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Writing academic works

Blas MOLA-YUDEGO

Summary

Guidelines, proper structure and contents are important parts of your assignments along the courses and your final thesis. In this text there is some reflections about academic writing to give some ideas and method on structuring text. Writing is not easy, for anybody, and needs lots of thinking and revision. There is the saying that "a good text is a bad text reviewed". There is no need to be perfectionist to the utmost detail, but texts, as any work, needs of discipline and self-demand, and you should set your own thresholds. Guidelines and conventions look very arbitraty at times, and at times they are indeed. But they must be followed when a text is presented, as in many times imply more than a simple set of capricious rules. But obviously is not only about presentation and forms, contents are the ultimate core of your work. This text aims at helping with that.

The importance of guidelines

Along the 70s and 80s, rock bans grew more and more spectacular and eccentric. A rock band tour of the time had to be something of epic proportions, both at stage and outside. And they had long lists of requirements, embedded in the touring contact to be fulfilled by the venue. This was called a rider, and some bands can have very particular ones. Among them, there was the case of Van Halen, in the early 1980s, with a 53-page rider for their world tour “that laid out technical and security specs as well as food and beverage requirements. On even calendar days, the band was to be served roast beef, fried chicken, or lasagne […] Odd days meant steak or Chinese food with green beans, peas or carrots. Under no circumstances was dinner to be served on plastic or paper plates, or with plastic flatware” (Levitt and Dubner, Think like a Freak 2014:140).

(image from thesmokinggun.com)

So far may look like a strict dietarian approach, with an eccentric touch of nouveau riche. However, a deeper reason emerged some years ago, and it is what makes it the centre of this introduction. Apparently, on page 40 of the rider was a detailed list of snacks that the band wanted available at the backstage area. If violated, the promoter could forfeit the entire show at full price. Among those, there was the strict requirements that M&Ms had to be available, but "absolutely no brown ones". At the time, this was seen as one more eccentricity, but with the time, the views on that changed so much that has been used as an example on business schools and the subject of chapters in books dealing with management. As revealed later from interviews with the band, this was further more than an extravagant request, but a calculated strategy based on the use of M&Ms request as a quick indicator of rigour and method. Along decades, rock bands had increased the sophistication of their shows to the extreme, and apparently, the Van Halen’s 1982 world tour was something to be remember: a spectacular show of impressive sound and light effects. This implied following very careful and complex instructions entailing all the technical requirements for the show and the safety measures linked to that, from physical space to electrical power needs. Apparently, as described in those interviews and books that analysed the strategy, whenever they saw brown M&Ms, they knew the promoters had not read carefully enough the instructions, and they had to double check the whole set up of the equipment.

To a certain extent, this directly applies to how you present your work and thesis, and it will be perceived exactly as such. A thesis not following simple guidelines, with different fonts, incomplete tables, poor presentation of data, etc… may reflect an important lack of rigour. And rigour matters. For instance, a lab analysis of chemical components implies following a very strict protocol to the outmost detail, on clean and tidy conditions to avoid any contamination of the samples or any error in the following analysis that may render wrong results. However, it will be very difficult to check that the analysis have been done carefully enough, as only can be checked by the logic of the results and some other indirect measures. If you present a poor table and text, messy, unclean, with typos and wrong formats, what the reader of the document will think about your performance in the lab? If you fail to follow the conventions on tables, figures, text structure, etc… the reader will immediately see the brown M&Ms in your thesis, and will not only scrutinize all your results and conclusions with no mercy, but will be inclined to not believe in your work and, therefore, not use it regardless of the contribution. After all, it can be justified to think that, if the author could not follow simple rules on title fonts or page numbers, how can be trust the statistical analysis were done with the necessary precision? This is not just theoretical: if you apply to a position or funding agency with a 4-page CV when a 2-page CV is demanded, you may be automatically disqualified. Follow the guidelines, they reflect your rigour.

On structure and style

By convention, the parts of a thesis or manuscript are well defined. These are: the introduction, material and methods, results and discussion. In addition, often there are other parts such as acknowledgements, abstract, conclusions, references, etc... that complement the main structure. These parts follow a logical order, with the introduction leading to the objectives, and from those to the methods, to show the main results and then discuss them and provide a narrative to the findings. However, this does not mean that should be written following this order.

In general, the material and methods is an easy part to start with: it is a mere description of what has been done, as aseptic as possible. This part, especially concerning the material and data collection, can be drafted right away. After that, the easiest is to proceed writing the results, then the discussion to end with the introduction. Once everything is written, and there is a well defined study, it is time to write the abstract, keywords, acknowledgments and the final title of the work. 

The material and methods section concerns all the steps and sources you have needed to make the analysis. There are two obvious parts: material, which includes all the data (sources, set up, details about the trials, study area, etc...) and methods, which includes all the processing steps, from the laboratory protocols (when needed) to the statistical analysis. Usually, this part is written in past sense.

The results is the basis for the "story" that any paper should tell, in order to be a sound basis for the conclusions. I suggest to first carefully select the main figures and tables, and to organise the flow in such a way that the reader finds a logical progression towards the main answers to the questions raised in the objectives. Once the figures and tables are constructed, it is easy to write the text to assist the reader to those fundamental points, and to provide adequate guidance and details to the message carried by each figure. In this part, it is important to present merely facts, and to avoid providing any explanations (as this is done in the discussion).

If the results part is properly organised, the discussion can mimic the order of the figures. I often end up writing a discussion organised in three main parts. In the first part, I review all the limitations related to the data and methods, that can affect my interpretation of the results, comparing (and justifying) the amount of data and representativeness with previous literature. The second part reproduces the order of the results, with the main messages of each figure discussed and compared to previous works; this may lead to several sub-points that should flow consistently. A final part, gives an application of the main results, aiming at an analysis of the consequences of the results in a broad context. However, this structure should be adapted to the nature of the study.

Concerning the introduction, some people propose a sort of five-paragraphs rule (that mostly applies to academic papers). The introduction is condense in five main ideas; this first paragraph opens the topic and aims to attract the reader's attention, often framing the topic in a general context. The next paragraph can link from this general view to the main problem to be studied, giving it proper relevance. The third, succinctly reviews previous research on the topic, by previous studies.The fourth paragraph problematizes it, stressing on the gaps from previous research (that will be fulfilled with the present study). Finally, this flows into the main aim of the work.

This way to organize the introduction is obviously not a strict rule, and depends of the field of study. In more theoretical works or social sciences oriented, it may require a theoretical framework, and in the case of reviews, the structure may differ a lot. But this approach helps organise the ideas and make it simple, efficient and clear. As with all writing, no matter how it is organised, it is important that the ideas flow properly. In case of a thesis, the introduction is expanded, with all this parts developed to a further extent, even resulting in sections by themselves.

The objective/s is the last part of the introduction, and it is a fundamental part. It must be stated in a very clear way, sometimes in the form of a question that can be answered with a yes or a no. Often in the case of thesis, there is a main objective that is complemented by three or four sub-objectives. It is important to notice that a manuscript answers to a single main research question; when there are many questions to be answer, often results in a unorganised paper that will raise criticism. Also, whenever the objectives are nor properly addressed in the work, then it will be rejected. I often work along the research with a "working objective", but I only give it its final formulation at the very end, so as to be sure that the research matches and answers the objectives as stated in the paper.

The discussion concludes in a statement that should provide a direct and clear answer to the questions raised by the objectives. The conclusion, therefore, comes immediately after the discussion in the form of its final paragraphs or as a stand-alone section. Although the conclusion should be drafted already when the results are analysed and the discussion is being framed, the ultimate form often takes place after the objectives are finally set, so as to properly match the research question with a straight and justified answer.

At this point, and once the main bulk of the thesis is done, the ancillary parts of the thesis can be written. The abstract (see link) should summarise the contents of the thesis, attract the readers attention and contain all the necessary keywords so as the indexers ruling internet can identify the work. It is easy to write them in two parts (often as at least two paragraphs); one will entail a short introduction to the topic, the objectives or aim and the material and methods syntetised and another will include the main results and the most important conclusions. It is important to notice that the abstract do not require citations nor discussions of the results.

Although most of the time has already been used a working title it is by now that it should take its final form. There are many ways to make a good title (and equally many to write a bad one), so this part requires some thought.

The most personal part of any academic work are the acknowledgements. Although this part is personal and often free style, there are also compulsory things to be included. All the funders should be properly acknowledged, as well as all contributors, data suppliers, etc... This is not only a compliment to them, but it is important as should reflect any potential conflict of interest. In the case of manuscripts, this part should be very short and sometimes there are even rules on how to be written. In the case of dissertations and thesis, this part can be one page long, and the style is quite open. In any cases, it is good to start with the supervisors or main persons helping with the thesis, sequentially according to their contribution. Ranks and positions, when relevant, should be consistent. After that, it is important to acknowledge any financial help provided to the thesis. Sometimes, foundations and institutions providing financial help have templates on how to be acknowledge. After that, it can be included suppliers of data (for instance, free maps used, statistics, etc...), as well as any persons actively helping (lab assistants, people who answered your questions, helped at field work, etc...). After these more formal parts, it is time to thank friends and finally, family, in a more personal way. This last part, in my opinion, should follow a sort of reverse order, in which you should leave for the end those who (in most cases) most matter.

Intellectual theft is not a small thing*

Forms and conventions are naturally important, but the ultimate core of an academic work lays in the contents. The contents reflect your way of thinking, your approach, your ideas, your style and the ultimate reason of the thesis. Often the target of good academic works is looking for good questions and then provide a suitable answer that can be defended. All the conventions and structure define the framework so as this question is truly understood, and the answer is accepted. You want to convince the reader that your question is relevant, that has been not considered, and that your answer is, at least, correct even if not conclusive.

Logically, both the question and the answer must be original. This is an important matter. Writing a thesis or a manuscript is a difficult endeavour, and shortcuts are not only expensive but simply unaffordable. In 2011, the German minister of Economic affairs had to resign over plagiarism of his doctoral dissertation. Just a few years later, another German minister had to resign on similar grounds. In this case, the thesis was produced in the late 1970s, and defended in 1980. Apparently, there were many references with no due attribution. The technology of the 1970s made unlikely to systematically analyse the text and identify these references. But today it is possible, and it is what in fact happened: random anonymous people, rather than a faculty jury, analysed her text in the internet and found the parts that had been plagiarised. The fact she was a prominent figure obviously contributed to her work being more examined: as a plot twist she was in fact the author of the quote that titles this chapter (*), on regards to the previous scandal. It is also relevant to notice that when she wrote her thesis, several decades ago, she could not foresee she would become minister nor the technology would allow her thesis to be thoroughly analysed in a blink of an eye (and I bet she could not anticipate she would had to resign on those grounds). It is a matter of reflection that you cannot either anticipate your future success, the future scrutiny of your work and the technology that will make it possible. So better be safe on your current works.

Plagiarism is a serious matter, but there have been other shortcuts resulting in scandal. In the early 2000s, a South Korean researcher became famous as a result of his investigation on cloning particularly on human cells. His work ended up in very prestigious journals, including Science. This promising career came to an end after it was demonstrated that parts of his work were based on fabrications. Not only his work was retracted, but also, he was sentenced to prison. A few years earlier, a similar case reached the media in the field of physics. In only two years, 2001-2002, a prestigious American researcher produces 70 studies that end up too in the most prestigious journals. By the end of the year, several letters of retraction must be published, and his career is over as it is proven that many of the results were simply fake. More recently, a Swiss-born Italian researcher in medicine ended with the resignation of several members of the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine.

Unfortunately, these scandals not only affected the main scientists involved, but the concatenation of retractions from many academic publications that were doubtful, to say the least, affected several PhD students and assistant researchers that were co-authors and that were directly affected. In some cases, could not complete their degrees. Clearly, you should apply the outmost ethical standards in your research. In many cases, the results you report must be believed, as in the short term is not possible to verify whether all the points you plot on a chart are the genuine result of your data. You can add or subtract some, and it will take some time until somebody repeats the experiment and identifies the manipulation. Of course, the chances and time of these event will be proportional to the impact of the research. In the best-case scenario, though, experience reviewers and supervisors will see the trick and will start the investigation.

Watch your excel

But sometimes, there is no ethical misconduct, but simply mistakes or lack of rigour. This does not prevent it to turn out in the media and to affect the careers of those involved, the prestigious of the institutions where they work or the nature of the research they conduct. In the late 2000s, a leak of emails revealed practices that affected the prestige of prominent climate-change researchers. This resulted in several resignations. After investigations were done, it was concluded that there was not misconduct nor unethical practices, but in some cases, there were mistakes due to a poor management of data, particularly affecting climate records in China. Even if this did not change the overall conclusions of the studies, it ignited a debate concerning the whole of the climate research of the moment, which altered even the conclusions of the IPCC panel of 2009.

To get examples nearby, a few years ago, the Natural Resources Institute Luke was under the spotlight when their calculations on Finnish carbon sinks were too optimistic. Apparently, the figures were wrong because in one of the many steps, the wrong row in an excel table was used. Since these calculations have important policy (and political) consequences, there was a controversy that reached the news. Even closer, there was some domestic scandal in 2012, when some researchers published in the media that some of the vitamin D preparations of major pharmaceutical groups did not contain enough D vitamin. Apparently, this reached the media before the formal studies were published in the academic channels after peer-review. Only a few weeks later, the university admited that the measurements were based on inadequate methods and had to apologise. Of course the study had a basis, and possibly the errors were small in nature, but I recall legal lawsuits from some pharmaceutical companies demanding compensations. There is no university that, at some time, has not experienced some other similar cases. It is a serious and real situation we must take seriously. But all in all, errors are of course common, as even the best of scientist can make mistakes.

The right attitude

Many times, good academic works only require a few more weeks or months to be improved, revised and perfected, and it is the only way to get the work done in acceptable standards. Despite the pressure upon us from deadlines and competition, la fretta è cattiva consigliera. The ultimate basis of the thesis is your own work, and you are the ultimate responsible. You cannot blame your supervisors, your data or your reviewers when things go south. But at the same time, it is your name that will be on the cover, you must be proud of it.

There is, of course, a random nature in the academic work. After all, you are navigating uncharted waters (if you have a map, you are writing a report, not a thesis). Despite all the careful planning, sometimes the data is not enough, unexpected problems arise, results are not consistent or do not fully comply with what it was planned, or everything is simply far different than anticipated. Discussions and decisions must be done all along, and delays, changes in the plans and diversions are most certainly to occur. In those cases, you can rely on your supervisor, advisors and collaborators to cope with it. Some of this randomness may result in poor results. In this case, imagination, creativity and honesty can save the day, presenting the inconclusive or negative results as a step on the research ladder of the topic, as a path to be avoided. Some other times, randomness and unexpected results can be the start of a promising career. After returning from holidays, Dr Alexander Fleming was disappointed to see part of his experiment on staphylococci was ruined, as one culture was contaminated with a fungus. It seems he said “that's funny" after finding out. That is probably the right attitude.

A MSc Thesis at the UEF

This is a review of forms and templates to be considered when planning the MSc Thesis at our university. The purpose is to assist the MSc candidate along the process of preparing the dissertation. About the [links], be warned that, for some reason, our IT designers and assistants keep changing the location of the pages on a regular basis, which means several times a year. The rationale why this takes place is completely unbeknownst to me: perhaps it is a secret rithualistic way to keep us searching for knowledge. The practical result is that some of the links may not work, some may be out of place or some others have simply vanished into thin digital air. Patience is a virtue.

Forms and steps

Agreement form [word]

Thesis plan for approval [word]

MSc Thesis template [word]

MSc Thesis procedure [link]

Plagiarism check [link]

MSc Thesis Evaluation form [word]

Assisting material

MSc Thesis guidelines [PDF]

Ethical guidelines [PDF]

Citations [link]

MSc Thesis procedure [link]

Links and terms

Trial and error

Science by press conference

Plagiarism

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