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Writing Thesis Statements

Writing Thesis Statements

The purpose of this module is to help students, as well as professionals, identify and prevent questionable practices and to develop an awareness of ethical writing.

Ethical Writing

A general principle underlying ethical writing is the notion that the written work of an author, be it a manuscript for a magazine or scientific journal, a research paper submitted for a course, or a grant proposal submitted to a funding agency, represents an implicit contract between the author of that work and his/her readers. Accordingly, the reader assumes that the author is the sole originator of the written work and that any material, text, data, or ideas borrowed from others is clearly identified as such by established scholarly conventions, such as footnotes, block-indented text, and quotations marks. The reader also assumes that all information conveyed therein is accurately represented to the best of the author’s abilities.

Acknowledging the Source of Our Ideas

Just about every scholarly or scientific paper contains several footnotes or references documenting the source of the facts, ideas, or evidence used in support of arguments, hypotheses, etc. In some cases, as in those papers that review the literature in a specific area of research, the reference section listing the sources cited in the paper can be quite extensive, sometimes taking up more than a third of the published article (see, for example, Logan, Walker, Cole, & Leukefeld, 2002). Most often, the contributions we rely upon come from the published work or personal observations of other scientists or scholars. On occasion, however, we may derive an important insight about a phenomenon or process that we are studying, through a casual interaction with an individual not at all connected with scholarly or scientific work. But, even in such cases, we still have a moral obligation to credit the source of our ideas. A good illustrative example of the latter point was reported by Alan Gilchrist in a 1979 Scientific American article on color perception. In a section of the article which describes the perception of rooms uniformly painted in one color, Gilchrist states: “We now have a promising lead to how the visual system determines the shade of gray in these rooms, although we do not yet have a complete explanation. (John Robinson helped me develop this lead.)” (p. 122; Gilchrist, 1979). The reader might assume that Mr. Robinson is another scientist working in the field of visual perception, or perhaps an academic colleague or an advanced graduate student of Gilchrist’s. Not so. John Robinson was a local plumber and an acquaintance of Gilchrist in the town where the author spent his summers. During a casual discussion between Gilchrist and Robinson over the former’s work, Robinson provided insights into the problem that Gilchrist had been working on that were sufficiently important to the development of his theory of lightness perception that Gilchrist felt ethically obligated to credit Robinson’s contribution.

Unconscious plagiarism of ideas

Even the most ethical authors can fall prey to the inadvertent appropriation of others’ ideas, concepts, or metaphors. Here we are again referring to the phenomenon of unconscious plagiarism (i.e,. cryptomnesia), which, as noted earlier, takes place when an author generates an idea that s/he believes to be original, but which in reality had been encountered at an earlier time. Given the free and frequent exchange of ideas in science and other scholarly disciplines, it is not unreasonable to expect instances in which earlier exposure to an idea that lies dormant in someone’s unconscious emerges into consciousness at a later point, but in a context different from the one in which the idea had originally occurred. Presumably, this is exactly what happened in the case of former Beatle George Harrison, whose song “My Sweet Lord” was found to have musical elements of the song “He’s So Fine,” which had been released years earlier by The Chiffons (see Bright Tunes Music Corp. v. Harrisongs Music, Ltd., 1976). One has to wonder how many other John Robinsons, as well as other accomplished scientists, scholars, and artists, now forgotten, contributed original ideas without acknowledgement.

Start writing as early as possible

Even though you will be unsure of exactly what your thesis is finally going to contain you should begin writing what you can, as early as you can. The bulk of the introduction and methods sections can, and should, be written fairly early as a lot of the information included in them is unlikely to change. For writing the main chapters you can begin early on with an outline of chapter titles, with bullet points of likely topics to be included. Over time this skeleton can be built on with work as it is done. This is useful even if a chapter is not complete since writing a chapter from a rough or incomplete outline is easier than starting from scratch.

Read other people's theses !

Amazingly, I did not actually read a PhD thesis until I was well into writing my own. This was a big mistake and one I would advise you not to make.

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