Triffid compulsion to reference

April 19, 1996

Sarah Nelson's antipathy to the excessive use of references in social science publications commands sympathy. Could I point out that aspiring postgraduates (however much they may agree with her), if they are to command the esteem of the academic gatekeepers, must practise this reprehensible habit if they wish to achieve a higher degree by research?

A thesis, and articles for publication which are essential to support a developing academic reputation, may be unacceptable unless they contain copious references to support even the most commonsense observations. Like all addictions it may be a difficult obsession to lose, but not impossible!

Professor Newstead (April 12) bemoaned measurement of undergraduates' performance, citing wide differences in marks given by experienced examiners for the same work, but this problem is worse still for research students. For a PhD candidate, one examiner's dream may be another's referred thesis.

The published criteria for the award are vague. What, for example, constitutes a worthwhile contribution to knowledge? By what agreed standards is it measured? What training do supervisors and examiners receive, apart of course, from passing through the PhD process themselves? If national guidelines are to be considered for comparability between institutions for undergraduate exams, can we add to this agenda the agreement of clearer guidelines on how final assessments are to be made of research theses?

Janet Harvey

PhD student, St Weonards, Herefordshire

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