that did not receive the treatment should now be exposed to it. It is the right thing to do. When one group benefits from participation in a study, any other group that participated in the study should benefit as well. This does not mean that it is possible that all people with the disease can be helped. That may not be feasible. But all direct participants in the experiment should benefit equally.


Ensuring High Ethical Standards

There are several steps that even the beginning researcher can take to ensure that ethical principles are maintained. Here are some of the most important:


2. When the treatment is deemed harmful, do not give up. Rather, try to locate a population that has already been exposed to the harmful effects of some variable.


3. Always secure informed consent. If the treatment includes risk, be absolutely sure that the risks are clear to the participant and other interested parties (e.g., parents, other family members).


4. When possible, publish all reports using group data rather than individual data. This measure maintains confidentiality.


5. If you suspect that the treatment may have adverse effects, use a small, well-informed sample until you can expand the sample size and the ambitiousness of the project. Also, be sure to check with your institutional review board (more about that below).


6. Ask your colleagues to review your proposal, especially your experimental procedures, before you begin. Ask them the question, “Would you participate without any fear of being harmed?” If they say “No,” go back to the drawing board.


7. Almost every public institution (such as public universities) and every private agency (such as some hospitals and private universities) has what is called an institutional review board. Such boards consist of a group of people from several disciplines (including representatives from the community) who render a judgment as to whether participation in an experiment is free from risk.


At many institutions, the group is called the Institutional Review Board; there is a separate review board for experiments using animals. The groups usually meet and then approve or disapprove the procedure (but not necessarily the content of research) and take into consideration the issues already discussed.


These committees usually meet about once per month, and if a proposal that they review is not acceptable, they invite the researcher to resubmit according to their recommendations.


The Role of Professional Organizations

It is unquestionably the role of the researcher to ensure that ethical standards are always kept in mind when conducting any type of research. Formalized sets of guidelines are published by professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association (APA), the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD), American Sociological Association (and search on “ethics”), the American Educational Research Association > Home and just about every other social or behavioral science professional group.


To illustrate just what these guidelines suggest, the following is a summary of these various sets. You can find the exact guidelines at the Internet locations listed and if you read through them, you will find that they are very similar in both content and intention.


3. The researcher is responsible for ensuring ethical practices, including the behavior of assistants, students, employees, collaborators, and anyone else involved in the process.


4. A fair and reasonable agreement must be reached between the researcher and the subjects prior to the beginning of the research.


5. If deception is necessary, the researcher must be sure it is justified and a mechanism must be built in to ensure that subjects (or their representatives in the case of children or people who cannot make such decisions) are debriefed when the research is concluded.


6. Researchers must respect a subject’s choice to withdraw and must not coerce the subject to return to the study.


7. Whenever possible, participants should be shielded from physical and psychological harm.


8. Once the research is complete, the results of the work should be made available, and the participant should be given a chance to clarify any discrepancies of which she or he might be aware.


9. If the research activity results in harm of any kind, the researcher has the responsibility of correcting the harm.


10. All the information about the participants of a study and any related results are confidential.


A Summary of Ethical Guidelines

Instead of having you to go through each of the guidelines a summary. Keep in mind that the general principles we identified in the preceding list apply as well, and the two sets in combination should provide you with all the guidance you need.


Should you undertake your own research, be sure to consult the organization that most closely represents your work and review their ethical guidelines in detail.


1. The person conducting the research is the one who is the first and most important judge of its ethical acceptability.


2. Every effort should be made to minimize risk to the participants.


3. The child should be fully informed as to the research process, and all questions should be answered in a way that can be understood. If the child is too young, then the child’s representative (parent or guardian) should be closely involved in all discussions.


4. Informed consent from parents, teachers, or whoever is legally responsible for the child’s welfare must be obtained in writing.


5. Informed consent must also be obtained from others who are involved in the experiment (such as parents) besides the individual child.


6. The responsibilities of the child and of the investigator must be made clear.


7. When deception is necessary, a committee of the investigator’s peers should approve the planned methods.


8. The findings from any study should be reported to the participants in a way that is comprehensible to them.


9. Investigators should be especially careful about the way in which they report results to children and should not present the results in the form of advice.


10. If treatments are effective, control groups should be offered similar opportunities to receive the treatment.


11. These ethical standards should be presented to students in the course of their training.


12. Editors of journals that report investigations of children should provide authors space to summarize the steps they took to ensure these standards. If it is not clear such standards were followed, editors should request additional information.


13 If there are changes in approved procedures that might affect the ethical conduct of the research, consultation with colleagues or experts should be undertaken.


Do the ethical standards of the APA and the SRCD work? In general, the answer is probably “yes,” but if they do work, it’s because of the individuals who make up the research community and follow these rules.


Ethics Regarding Online Research

More and more often, researchers are using the Internet and associated electronic tools to conduct research. For example, let’s say that you are interested in studying the interactions between adolescent girls and you select a chat room to observe their verbal behavior and you intend to categorize the behavior into different categories.


The more that online tools are used for research purposes, the more attention has to be paid to the ethical practices that surround such tools and their use.


Professor Amy Bruckman from Georgia Institute of Technology has developed an extensive and very useful set of guidelines (you can find them at http://www Ethical Guidelines for Research Online) that are unique to this type of research. Keep in mind that almost all of what we have already talked about earlier in this section on ethical practices apply here as well—these are just some special guidelines.


1. You can quote and analyze online information without asking for permission as long as the information is officially and publicly archived, no password is required to access the information, and there is nothing stated on the site that prohibits the use of the information.


2. Requesting consent, in and of itself, should not disrupt the very process that is being examined. The process of requesting consent must not disrupt normal group activity. For example, if you are observing chat room statements, you have to gain permission to then use that information, but you need to do it in such a way as not to change the nature of the interaction by asking for such.


3. You can obtain consent electronically if participants are 18 years of age or older, and the risk is judged to be relatively low. If you cannot obtain informed consent electronically, you need to mail, fax, or e-mail the proper form and ask the participant (or his or her representative) to sign it and return it. There must be a hard copy.


4. As best as possible, the confidentiality of the participants and their identity must be assured. This can be difficult in a public forum such as a chat group, but every effort should be made to do such when the results are reported.