Workshop tomorrow: Writing Tips for Researchers

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Wednesday 11th July, 10.30am – 4.30pm, Essex House 133

Thesis-writing clutter
(c) Sarah Robins-Hobden 2009

This workshop aims to help you get the most out of the written word, combining tricks and tips from the worlds of creative writing, marketing, and academic editing. Giving you practical pointers and advice based on experience, this workshop is aimed at all stages of research, whether you’re looking to impress your examiners, improve your writing style, or need some hints on how to start writing and editing.

Book your place now – Lunch and refreshments are provided throughout the day.

To get the most out of the workshop, participants should bring a printed sample of their own academic writing, preferably something recent. It should be between 800-1500 words long, preferably not an introductory or concluding section, and definitely not anything that has been published or professionally edited.

First Fictions launch

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first fictions logoThe First Fictions launch weekend, to be held from the 20th to the 22nd of January, 2012, brings together established authors and academics in order to debate notions of “firstness”, across several contexts, in fiction.

A partnership between Myriad Editions and the University of Sussex, we have an exciting lineup consisting of Ian Rankin, Nicholas Royle (Sussex), Abi Curtis, Michael Jones, David James, Kelcey Parker, Bryan Talbot, Ed Hillyer, Hannah Berry, Corinne Pearlman, Michael Wilson, Katherine Reeve, Seb Franklin, Lizzie Enfield, Jonathan Kemp, Suzi Feay, Mary Talbot, Nicholas Royle (Manchester), Bryan Cheyette, Natasha Soobramanien, Karen Stevens, Paul Crosthwaite, Katy Shaw, Andrew Kerr, Sue Eckstein, Nicola Streeten, Aneurin Wright, Alexandra Pringle (Bloomsbury publishing), Selma Dabbagh, Elleke Boehmer, Adam Roberts and Andrew Pepper.

We are also pleased to announce that the event will be host to the launch of Gylphi’s new journal of twenty-first-century literature, C21.


In order to make this conference affordable, tickets are available on a per-event basis. This mitigates against the feeling of paying a higher flat fee for those who only wish to attend certain panels. The event will be held at the University of Sussex campus at Falmer. All ticketing, registration and programme information is available online at http://www.firstfictions.com/first-fictions-events .

first fictions poster

Using Skim with Scrivener for researching & writing your Thesis

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Every Wednesday night, between 19:30 and 20:30 UK time [1], a ‘brood’ [2] of doctoral researchers from different time-zones gather under the Twitter hashtag #phdchat, for a synchronous chat about different aspects of doctoral research.  The week before last, the selected topic was the Literature Review.  I mentioned that I often used Skim alongside Scrivener (on a Mac), and was asked if I could explain my workflow a bit, which is what I’ve tried to do here. Read the rest of this entry »

Competition for early career researchers (win an iPad2)

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from the Doctoral School inbox:

Good afternoon,

Our partner website, LinkHigher, has been running a competition for postgraduates to find the best personal statement (100 words max) as judged by a panel of high profile postgraduate employers.

The competition is open to anyone who is studying for or already holds a Masters or PhD qualification. The aim is to encourage entrants to think about their most attractive, transferable skills and how to pitch them succinctly.

I think this would be especially useful for early stage research staff within a few years of completing their PhD.

More information is on the competition page at www.linkhigher.com/statements/new

Top prize is an iPad2. If you have any way of circulating this among research staff and feel it would be appropriate to do so then please pass this message on.

The competition closes on 30th June.

Best wishes,


Postgraduate Toolbox

Fof those that haven’t yet found their way to Postgraduate Toolbox, it’s a fantastic website with diverse resources for Postgraduates.  You won’t be wasting your time checking it out 🙂

Credit where credit is due: who’s in your thesis acknowledgements?

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It’s a cliché that just after creating a new document called ‘Thesis.doc”, the doctoral researcher finding him- or herself in ‘writing-up mode’ will inevitably start writing the Dedication and Acknowledgements.  Stereotyped and tired this image may be, yet it is not a million miles from the truth.  But, let’s pause and remove the veils of cynicism for a moment, because there are good reasons for why the myth is rooted in reality…

The Dedication: who’s your champion?

At the writing-up stage, we have committed a staggering quantity of energy, time and money towards our doctorate.  We have made great sacrifices, most likely starting with small things like sleep and recreation, moving up the scale possibly to health and relationships.  We have worked hard.  And through it all, we have persevered. What keeps us going, through the years of research, culminating in what will probably be the longest piece of academic writing in our career?

Sometimes it isn’t a ‘what’, but a ‘who’ – someone we have kept in mind throughout the doctoral journey, a champion if you like.  This person or persons may be living or dead, near or far.  They will have been the ‘who’ we think of when we’re dragging ourselves through the tough times, and of course when we are celebrating the good times. We want our champions at our graduation ceremony.  We want to make them proud.  I bet you already know who your champions are.

The Acknowledgements: who’s in your your support team?

We know we couldn’t have achieved so much alone – there’s a  support network behind every researcher, and it’s often bigger than we first think.  The tip of the iceberg starts with friends, family, and supervisor.  Go a little deeper though, and we find many more who deserve credit: housemates, library staff, lab technicians, department administrators, postdocs, IT technicians, mentors, archivists, proof-readers, participants, interviewees, researcher communities, bus drivers, bar staff, academics from other institutions, transcribers, office-mates, programmers, et al.

These folk are essential to the progress we’ve made, like the production team is essential to a movie, so let the credits roll.  Let our support team have the recognition they deserve, for the part they have played.  And once we start this list, it’s hard to stop.  We remember every single friendly face, shoulder to cry on, helpful suggestion, handy piece of advice, constructive critique and useful recommendation that has come our way during the doctorate.  We remember every kind email, every motivating chat, consolatory hug, and every bit of practical and emotional support bestowed on us by these wonderful people.

Who reads the credits?

The movie analogy fails us here.  Most of us, at the end of a movie, care little about the credits.  Yet the Acknowledgements section of our Thesis will probably be the most thumbed page of the whole thing. I know it’s the first page I read when looking at somebody else’s thesis.  We’re a curious species, us researchers, it goes with the territory.  I often joke that my thesis will be read in it’s entirety by a grand total of three people (my supervisor and my internal and external examiners).  My Mum will have a good go, though I wouldn’t want to bet on her not skipping a few chunks.  But I bet the acknowledgements get more airing than the rest of it put together, even in these bright new days of open access repositories.  In fact, especially in these bright new days of open access repositories.

The thing is, most of the wonderful people on the roll-call of our support network won’t get to read our thanks to them.  That’s where Time for Some Acknowledgement comes in.  The Time for Some Acknowledgement blog is where you can post your thesis acknowledgements on the internet for the whole world to see.  The blog is run by George Julian, and she will take submissions of your acknowledgements in pretty much any format: scanned pages, word-processed, handwritten, photographed – it’s up to you.  The blog has thesis acknowledgements from all over the world, and makes interesting reading (remember that curiosity?).  It’s also searchable, so you can have a look at who’s thanking who in your own institution – useful if you worry you might have forgotten someone.  Of course you could also use the search function to find out if you appear in someone else’s acknowledgements…

I leave you with a sample from a recent post to the Time for Some Acknowledgement blog, entitled “The path to becoming a doctor is littered with distractions. I’d like to thank those distractions for making me the person I am“:

I would like to thank many people who have helped me through the completion of this dissertation. The first is my advisor, Steve Harrison, who is captivating, honest, and the true embodiment of a mentor. In combination with the mentorship of my advisor, I am blessed to work with dynamic and intelligent committee members Dr. Dennis Kafura, Dr. D. Scott McCrickard, Dr. Enid Montague, and Dr. Deborah Tatar. I would also like to thank the Computer Sc … Read More

via Time for some acknowledgement

Turnitin: a researcher’s tool

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Composite image of various forms of textLast week, the Doctoral School gave Sussex doctoral researchers automatic access to the Turnitin for Doctoral Researchers Study Direct site (just use your ITS username and password to log in).  I had a brief play with Turnitin over the weekend, and here I mull over some of the issues raised.

What Turnitin does

When you submit your text to Turnitin – a chapter, section, research report or an entire thesis (in the form of a word processed document or PDF: 10MB limit on file size) – it is compared to an enormous database of text: from journals, books, conference proceedings, web pages, and archived student papers.  Then Turnitin gives you a full report (nobody has access to this report but you), highlighting any similarities, which can vary from two- or three-word phrases to larger sections of text.  You can then make sure that sections quoted from other resources are referenced correctly, and attributed to the correct source, within your own writing.  You can also get further information about the source that the matching text has come from – and even view the text of journal articles and books in question, so you can see the context of the matching text.

Why Turnitin is useful to researchers – and other issues

So far, so good, and you almost certainly learned about plagiarism, quoting and referencing during your Bachelors or Masters degree – but for researchers, Turnitin can be useful in ways other than a reference-checker, and raises other issues for researchers:

What happens to the text you submit?

It remains in the Turnitin database, and is used in future comparisons.  Think about this for a few moments and it raises a couple of issues, both of which seem to me, to be different sides of the same coin:

  • it becomes clear why you must only submit your own text to Turnitin, and not submit your text via another’s log-in.  Doing so would mean a revised chapter submitted under your own log-in would be flagged as similar to someone else’s previously-submitted text.
  • it means that Turnitin will spot, and highlight any future writings from other students that “borrow heavily” from your work.  The increase in online, open-access publication of theses, via the British Library’s Electronic Theses Online Service (EThOS) and by the institution’s repository, Sussex Research Online (SRO) have made researchers more sharply aware of, and protective of, their intellectual property in the form of their theses.  Submitting your thesis, or parts of it, to Turnitin, will help to prevent others taking advantage of your work.

It’s worth covering an important point here:  Your submitted text is not accessible to anybody else.  Your text is used for future comparisons only, and in an anonymous way: when similarities are found to a paper submitted by someone other than you, it is marked “Student paper – Submitted to XXX University“.  Further information is given by Turnitin:

“Because submitted papers remain the intellectual property of their authors, instructors and respective institutions, we are unable to show you the content of this paper at this time.  If you would still like to view this paper, you instructor may be able to request permission to view the paper from the instructor to whom the paper was originally submitted.”

What happens if I resubmit a revised chapter?

Nothing bad – you won’t have your own text highlighted as (overwhelmingly) similar to your previously submitted text.  Turnitin assumes that text submitted from the same log-in is written by the same author, so any text you submit will not be compared to your own, previously submitted work.  Another reason to only use your own Turnitin log-in when submitting text.

The concept of ‘originality’ in your thesis

The report given by Turnitin is called an “originality report”, and provides a “similarity index”, both of which seem poorly phrased concepts in the context of a doctoral thesis.  However, the originality report refers to the originality of the text, not of the thesis itself, or the research on which it is based.  Turnitin is not (yet?) capable of assessing the “doctorateness” or originality of your thesis.  Your supervisor(s) are much better at that 🙂

The issue of ‘Voice’ in your writing

When I put my thesis through Turnitin (6% similarity score, if you really want to know), I found some of the results rather interesting.  Many two- and three-word phrases were highlighted repeatedly.  This isn’t really a surprise when your writing is about your doctoral research, by definition a fairly narrow field – all disciplines have their own lingo, and often there are only one or two ways of clearly and effectively describing something such as a method or result.  Indeed, some similar sources turned out to be conference abstracts written by me – which was reassuring really.

But the surprise for me here, was that of the tens of authors that frequently crop up in my field of research, one rose significantly above the rest as the person to whom my writing is most similar: my supervisor.  As my supervisor didn’t copy-edit my drafts (feedback was centred around themes, ideas, content and structure rather than syntax), I have come to the conclusion that my writing voice has grown to be similar to his.  I’ve heard it said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, yet I had no idea my writing style was starting to mirror that of my supervisor.  In fact, when I read my work and his, I hear two distinct ‘voices’, even when we write about the same concepts.  I suppose that the similar phrases being just two or three words reflects this in a way – it’s possibly the number of occurrences, rather than the number of unique phrases that has contributed to this phenomena.

Get involved

If you’re a doctoral researcher at Sussex, you will already have access to Turnitin for Doctoral Researchers through Study Direct – simply log on.  The site includes a comprehensive FAQ and a forum for Sussex doctoral researchers to discuss the issues raised by the use of Turnitin.

If you’ve used Turnitin for any of your research-related writing and want to share your experiences here on the blog, we’d like to hear from you – please email doctoralschool@sussex.ac.uk

Other resources

  • Including third-party copyright material in your thesis – Library factsheet [PDF]
  • Handbook for Doctoral Researchers 2010/11 – Doctoral School [PDF]. Includes policy on use of 3rd party copyright material in doctoral theses on page 30.
  • The Doctoral School coordinates professional development Related workshops across the university. Full details and booking instructions are on the researcher development pages of the Doctoral School website. The following workshops may be particularly relevant to issues raised by the use of Turnitin:
    • Copyright issues in your Doctoral thesis
    • Introduction to EndNote
    • Intermediate EndNote
  • EndNote Resource – Study Direct site including examples, images and video resources for using EndNote reference management software. Includes manuals to download and referencing information.
  • E-Learning for Researchers – includes a module on “Intellectual Property in the Research Context”, covering copyright, trademarks and patents.

Thesis writing: Sharing experiences, challenges and top tips (Drop-in, 27th May)

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Thesis-writing clutter
Image (c) Sarah Robins-Hobden 2009

Thesis writing: Sharing experiences, challenges and top tips
Research Hive, top floor of the Library
Friday 27 May 2:30pm-3:30pm – fully booked!

The Research Hive has had an amazing response to its first doctoral writing discussion workshop.

The session this Friday is now fully subscribed but, because of the interest it generated, we will be holding a 2nd workshop on the same theme in Week 10 to allow others to come together and discuss their writing practices.

Priority will be given in this later session to those who have been unable to attend the first workshop, and we will continue with our plan to roll out sessions on different related themes in the coming weeks and months.

How do you write a thesis? The actual process of writing your research can be one of the most daunting experiences of life as a doctoral researcher. Is there a formula for writing? How do you structure your time? Do you have any hints or tips for beating writers block? How do you deal with an 80,000 word limit?

In the first of a new series, the Research Hive Scholars invite you to an open form discussion on the merits and methods of your particular writing practices. This session will be driven by the ideas and topics of conversation generated by you. No lecturing – guaranteed!

Writing can be a lonely activity so, whether you’re looking for some peer driven guidance or think you may have a useful model for consideration then come and make connections with other doctoral researchers at the university and share your writing ideas and experiences with others.

RSVP to researchhive@sussex.ac.uk