Misfits, misprints, mistakes...

May 17, 1996

Allan Reese wants to know why PhD theses still look so shoddy. The PhD thesis should be taken by the scruff of its neck and dragged into the 21st century. In the age of CD-Roms, multimedia and sophisticated word-processors, students should not still be producing typescripts with their typical scattering of errors. New technology means that the thesis now has the potential to look more like a professionally produced book. A campaign for quality of presentation is needed.

As part of research into the use of information technology and the writing process, I sent questions to the registrars at a sample of United Kingdom universities. The replies confirm that there is little national coordination or policy on this matter, scant effort to teach writing skills, and little pressure for change.

Research students have to produce a weighty thesis as the only formally assessed product of their research. Yet most universities offer almost no guidance as to what form this should take. Regulations vary wildly between universities and faculties. Moreover, the rules do not seem to be rigorously enforced. Thesis production is taught, if at all, by folklore or by the arbitrary demands of supervisors.

Even one of the most important regulations, that defining work worthy of a PhD, varies between universities. But the regulations on format and presentation are also woolly and capricious. A minority make explicit reference to the British Standard (BS4821 1990. Recommendations for the Presentation of Theses). At least one university (Leeds) points out that its own regulations contradict that standard. Other outside standards (eg, Chicago Manual of Style, Modern Humanities Research Association) are also mutually contradictory.

Even regulations as simple as the maximum length vary. Those at Cambridge are gloriously baroque and themselves take up 1,500 words. Depending on department and subject, the overall length may include or exclude almost any combination of footnotes, references, appendices and bibliography.

One of the shorter limits (60,000 words) applies to economics and politics, with the touching rider that "some of the best dissertations extend to only half this length". Another university sets a limit of 100,000 words or 300 pages, though elsewhere 80,000 words is equated with 400 pages. Such diversity is hard to reconcile with an absolute standard for a single qualification.

Regulations about the writing of the thesis vary but Southampton University's sum up what is implicit in others: "it is not only courteous but also in your own interests to ensure that examiners can read the thesis easily".

The attitude to writing seems to be that, as a faculty dean put it, "if research students haven't learned to write by now, they never will". Any development is therefore unplanned and casual.

But writing demands considerable maturity. A doctoral thesis is qualitatively different from anything the student has previously attempted. It is written for an audience who do not already understand its content. When original material has to be explained and put in context, a premium should be put on clarity rather than, as too frequently, on obfuscation masquerading as profundity. As well as the clearer guidance on production, students need to gain skills that enable them to write more quickly and to higher standards of presentation and communication.

Students who are more aware of the process of writing and more comfortable with new technology will be able to produce better reports of their research.

Recent developments in hardware and software should change our expectations of what a thesis should look like. Regulations should insist on a higher quality of organisation.

No one should now be aiming for a typescript-style product, using a single size of type and with unavoidable misprints. On top of the facility to produce a new, clean typescript with the press of a button, word processors offer numerous mechanical aids to remove the drudgery of retyping: for example, automatic placement and numbering of notes and tables.

The ubiquitous double spacing regulation should go out of the window. It is a hangover from the mechanical typewriter. Line spaces were there to allow for corrections and examiners' comments. Lines should now be narrower but more fitted on to the page. Examiners can write in the wider margins.

Aspects added as afterthoughts could in fact underpin the text's organisation, using word processors' "outlining tools". A contents page, for example, could be generated as a by product.

Cross-references can be added by embedding algebraic bookmarks, with less excuse for repetition. Bookmarks can be inserted while composing as a mechanical prompt to ensure that points are followed up.

No university was reviewing its regulations or making any changes to allow for the growth of ephemeral and grey publications (on the Internet) that increasingly dominate active research.

None is yet considering submission as other than a bound volume. Non-text is allowed only for appended items, even for a degree in music. Could a thesis not be a multimedia document? Or a virtual space to be visited and explored?

And it is surely retrograde that the only copies of theses that are archived are bound printouts. It would be easier to archive the computer files or to store them on CDs.

Examiners could take at face value this regulation from Keele: "The thesis must be the candidate's own account of the research." All theses should contain a short chronological account of what the candidate did, the triumphs and the disasters, the milestones and the millstones.

Maybe, in the interests of fairness, the candidate should be allowed to keep this confidential until after the degree has been awarded - then spill the beans.

Allan Reese is completing his PhD thesis at the University of Hull, entitled Writing a Thesis.

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