Author Topic: Some mistakes to avoid when writing a dissertation  (Read 8307 times)


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Some mistakes to avoid when writing a dissertation
« on: November 07, 2010, 09:06:18 AM »
Let me first point out that the graduate thesis (masters or doctoral) is meant as training for research. And research is not completed until published properly. Hence, the graduate thesis work should have publication as its main objective. Below are some pointers to improve the training of graduate students, particularly in science. They are useful not only for the graduate faculty and students but also to those involved in R&D work.

Choosing a research problem

Our funding agencies usually dictate the areas of research to support and often leave grant applicants no choice but to work on problems out of their main interest. Output quality would then be below that of the research problem of their choice. Also, grant recipients would lose the chance to sustain their creativity and develop competitive ability

Another problem is about the type of research, whether to go basic or applied. Poor countries are more on applied research, whereas basic studies are common in developed countries. In applied research, time for benefit is short, predictability is high, payoff is small, and scope of applicability is narrow. But in basic research, time for benefit is long, predictability is low, payoff is big, and scope of applicability is wide. These differences perhaps explain why rich nations get richer, whereas poor countries find it hard to develop.

Many of our researchers often ignore basic knowledge when doing applied research. Although relevant studies are available in the journal literature, they are seldom cited in most grant proposals and published papers. Hence, results from applied research often fail in field applications. Developed nations have shown that the greater the needs for applied research, the more important basic studies become.

The big payoff and wide scope of applicability of basic research deserve more comment. Great scientific discoveries that changed our ways of life were not intended. This serendipitous nature of basic research has given us wonder drugs, lasers, computers, biotechnology, and many others. Every scientist who contributed to the development of biotechnology, for example, did not have biotechnology in mind. This emphasizes the point of leaving the choice of problems to researchers. As the Nobel Laureate Joshua Lederberg once said in connection with the development of biotechnology, “It would have been tragic were any industry to have had a veto in deciding what would truly be of greatest industrial consequence.”

Literature search

A major cause of poor research performance is the failure to search the journal literature. A common complaint is the lack of journals in the library. No library in a poor country can afford to subscribe to the journal needs of researchers. But references can be accessed through indexes that cover important journals. Recently, the Google Scholar has added a speedy way of accessing literature.

Whereas literature review should be exhaustive, literature citation should be selective. Choosing journals and articles for references will improve the quality of the data gathering and the publication arising from it. An indicator of article quality is the reference list. The integrity and quality of an article depend on the quality of the bibliography added to it. If the reference list of an article is more than 75 percent gray literature, and if you are a researcher, don’t waste time reading the article.


Data-gathering is the first main part of research; the second is proper publication. It is important to think of publication as an objective when gathering data. This improves data gathering as one thinks of peer review, references and methods, adequacy of data, controls, replicates, etc.

The best time to develop proper work habits is during the data gathering part of training. One work habit that should be corrected early in graduate training is sloppiness. Errors are caused by careless handling of data. If they leaked through the peer review, errors are propagated and can result in serious damage to the scientific literature. The other cause of errors is fraud. Sloppiness gives rise to unintentional errors; fraud, to intentional errors. Their damaging effects on science are the same. But we are often more concerned about fraud than sloppiness, even if sloppiness is actually much more prevalent than fraud. And sloppiness is easier to correct during graduate training, but the tendency to fraud can be hereditary.

Manuscript and publication

Normally, the first experience of publication comes from the thesis. The master’s thesis or a chapter of the doctoral thesis should therefore be a scientific manuscript, written following a “Guide for Authors” of a chosen peer-reviewed journal. A master’s program may require only such publishable manuscript. But a PhD degree should require at least a published chapter of the thesis. There is no sense in writing the thesis differently, only to rewrite it for publication.

Three guides will be needed in preparing a manuscript: (a) a good book on scientific writing and publishing, (b) a “Guide for Authors” of a chosen journal, and (c) sample articles from the journal. A good book on scientific writing and publishing will show how to prepare the manuscript—stating the Title, writing the Abstract, Introduction, Materials and Methods, etc., and preparing Tables and Illustrations. A “Guide for Authors” and sample articles will show the details. You should follow them strictly.

Presenting a paper orally

The purpose of oral presentation is to inform the audience and to improve the manuscript before publication. Scientists in the audience, by their questions and comments, can improve the paper. Some are helpful to young researchers, particularly to those who are serious with their work, which can be seen in how they make the presentation. It is then important for one to learn the basic rules of presenting a paper orally. These are described in a good book on writing and publishing scientific papers.

Presentation should cover main points only. Tables and figures need to show results clearly and briefly. Summary tables and figures should be prepared from those selected in the manuscript. For example, reducing the number of columns and rows of tables will allow bigger prints. Avoid presenting tables and figures as they appear in the manuscript. Unlike in the written paper, projected images are seen only briefly. Well-prepared and properly sequenced slides will allow smooth presentation, with you talking less and just letting the slides convey the message. Some speakers read everything printed on the slide, forgetting that everyone in the audience can also read.

Mechanisms of quality control

A manuscript usually undergoes a preliminary or informal peer review. Reading of a manuscript by a professor or colleague is an example. Another is presenting a paper in a seminar or scientific meeting, as mentioned above.

Then the manuscript goes through the standard device for quality control—the review. For the peer review of a manuscript to be adequate, good journals normally have three referees active in research on the same specific subject. We do not have enough such reviewers in the country to adequately review manuscripts, which is one reason why researchers should publish in international journals.

Training graduate students

Dr. Flor Lacanilao obtained both his BS and MS in Zoology from the University of the Philippines in Diliman and his PhD, with specialization in comparative endocrinology, from the University of California at Berkeley. He served as professor and chairman of the Zoology Department at UP Diliman and chancellor of UP Visayas. He made pioneering discoveries in neuroendocrinology and led the research group that achieved the first spontaneous breeding of milkfish in captivity.