Thursday, August 22, 2019

The Vagueness Problem in Academic Writing
Dear Readers. Shaun Lehmann, Katherine Firth (of the Research Voodoo blog) and I are currently in the process of writing a new book for Open University Press called ‘Writing Trouble’.
The proposed book evolved out of our work on the Thesis Bootcamp programa writing intervention originally designed by Peta Freestone and Liam Connell
Over the years all of us have been running our own bootcamps we have met hundreds of students struggling to put their final thesis draft together. These students have supervisors who are clearly great researchers, but cannot give good feedback on writing. The book works backwards from the confusing feedback students have showed us. ‘Writing Trouble’ will help you diagnose and treat your thesis writing problems.
Part of our process with this new book is to test out some of our text on our audience – you. If you’d like to know more about the book before it’s published, you can sign up for our writing trouble mailing list. Here is the first post on ‘vagueness’ by Shaun – he’s interested to see if it’s too… vague. Take it away Shaun!
Research students often receive comments like these:
  • I’m not sure what you are trying to say here
  • Do you mean x, or y?
  • What is ‘it’?
  • Be more specific
Reading this feedback can be an incredibly frustrating experience. You thought had been crystal clear – why can’t your supervisor understand? Did they read it in the dark?
Unfortunately, it’s far more likely that your writing was suffering from ‘vagueness’ – a constant problem in English. English-speaking readers (especially in an academic context) will only do a very small amount of work to figure out what you mean before they respond with confusion. I’ve spent a lot of time with research students for whom English is a second/other language. Vagueness is an especially common for this group of PhD students, but it also plagues less experienced writers. Why does it happen?
When you level up to a research degree, there is increased scrutiny of your work. A big part of communicating successfully in academic English depends on your ability to identify and eliminate multiple meanings from your text. Surprisingly, once you learn how to do it, dealing with vagueness in your text can actually be very enjoyable, in addition to making you a better writer and editor.
Before I go on to explain some techniques to deal with vagueness, it is important to understand why the English language behaves the way it does when there is ambiguity. For this, I will turn to the work of the late anthropologist Edward T. Hall and his concept of high- and low-context cultures.
In essence, a high-context culture is one in which a listener/reader is comfortable making use of contextual information and applying their common sense in order to understand messages. These languages developed in tight knit communities who shared a lot of experiences in common. You can think about a high context language as being full of ‘insider speak’.
For instance, it’s likely that you understand cultural references and memes that completely mystify your parents. In a high context language you can take a lot for granted and don’t have to explain yourself. You may also see cultural communication styles like this referred to as listener/reader responsible. As it happens, some of the most common first languages of students writing in English are derived from high-context environments: Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indonesian, Thai, Arabic, and to some extent Spanish and French.
On the other hand, a low-context culture relies much more so on the content of the message. Low context languages developed in situations where people living next to each other were different – such as in trading ports and countries that have been repeatedly colonised – such as England was for thousands of years. Waves of invaders: Romans, Vikings, the Normans disrupted the close bonds of society and this meant people had to work hard to understand each other.
In a low context language the recipient of the communication brings very little to the table in terms of securing understanding. The onus is on you to make yourself understood. These cultures are also therefore referred to as speaker/writer responsible. This communication style is especially common to the Germanic cultures of Northern Europe, and therefore to English as well.
Let me give you a small example of how this difference in context-reliance plays out in everyday speech, taking Japanese (high-context) and English (low-context) as our languages of comparison. Let us imagine two people stepping outside on a cold day. In Japanese, you can express that you feel cold by simply saying ‘cold’ – the listener will look at the situation at hand, understand that the weather is cold, and then guess that what you mean is that you feel cold.
In English, you need to do much more work. If you just say ‘cold’, your listener will probably respond with ‘what’s cold?’. This is because the listener in this case is not as comfortable with guessing what you mean based on context and common sense. For this listener, it is not possible to know whether you meant ‘I feel cold because the weather is cold’ or whether you meant ‘I’d like to direct your attention to the fact that the weather is cold, though I myself am not bothered by it’. Further, it actually isn’t even completely clear whether you are talking about yourself, as you haven’t said ‘I’. This is why in English we must say ‘I’m cold’ or ‘it’s cold’, if we hope to be reliably understood.
Stay with me – I will give a more academic example later.
As we can see, the English speaking listener (and by extension reader), is likely to be confused if there is more than one meaning implied in any statement. A useful way of thinking of this is that English speakers interpret communications on a possibility basis and not on a probability basis. Being 80% sure that you meant xis not acceptable, as there is still a possibility that you meant yA successful English-language communication is one that has only one possible meaning.
So returning to the common (annoying) feedback at the top of this post, if you are being told that you are being vague, it means that you are writing in a higher-context mode than the reader and asking them to be probabilistic where they want more certainty.
How to Deal with Vagueness
Forget your supervisor or examiner, this is your reader!
Dealing with vagueness is about learning to ‘get out of your own head’. As I have implied, context-dependency issues can arise for writers with English as a second/other language, but they can also occur for native speakers who are simply too close to their work (a common problem for thesis students).
A useful technique is to learn to read your work through the eyes of a kind of caricature of the low-context communication mode. You need to imagine a reader who is highly intelligent and logical, but who has no common sense and will fail to interpret any multiple meaning in the way you had intended.
I call my version of this the Commander Data Meditation  based on the robotic Star Trek character of the same name, but it works just as well to imagine Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory or any other hyper-logical character.
This technique is best used in combination with what I call the 48-Hour Rule. After you have finished writing, put aside your work for 48 hours. This is long enough to forget the exact words you chose, but to recall exactly what you meant to say. Sit down with your work, close your eyes, and put yourself into the mode of the character that works for you.
First warm yourself up with some simpler (and more humorous) examples. For each of the below, identify the multiple meanings, and then re-write them to make these multiple meanings clear.
Here’s an example:
  • During the incident, the defendant struck the man with a walking stick.
    • During the incident, the defendant used a walking stick to strike the man.
    • During the incident, the defendant struck the man who was holding a walking stick.
Now try the following:
  • The star was observed with a telescope.
  • I saw the tree coming around the hill.
  • It is widely acknowledged that flying planes can be dangerous.
  • I shot an elephant in my pyjamas.
Here is an example based on a real thesis:
“Some recommendations are still relevant and can be implemented. Most of the recommendations were related to project management, public debt management, budgetary reforms and financial sector reforms.”
In this case, two sets of recommendations are identified in the first sentence, 1) all recommendations, and 2) the recommendations that are relevant to be implemented. While it may have been perfectly clear to the writer that they were referring to 2) when they said ‘Most of the recommendations …’ in the second sentence, in my low-context mode it becomes clear that the writer could actually be pointing to either set of recommendations. I would then edit the text as such to remove this second meaning:
“Some recommendations are still relevant and can be implemented. Most of thesestill relevant recommendations were related to project management, public debt management, budgetary reforms and financial sector reforms.”
Now, go back to your thesis. As you read, try to identify where anything you are saying might be interpreted as having more than one meaning. Treat for vagueness as you have above.
While it can be frustrating to be told that you have vagueness issues, I think you can see how the fix is quite simple. The key is to remember that you aren’t writing for a clone of yourself, with all of your knowledge and experiences. Nor are you writing for someone who can be relied upon to ‘fill in the gaps’ in what you have said.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Three Thesis Writing Modes

It’s pretty common to hear academic writing described in three stages – (1) thinking and preparation or pre-writing, (2) writing, and (3) post writing revision. In the doctorate you do pre-writing until you get to ‘writing up’. And that’s when you write and revise.
But it’s not really like that – lots of thinking goes on as the thesis is being written and polished. And there’s been lots of writing in order to get to the point of thesis writing. The reality is that you think and write all the way through the doctorate, and most of that thinking and writing is directed to the final thesis text.
I’ve often wondered if there was a better way to describe the way that writing happens during the doctorate. Something better than pre-writing, writing and post writing revision. I think I’ve finally come across it in one of the many books about creative writing I’ve been accumulating.
Graeme Harper tackles the problem of the three stages writing model in his book Critical Approaches to Creative Writing. (2019).
The problem with the very idea of three stages, Harper says, is that it’s linear. The writing process is represented as the writer moving through each stage in turn. One after the other. First of all you prepare, then you write and then you revise.
But this is not what actually happens in practice, he says. While you might do a lot of preparatory work at the start of writing a novel, you may not actually stop doing that kind of work for quite a while – you may well find that you have to go and search for additional information or do some additional plotting as you are writing. And you may find you are revising some parts of the text as the same time as you are writing new sections. It’s not a question of a neat sequence of steps, each distinct and separate from the other, but something much more messy.
Harper’s description of the creative writing process rang bells for me. His description of overlapping processes seemed a lot like thesis writing where there are often various types of writing happening at once.
Harper doesn’t stop with debunking the three stages approach. He offers an alternative framework for thinking about creative writing. Rather than serial stages, he proposes three modes of writing which are blended throughout a project. He calls these three modes foundation, generation and response.
  • Foundation is all of the work that underpins the actual writing – think of it as architecture or infrastructure, Harper says. Foundational work grounds and holds writing together.
  • Generation is writing new text. Generating text involves drafting and some redrafting until you get to the point where you have a whole working text. Harper says generation is best thought of as a process of initiation and creation.
  • Response is when you come at your text anew, reflect on it in its entirety and refine it. Response takes something which is not yet fully fashioned and fashions it. Response is the writer reflecting on their own text, but could also include other readers’ responses too. Harper argues that response also encompasses thinking about how the final text will be published and distributed for wider public response.
Now the key to Harper’s argument is that these three are not linear stages. They operate as a kind of plait. While foundation might be dominant at the start of writing, the other two are also often involved.
I reckon Harper’s three modes of writing are helpful in thinking about writing a thesis too.
In the doctorate we can therefore think of:
  • Foundation as – reading and noting, keeping a research journal, field notes, transcripts, data files, records of analysis, mind maps, plans, spread sheets, storyboards, emails, blog posts, writing for supervision purposes, annual reports and reviews, chunks about specific aspects of research …
  • Generation as – producing a research proposal, writing a confirmation or upgrade paper, writing a conference paper, journal article or book chapter, writing the thesis text …
  • Response as – getting feedback on and refining the research proposal, a confirmation or upgrade text, a conference paper, journal article or book chapter, and the thesis text. Developing a publication plan from the thesis …
We can see that these three modes helps us to see the writing going all the way through the doctorate. And to see that each mode of writing is important and can’t be ignored. Failing to do enough foundational work means that both the generation and response writing stages will be stymied. They won’t have the necessary strength to stand up. And failing to spend enough time on response, thinking that generation of text is sufficient, means that the writing will be incomplete and unrefined.
And an added bonus. The three writing modes can be used to begin to (re)think how writing gets done in the doctorate. Harper’s three modes shows time marked not by linear stages but by the various kind of texts that need to be produced at different times.
I imagine a doctorate might go a little like this.
OK, so I’m not the best at illustrating but I’m sure you get the idea.
But perhaps you might like to play with your own doctoral timeline, thinking about the ways in which the three modes of writing might occupy your week and year variously, depending where you are up to in the path to the final doctoral thesis.
And perhaps you too will find Harper’s three modes of writing a more helpful way to think about the writing that has to be done – all the way through the candidature – in order to produce a good thesis.

Friday, July 26, 2019

The 20 Most Influential Academic Books of All Time: No Spoilers

by Colin Marshall, Open Culture:
Sometimes I'll meet someone who mentions having written a book, and who then adds, "... well, an academic book, anyway," as if that didn't really count. True, academic books don't tend to debut at the heights of the bestseller lists amid all the eating, praying, and loving, but sometimes lightning strikes; sometimes the subject of the author's research happens to align with what the public believes they need to know. 

Other times, academic books succeed at a slower burn, and it takes readers generations to come around to the insights contained in them — a less favorable royalty situation for the long-dead writer, but at least they can take some satisfaction in the possibility.

History has shown, in any case, that academic books can become influential. "After a list of the top 20 academic books was pulled together by expert academic booksellers, librarians and publishers to mark the inaugural Academic Book Week," writes The Guardian's Alison Flood, "the public was asked to vote on what they believed to be the most influential." 

The shortlist of these most important academic books of all time runs as follows (and you can read many of them free by following the links from our meta list of Free eBooks):
The top spot went to Darwin's On the Origin of Species, which Flood quotes the University of Glasgow's Andrew Prescott as calling "the supreme demonstration of why academic books matter," one that "changed the way we think about everything – not only the natural world, but religion, history and society. Every researcher, no matter whether they are writing books, creating digital products or producing artworks, aspires to produce something as significant in the history of thought as Origin of Species.”
Kant's Critique of Pure Reason placed a still impressive fifth, given its status, in the words of philosopher Roger Scruton, as "one of the most difficult works of philosophy ever written," — but one which aims to "show the limits of human reasoning, and at the same time to justify the use of our intellectual powers within those limits. The resulting vision, of self-conscious beings enfolded within a one-sided boundary, but always pressing against it, hungry for the inaccessible beyond, has haunted me, as it has haunted many others since Kant first expressed it."
So you want to write an academic book this influential? You may have a tough time doing it deliberately, but it couldn't hurt to steep yourself in the materials we've previously featured related to the creation of this top twenty, including  16,000 pages of Darwin's writing on evolution (as well as the man's personal library), Orwell's letter revealing why he would write 1984, as well as Marx and Kant's rigorous work habits — and Kant's even more rigorous coffee habit, though if there exists any 21st-century academic in need of encouragement to drink more coffee, I have yet to meet them.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Onwards and Upwards: Preparing to Start Your PhD

At this time of year, many of you might be starting to think about the next stage in your career, whether that be moving to a new university or starting a new research endeavour. Here, Amy discusses some of the challenges that come with moving to a new city to start a PhD, and some tips for how to deal with them.
Opening the next chapter of any stage of your life can be daunting as well as exciting, and starting your PhD is no exception. I’m currently preparing to start a PhD in the new year, and it’s opened my eyes to the variety of things one needs to consider when making a big life change! From finding housing to organising paperwork and managing nerves, there are so many things to think about, and this can be overwhelming. However, I’ve learned a couple of things along the way to make the whole process a lot smoother – hopefully, they will help you too if you’re in a similar position!

The early bird catches the worm!

For me, there’s nothing worse than the blind panic I get when I realise something I left to the last minute is going to be much more time-intensive than I originally thought. So, when preparing to move to a new city for my PhD, I knew I was going to start early so there would be no danger of this happening! The amount of preparation needed can seem daunting, but taking the first step early on can make even the largest task seem more manageable and give you sufficient time to fix any issues that may arise. On a more serious note, if you are moving abroad for your PhD, things like visas, tuition fees and health insurance will take more time to be processed, so you really do need to sort these out further in advance.

Talk to people who understand your situation

A support network can be invaluable when making any big life change, so having people around you when you’re preparing to start your PhD can be extremely reassuring. Whether this is your family, friends or research group, these people who understand what you’re going through can give advice, help you think of anything you might have missed in your planning, or simply be there to listen while you rant about how stressed you are! Personally, having my research group to give me advice has been especially useful since they have all have the first-hand experience of starting a PhD and know tips and tricks to help make the transition easier.
It might also be worth trying to get in contact with some of the people you’ll be working with throughout your PhD for advice. While your supervisor will be your first port of call for guidance, they may be able to pass your details onto some other members of your new research group, who can give you an insight into the university you’re moving to, details of the local area, and some more concrete ideas on how to prepare for the big move.

Lists are your best friend!

I love a good list, and personally find them to be the best way of keeping organised and managing each task you have to complete. When preparing for a PhD where you will likely be moving to a new city (or even a new country!) there are plenty of things to think about and making lists can really help keep things in perspective. I find it helpful to keep lists that rank tasks by priority, as it allows you to clearly see which jobs need completing first or require more preparation. For example, sorting any paperwork you might be required to submit before you start your PhD is a high priority, so should be completed first. Actually packing for the big move is a lower priority since you won’t need to do this far in advance, but getting together a packing list might be a slightly higher priority as it may take some planning to narrow your choices down, especially if you’re limited on the amount you can transport.

Do your research, but don’t be afraid to ask questions

While it’s probably best not to bombard your PhD supervisor with every question that pops into your head, I’ve found that they are happy to support your move and answer queries to put your mind at ease. That being said, doing your background research when it comes to starting a PhD is vital. Little things like looking into the surrounding areas and places you may like to live, or the average cost of living so you can start to manage your money, can go a long way when trying to calm nerves. University websites also have a plethora of information for new students, which often covers a wide range of topics, from the course itself to finding housing, to giving guidance when registering with a GP.  This can help answer any initial questions before you contact your supervisor for more specific guidance.

It’s okay to panic every once in a while!

Lastly, don’t worry if you feel overwhelmed by starting a PhD. After all, it’s a big lifestyle change, so while hopefully, you’ll be most excited for a new adventure, it’s also normal to be a bit scared too! I’ve found parts of preparing for my PhD to be a logistical nightmare, but I always remember that all the stress and planning will be worth it in the end.

Are you starting your PhD soon? Or perhaps you are an experienced PhD researcher who has valuable tips for new doctoral candidates? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.
Amy Kynman earned her undergraduate degree in chemistry from the University of Warwick in 2018. She is currently working towards a Masters by Research in chemistry, also at the University of Warwick. Her research focusses on the chemical reactivity of rhodium complexes, with the aim of utilising them for carbon-carbon bond forming reaction. Alongside her studies, she is Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the University of Warwick’s student newspaper The Boar and aims to eventually undertake a PhD in organometallic chemistry.

Friday, July 12, 2019

When Does Getting Help on an Assignment Turn Into Cheating?

by Peter Hurley, Victoria University:

Sometimes, students and teachers have different ideas about what constitutes as cheating. from

Students - whether at university or school - can get help from many places. They can go to a tutor, parent, teacher, a friend or consult a textbook.

But at which point does getting help cross the line into cheating?

Sometimes it’s clear. If you use a spy camera or smartwatch in an exam, you’re clearly cheating. And you’re cheating if you get a friend to sit an exam for you or write your assignment.

At other times the line is blurry. When it’s crossed, it constitutes academic misconduct. Academic misconduct is any action or attempted action that may result in creating an unfair academic advantage for yourself or others.

What about getting someone else to read a draft of your essay? What if they do more than proofread and they alter sections of an assignment? Does that constitute academic misconduct?

Learning, teaching or cheating?

There are a wide range of activities that constitute academic misconduct. These can include:
  • fabrication, which is just making things up. I could say “90 % of people admit to fabricating their assignments”, when this is not a fact but a statement I just invented
  • falsification, which is manipulating data to inaccurately portray results. This can occur by taking research results out of context and drawing conclusions not supported by data
  • misrepresentation, which is falsely representing yourself. Did you know I have a master’s degree from the University of Oxford on this topic? (Actually, I don’t)
  • plagiarism, which is when you use other people’s ideas or words without appropriate attribution. For instance, this list came from other people’s research and it is important to reference the source.
Sometimes students and teachers have different ideas of academic misconduct. One study found around 45% of academics thought getting someone else to correct a draft could constitute academic misconduct. But only 32% of students thought the same thing.

In the same survey, most academics and students agreed having someone else like a parent or friend identify errors in a draft assignment, as opposed to correcting them, was fine.

Students and academics agree having someone else identify errors in your assignment is OK. Correcting them is another story. from

Generally when a lecturer, teacher or another marker is assessing an assignment they need to establish the authenticity of the work. Authenticity means having confidence the work actually relates to the performance of the person being assessed, and not of another person.

The Australian government’s vocational education and training sector’s quality watchdog, for instance, considers authenticity as one of four so-called rules of evidence for an “effective assessment”. The rules are:
  • validity, which is when the assessor is confident the student has the skills and knowledge required by the module or unit
  • sufficiency, which is when the quality, quantity and relevance of the assessment evidence is enough for the assessor to make a judgement
  • authenticity, where the assessor is confident the evidence presented for assessment is the learner’s own work
  • currency, where the assessor is confident the evidence relates to what the student can do now instead of some time in the past.
Generally speaking, if the assessor is confident the work is the product of a student’s thoughts and where help has been provided there is proper acknowledgement, it should be fine.

Why is cheating a problem?

It’s difficult to get a handle on how big the cheating problem is. Nearly 30% of students who responded to a 2012 UK survey agreed they had “submitted work taken wholly from an internet source” as their own.

In Australia, 6% of students in a survey of 14,000 reported they had engaged in “outsourcing behaviours” such as submitting someone else’s assignment as their own, and 15% of students had bought, sold or traded notes.

Getting someone to help with your assignment might seem harmless but it can hinder the learning process. The teacher needs to understand where the student is at with their learning, and too much help from others can get in the way.

Some research describes formal education as a type of “signal”. This means educational attainment communicates important information about an individual to a third party such as an employer, a customer, or to an authority like a licensing body or government department. Academic misconduct interferes with that process.

Fewer cheaters are getting away with it. Glenn Carstens-Peters/Unsplash

How to deal with cheating

It appears fewer cheaters are getting away with it than before. Some of the world’s leading academic institutions have reported a 40% increase in academic misconduct cases over a three year period.

Technological advances mean online essay mills and “contract cheating” have become a bigger problem. This type of cheating involves outsourcing work to third parties and is concerning because it is difficult to detect.

But while technology has made cheating easier, it has also offered sophisticated systems for educators to verify the work is a person’s own. Software programs such as Turnitin can check if a student has plagiarised their assignment.

Institutions can also verify the evidence they are assessing relates to a student’s actual performance by using a range of assessment methods such as exams, oral presentations, and group assignments.

Academic misconduct can be a learning and cultural issue. Many students, particularly when they are new to higher education, are simply not aware what constitutes academic misconduct. Students can often be under enormous pressure that leads them to make poor decisions.

It is possible to deal with these issues in a constructive manner that help students learn and get the support they need. This can include providing training to students when they first enrol, offering support to assist students who may struggle, and when academic misconduct does occur, taking appropriate steps to ensure it does not happen again.The Conversation

Peter Hurley, Policy Fellow, Mitchell Institute, Victoria University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.