Writing a conference paper: questions to consider


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by Anna Morozov with Cally Guerin

Here at DoctoralWriting we often focus on issues related to thesis writing, but of course doctoral candidates need to write all sorts of documents. For some, learning how to present ideas in a range of genres for a range of purposes is one of the rewards of undertaking research at this level. Writing a conference presentation is very different from writing an article or a dissertation. While writing the script of a presentation recently, a list of questions arose for us that might be useful for others doing this for the first time.

How do I adapt my PhD to this context?
Some big conferences might attract a rather broad audience; on the other hand, smaller niche conferences often focus on a more specific subset of that disciplinary ‘tribe’ (Becher & Trowler, 2001; Trowler, Saunders & Bamber, 2012). Even for those in the habit of working across more than one discipline, adapting the PhD to fit a slightly different context is challenging. The conference might need to have different aspects of the work emphasised, and different language or terminology employed, compared to the thesis version of the research.

Who is my audience?
In the smaller conferences, the audience one might expect to find is potentially more predictable than the possible readership of a published article. This makes it possible to tailor the presentation to a very specific audience with particular interests in terms of their preferred theoretical stance, the emphasis they are likely to place on certain details, and the kind of language they might expect. Thinking carefully about what this audience already knows can help to determine the content and focus of the presentation.

How do I introduce myself?
Another question that arose during preparation was to decide how much personal information was relevant. The speaker needs to position him/herself as ‘one of the gang’ in the particular field, an insider in the current debates with something worth listening to. Wisker (2012) explains that a literature review for a thesis engages in a dialogue with the discipline; a conference presentation is literally an opportunity to be part of the conversation. And part of this is to present a more personal approach to the topic by owning the content: that is, be willing to say ‘I’.

How formal should I be?
When presenting in person, it’s possible to be more chatty than is usual when writing a journal article or thesis. This will, of course, depend on the conventions of the specific disciplinary/discourse community, but on the whole we would expect rather less ‘lexical density’ than in a written version. That is, there are fewer content words in spoken language than in written academic language, and lots more ‘filler’, giving the listener a little extra time to process the information (Halliday 1985 has a much more sophisticated way of explaining this). It also helps to write a one-sentence summary of the main point of each slide to reinforce the message as the story proceeds.

How much can I say?
One big challenge is to conceptualise the conference presentation as a standalone piece of writing that is separate from (but grows out of) the bigger project of the PhD. It’s not helpful to condense the entire PhD into a 15-minute presentation, but at the same time that overall project provides a context for this particular element of the study. A conference paper can’t say everything; it needs to be closely focused on a single main argument so that the audience can engage with the ideas. It’s important to think carefully about the relationship between the paper and the thesis.

Do I really have to be so tentative?
It’s also important to calibrate the strength of conclusions in the conference paper, especially if presenting work in progress. Leaping ahead to where we hope the data will lead can result in an unpersuasive version of the research. Be very careful about pushing the conclusions too far or over-generalising, particularly when only a small part of the data is being discussed. It might add to the research credibility if you can support your conclusions with direct quotations from your study participants.

How should I divide up the time?
Although it sounds like a small detail, one useful tactic in the early stages is to decide how many of the 15 minutes should be allotted to each section of the presentation. For example, the project is new to this audience, so a little bit of time needs to be assigned to setting the context for the study (maybe 2 minutes?). But then, it’s also important to make sure this audience leaves with a sense of having learnt something new, so in this case should we keep around 6 minutes for presenting results? More? Less? It can be helpful to decide early on how to balance the weighting of the various sections as a guide to how much detail could be included.

What about graphics?
The big advantage of having access to PowerPoint or Prezi alongside the spoken presentation means that the graphics can enhance communication. Given the very short timeframe for presenting complex ideas, graphics allow more information to be presented – but do ensure that the visuals match the verbal content. And, of course, don’t crowd the screen with too many words. Think about the layout to ensure that the audience can see at a glance how the visuals fit with the verbal message. Images add interest and help to keep the audience focused. So, if you have decided to use images in your presentation, make sure the pictures are from copyright-free stock if you don’t have your own to use.

What other issues have you come across when working with PhD candidates on their first conference presentations? What are the useful tips that become second nature after you’ve done a few presentations, but are not so obvious when starting out?

Becher, T. and Trowler, P. (2001). Academic Tribes and Territories: Intellectual Enquiry and the Cultures of Disciplines (2nd edition). Buckingham: Open University Press/SRHE.
Halliday, M.A.K. (1985). Spoken and Written Language. Waurn Ponds, VIC: Deakin University.
Trowler, P., Saunders, M. and Bamber, R. (eds) (2012). Tribes and Territories in the 21st-century: Rethinking the Significance of Disciplines in Higher Education. London: Routledge.
Wisker, G. (2012). The Good Supervisor: Supervising Postgraduate and Undergraduate Research for Doctoral Theses and Dissertations (2nd edition). Basingstoke and NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

What level of English competence is enough for doctoral students?


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By Cally Guerin

In recent weeks I’ve been involved in a number of different situations focused on assessing the English language skills of international students, which has made me think yet again about what is most important in this regard for those entering the world of doctoral writing. An article in Times Higher Education served as a timely reminder that this continues to be a vexed issue at all levels of university study in this era of internationalisation. It is also useful to remember just how complex it is to accurately assess language levels, especially under high-stakes exam conditions.

In Australia, the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is commonly used to determine English language competency. All four language skills (reading, writing, speaking and listening) are tested in four separate parts of the exam. Another widely accepted language test, the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), is conducted online and includes tasks that integrate writing, reading and listening.

At my current university, international students are required to have an entry level IELTS score of 6.5 or higher. This is equivalent to the 79-93 range in TOEFL. But what do these numbers mean? IELTS explains:

Band 7: Good user
Has operational command of the language, though with occasional inaccuracies, inappropriacies and misunderstandings in some situations. Generally handles complex language well and understands detailed reasoning.

Band 6: Competent user
Has generally effective command of the language despite some inaccuracies, inappropriacies and misunderstandings. Can use and understand fairly complex language, particularly in familiar situations.

According to this measurement, our students are usually somewhere in between. (For more information, go to http://www.ielts.org/institutions/test_format_and_results/ielts_band_scores.aspx.)

This may sound adequate, but what 6.5 or 79-93 looks like in real life may seem like quite a lot of inaccuracies to some supervisors faced with drafts of their students’ writing. Maybe most sentences have small errors such as absent or misused articles (a, the), uncountable nouns used as plurals (researches or evidences), lack of agreement between subject and verb (participants has reported), or wrong word forms (have observe).

On the whole, I’m not too fussed about what I would regard as ‘surface errors’ like these. So long as the sentence structure is more or less in place, and the reader can understand what the student is getting at, I am more than willing to work with that. But I am aware that as a former English language teacher I bring particular skills to this task that others may not necessarily have.

Working as an editor for academics whose first language was not English also taught me useful lessons about writing and English competence. In that position my employing company policy stated that editors were not to intervene with ‘corrections’ unless there was actually a mistake – it was not regarded as appropriate to impose personal or stylistic preferences on others’ writing. There is an important distinction between actual errors and personal preferences that is relevant to doctoral students too. When we urge doctoral writers to ‘find your own voice’, they may choose to include some stylistic quirks that are not strictly conventional in academic writing, yet communicate valuable aspects of their own perspective on the topic. Again, it’s necessary to consider whether or not it is ‘wrong’, or whether it might be quite acceptable to many academic readers.

I think it’s also very important to recognise what an author is achieving in their writing, rather than focusing on what is not grammatically accurate. For example, doctoral writers should be commended for successfully ensuring that all the relevant information is present and properly referenced; that the overall argument is structured into a logical sequence; and that the headings and paragraphing clearly communicate the central ideas. Instead of noticing only what’s wrong with the writing, supervisors can encourage students by taking time to acknowledge what is right with it too. On the path towards developing writing skills, such positive feedback can be very heartening.

But lots of other supervisors are less comfortable—and much more impatient—with what I would regard as an acceptable level of English language competency. So where do you draw the line regarding how much English is enough? Do you expect the first draft to be entirely free of any grammar errors? Do you find yourself reworking nearly every sentence so that in the end it feels as if you’ve written the entire thesis yourself? What would you like the English language entry level to be for doctoral candidates at your university? I suspect that many of our readers have very strong opinions on this topic and it would be great to hear from you.

“Help with writing” vs “learning about writing”


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By Cally Guerin

It seems to me that students often turn up to workshops run by academic developers and learning advisors, or join writing groups, because they have realised that “I need someone to help me with my writing”. It’s encouraging that they recognize that their writing isn’t as effective as it needs to be, but I don’t think this is the best way to think about the issue, especially at doctoral level. Instead of conceptualising their situation in these terms, they might be much better off thinking: “I need to learn more about writing”.

My impression is that sometimes PhD students are looking for someone who will sit with them one-on-one in order to provide extensive editing and proofreading of their work. Or even better, simply “fix it up” for them. Occasionally I get the impression that they hope someone can tell them the “answer” to research writing so they pass the “test”. Unfortunately, this approach takes no account of how they’ll cope next time in a similar (but not identical) situation. After all, research writing is not just a simple process of imposing a formula; rather, it’s a complex matter of understanding and applying the concepts, adjusting and adapting to each unique writing situation.

I suspect that at the root of this problem is the mistake of thinking that doing a PhD is really only about making an original contribution to knowledge in the discipline. From that perspective, the focus is on the technical skills required to undertake the experimental work or to gather and analyse the qualitative or quantitative data. Writing, by contrast, is regarded as secondary.

Of course disciplinary knowledge is the linchpin of the whole enterprise – one of the key criteria for examination at most universities is that the research reported in the thesis makes an original contribution to the field. However, it is also important that doctoral candidature is a time for learning the broader skills required to be an effective researcher. This is part of the current discourse about the PhD as “research training”, rather than an end in itself. Learning to write well about research is central to this training. Good writing skills are a necessary graduate attribute for PhD candidates, yet doctoral candidates can be resistant to accepting just how important writing is. But it turns out that not everyone is as focused on doctoral writing as we are in this blog community (probably no surprises there, really!).

I’m repeatedly reminded of this when I run a workshop for PhD students that includes an exercise using Boote & Beile’s (2005) literature review assessment matrix. This matrix lists the criteria that could be used to assess literature reviews in doctoral theses. The assessment criteria are organised into five categories: Coverage, Synthesis, Methodology, Significance and Rhetoric. In the workshop, participants are asked to imagine they are PhD examiners who will use the matrix to assess their own (i.e., the students’) literature reviews. The task is to decide what percentage should be assigned to each of these elements. Nearly always, students award only 5-10% of the marks to Rhetoric, which they understand as relating to the quality of the writing. While they argue that the other criteria can’t be done effectively without good writing, they rarely want to place too much importance on the writing as a separate category.

As supervisors, learning advisors and writing teachers, we might provide the most useful support for doctoral candidates if we were to encourage a shift in attitude to learning about writing as a necessary doctoral skill, rather than offering to “help students with their writing”. We are interested in whether anyone has tools or language that they routinely use to persuade doctoral students that writing skills are part of the transferrable set of skills they need to acquire before graduation, even though the acquisition is not always easy or painless.

What to do with ‘leftover’ data?


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By Cally Guerin

On winding up a research project recently, I got to thinking about the ideas and data points that didn’t make it into the final publications or conference presentations. After collecting survey responses and focus group transcripts, the research team looked over the findings and decided how to divide it up into publishable chunks. Then for each paper we took the data that was relevant to that topic, analysed it thoroughly, and then decided what the main argument could be – that is, what is the new knowledge gained from that part of the research? But there are still a few intriguing bits and pieces of data left over. The process brought home to me how often doctoral writers are faced with ideas and data that don’t quite fit into the scope of the doctorate. To avoid feeling that work is ‘wasted,’ it is helpful to think about how those leftovers might be used.

In doctoral research projects, as with any quality research, ensuring that the work has followed rigorous research methods and thus produced reliable data helps us answer the research question we set out to address in the first place. When it comes to doctoral writing, the integrity of the methods and the interpretation of the resulting data are presented in the thesis, keeping a close eye on examiner expectations. Obviously, this is central to how a doctoral study proves itself worthy of a PhD. Elsewhere in the DoctoralWriting blog I have written about the importance of constructing a thesis that is not simply an exact record of all the components of the research journey – decisions need to be made about what needs to be left out of the thesis, just as much as what needs to be included.

Having constructed the thesis version of the research for doctoral examination, there are likely to be bits and pieces of data that don’t find their way into the main argument, that seem to be left over at the end of the project. Sometimes, though, these leftover items of data stay in the researcher’s mind, hinting that there is more to be said about the topic, niggling away in the background and refusing to be put aside.

I firmly believe that there is a place for the intuitive hunch in research, the idea that attracts attention even when it is not fully worked out, the idea that seems to be left over from the main project. I have taken heart from the work of Maggie McLure in relation to this. She writes about data that ‘glows’, by which she means ‘some detail – a fieldnote fragment or videoimage – [that] starts to glimmer, gathering our attention’ (McLure 2010: 282). McLure provides us with an example of how she works with such data in ‘The Wonder of Data’ (2013).

These glowing data points tell us something interesting, but maybe it’s not always a really big idea or argument that is to be made, at least in relation to the current research project. Or perhaps the glowing data stands out from what’s already been said, not contradicting the main argument (of course!), but moving off on another tangent. It might be something really interesting even though it does not fit logically alongside the central point of the thesis chapters or articles that finally make it to the light of day.

I’ve starting thinking that perhaps an important role for research blogs is to provide a place to explore leftover data that may or may not turn out to be big ideas. When writing for the DoctoralWriting blog, I often find myself exploring ideas that start out tiny, and maybe grow into a blog, and occasionally continue to blossom into a full-sized research project. For doctoral candidates, publishing one’s work through blogs is not always straight forward and should be approached cautiously. But perhaps a similar process of writing up short pieces that may later be revisited can be a useful practice. This procedure has the advantage of not throwing away the data that doesn’t make it into the final thesis, and of encouraging ongoing writing habits.

I’m not sure that the leftover data is a concern for all doctoral researchers, though. Perhaps the possibility of confronting leftover data is more common in qualitative research, for example, where interview participants might expand on related ideas that are not quite directly on the main topic of the formal interview questions.

In workshops I remind students that nothing is ever wasted in the work they do towards their research, and suggest that it’s good to keep any extra ideas in a separate file if they don’t seem to fit into the main thesis. I too have got one of those files and it seems to keep growing, but at the moment I’m not quite sure what I can do with it.

I’d be interested to hear from readers who have made good use of leftover data from their research, especially those who undertake quantitative studies (can ‘outliers’ be informative in unexpected but useful ways?). I suspect that the leftover data that glows can inspire us towards new research directions, whatever our methods.

Doctoral theses online: when copyright permission is not required


By Melanie Johnson and Susan Carter

Our previous post looked at when copyright consent is required once a thesis is posted into a digital portal, and how to obtain permissions. This post explains the situations when copyright permission is not needed.

The law will vary from country to country. For example, in the United States all works created by the Government are free from copyright, whereas in New Zealand, government work is protected by Crown Copyright for 100 years from the date of publication.

Most universities have someone whose responsibility includes advising on copyright, so if doctoral candidates have a specific query, they should check with that person to find out what their national law requires.

In broad terms, in the following circumstances permission is not needed.

Copyright has expired

Works in which copyright has expired may be copied in full and dealt with freely. In New Zealand, copyright in literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works expires 50 years from the end of the year in which the author died; in Australia, the US and Europe and many other countries, copyright expires 70 years following the end of the year in which the author died.

In New Zealand, copyright in sound recordings, films and communication works expires 50 years from the end of the calendar year in which the work is made or communicated or made available to the public. If the identity of the author is not able to be ascertained by reasonable inquiry, copyright expires 50 years from the end of the calendar year in which the work is first made available to the public. Overseas, the term of copyright for these works varies with each jurisdiction and national law must be checked.

A less obvious protection exists for the typographical arrangement of a work. This means that a work in which the author has been dead for hundreds of years can be protected by copyright if the publisher brings out a new edition, whereupon the typographical arrangement is protected for a further 25 years.

Quoting from a work in which only the typographical arrangement is protected by copyright and not copying the format or layout means that you can use that work in that way without permission.

Creative Commons licences

Works on the Internet may be made available under a licence such as a Creative Commons (CC) licence which would allow you to include it in your thesis and post it on-line without having to request permission.

Creative Commons licences allow creators (licensors) to retain copyright while allowing others to copy, distribute, and make some uses of their work. All work licensed under a CC licence must be properly attributed to the licensor.

Creative Commons offers 6 main licence types. Providing that the licence permits the original work to be copied and distributed online, it may be included in a thesis. The following link is to a Quick Reference Guide to Finding Creative Commons Material for Teachers and Students.

Although NZ Government works are protected by copyright the government has issued a directive to the effect that works subject to Crown Copyright should be made available under a creative commons licence.

If you are wanting to use work, including data sets, which are protected by NZ Crown copyright, then this link provides useful information on using NZ government works and how to obtain permission: http://ict.govt.nz/guidance-and-resources/open-government/new-zealand-government-open-access-and-licensing-nzgoal-framework/quick-guide-users/ Other countries are likely to also have government guidance, and someone at your own institution may help you find where.

Copying which is “fair”

There are certain exceptions in each country’s copyright laws which allow copies to be made for purposes which are thought to benefit society and for which the copyright owner would be unlikely to grant permission. This is generally classed as “fair” and may fall under “fair use” if you are in the US or “fair dealing” if you are in New Zealand, Australia or the UK. In New Zealand the “fair dealing for criticism and review” allows copying for criticism or review purposes. Any use of works under this provision requires that the original author is acknowledged with the usual reference needed for thesis citations.

No copyright

In some jurisdictions, no copyright attaches to certain works in the public domain. Under the New Zealand Copyright Act no copyright attaches to the following works which may be freely copied:

  • Bills and Acts of Parliament
  • Regulations and Bylaws
  • Reports of Select Committees
  • New Zealand Parliamentary Debates
  • Judgments of any New Zealand court or tribunal. Note: Head notes are protected by copyright and may not be copied without permission
  • Reports of New Zealand Royal Commissions, Commissions of Inquiry, Ministerial Inquiries or Statutory Inquiries

In the US, any work created by a federal (but not state or local) government employee is in the public domain, provided that the work was created in that person’s official capacity. However, state and local laws and court decisions are in the public domain. See more at: http://fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/public-domain/welcome/#us_government_works.

In general, those working with historical documents will need to ascertain early on whether these works are likely to be protected by copyright and whether or not permission is required.

Copying permitted

A final group of works are protected by copyright, but can be freely copied, including for commercial purposes. In New Zealand this includes:

  • abstracts of scientific or technical articles accompanying an article in a periodical indicating the contents of the article;
  • buildings and sculptures permanently on public display may be drawn, photographed or filmed – this does not extend to copying someone else’s graphic image, photograph or film of a sculpture or building on public display. As explained in the previous post [include link],s a separate copyright exists for the graphic image, the photograph or film itself, which belongs to the artist, photographer or filmmaker;
  • text or images relating to a medicine imported by the Crown and published overseas by the copyright owner.


Commissioned works include photographs, computer programmes, paintings, drawings, diagrams, maps, charts, plans, engravings, models, sculptures, films or sound recordings. Ownership of a commissioned work varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In Australia, if someone is paid to create a work for private or domestic purposes, the person paying for it owns the copyright

The general principle, as well as the exceptions, can be modified by agreement. It is good practice to have written agreements with all the contributors involved in your publication project to ensure copyright ownership is clearly determined early in the process.

See more at: http://www.artslaw.com.au/info-sheets/info-sheet/copyright/#sthash.Bx1EmBJa.dpuf

Under current New Zealand law, the commissioner retains copyright whether or not it is for private or domestic purposes. However, the commissioner can contract out of the default position. So, unless there is an agreement to the contrary, the owner of the commissioned work also owns the copyright, which means they can use the work as they please. In the rare case when doctoral students commission someone to create a work, candidates must check any written agreement they are asked to sign to ensure that they retain copyright or have a licence to use the work for future purposes.

Note that the commissioning rule does not apply to literary works or musical works, so if a doctoral candidate commissions music or a text for inclusion in a work that they also want to include in their thesis, they should either ensure that copyright is assigned to them in writing or that the work is licensed to enable the thesis to be deposited in the repository.

If the creator is unpaid (in effect has given their work), then the work will have to be assigned to the commissioner by way of a deed for them to own copyright. The deed must be signed and the signature witnessed. However, only a nominal sum is generally sufficient to be regarded as payment.

In summary, where a work is commissioned and paid for and that work will form part of a submitted thesis, the candidate who has commissioned that work by default owns the copyright in that work—unless it is a musical work or a literary work. If ownership of the work is unable to be obtained, then a license or permission from the copyright owner to use that work is sufficient.

And to emphasise the take home message: all doctoral candidates should talk about any copyright issues early on as they make decisions about the doctoral route. Then, if copyright is required, they should get consents as early as possible so that submission of the thesis is able to go ahead smoothly.

Melanie Johnson, the copyright advisor at the University of Auckland, has explained copyright as it affects those posting doctoral theses on a digital portal in this post and the previous one. Make sure that you read both!




Copyright: Thesis responsibilities


By Melanie Johnson and Susan Carter

As part of the submission process, many universities require theses to be uploaded into the institution’s digital repository where search engines can find them. Visibility can be crucial for new graduates seeking the next research project, presumably with better money and new opportunities. However, there are a few risks, too. Web crawlers searching the web on behalf of copyright owners hunt for embedded code or key words that can identify their works.They can then demand unpaid copyright licensing fees and penalty payments for them. This post looks at the legal issues round copyright.

Early on in the doctoral process doctoral students need to consider how they will manage the use of third party copyright material. Failure to consider copyright can result in delayed submission and key documents whose copyright belongs to someone else being removed from the published version or, in a worst case scenario, the student may face an action for breach of copyright. Melanie Johnson, a lawyer who is the University of Auckland copyright advisor, explains the most common issues relating to doctoral theses.

Generally candidates must obtain permission if they have included in their thesis copyright works belonging to others. Set out below are the various situations where permissions must be obtained (in the next post we will talk about when permission is not needed, which is pertinent to many in arts and humanities disciplines).

Authors of published work and its copyright

Many doctoral students will publish during their candidacy. On submission of the digital thesis they will need permission to use their own work if they have assigned copyright to a publisher. At some institutions, in a digital thesis a chapter or section is replaced with a link to the digital article, but often this is not the case. Usually publishers require authors to assign copyright to them when they submit an article, chapter or book for publication. Candidates who wish to include that article or chapter in their thesis, or a substantial part of it, need to obtain permission from the publisher—unless they have reserved the right to include it in their thesis at the time of signing the publisher’s contract. The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) provides useful advice for authors on how to secure their rights to reuse a work which has been accepted for publication.

Whole works

Sometimes a short extract from a larger work such as a book or a journal article is in fact a whole work and separate permission is required to reproduce that work. For example, poems, images (such as photographs), charts or diagrams are actually whole works and may have a separate copyright owner from the author of the book or journal. While it often feels as though just the usual referencing with page numbers etc. covers citation obligations, this is not the case where a substantial or a whole part of a work has been copied. If thesis writers are aware of this early on, it might influence decisions as to whether or not they include someone else’s diagram or photograph. It is also important to factor in the time required to contact the copyright owner (usually the publisher) and ask for permission to use the material before submitting the thesis. Consent is usually given when asked for, so this is not generally a problem. However, doctoral students can use this process to their advantage, demonstrating their professional researcher awareness to examiners by including this formal consent. It is a good habit to adopt.

Collaborations, especially for those in the creative disciplines

People sometimes mistakenly assume that, if they have collaborated with another person, they can freely copy the collaborative work. However, this work is jointly owned, unless each person’s contribution is a separate and distinct part. This means that copyright consent is required from collaborating colleagues. Remember, it is much easier to get clearance to use this material at the time the work is being created, rather than later trying to chase up collaborators who may have moved on or changed their contact details.

Importantly, copyright law protects not only the work of the traditional authors of literary, musical or artistic works, but also authors of works such as:

  • Computer generated literary, dramatic, musical, or artistic works—the author is the person who undertakes the arrangements necessary for the creation of the work are undertaken;
  • Sound or video recording—the author is the person who organises and makes the recording and the person who undertakes the editing or the compiling of recordings into a final output;
  • Communication works (that is, transmission of sounds, visual images, or other information made available on the internet or a broadcast or cable programme)—the author is the person who makes the communication work;
  • Performances—the authors are the actors, musicians, dancers or others who have deliberately contributed through their presence within the performance/exhibition or recording;
  • Costumes and sets—the authors are the designers, choreographers, dramaturgs or others who have deliberately contributed concepts and conceptual materials to the performance/exhibition or recording.

The list above reflects the current law in New Zealand; other countries may not provide the same protections for these works. It is well worth finding out what applies in the relevant country.

Candidates need to consider the sorts of permission required if including a video or a sound recording of a performance in their thesis. In these circumstances there may be a number of different authors who will each own copyright of different aspects of the performance and/or the recording. Setting time aside for organising the necessary consents at the time of recording is strongly recommended.

Sometimes a performance can contain separate copyright within the larger whole. In that case, copyright is infringed by a person who, without the author’s consent, makes a recording of the whole (or any substantial part of) performance and communicates that recording to the public. Posting a recording of a performance in an institutional repository without the performer’s consent is a breach of copyright.

If permission has been obtained to use a work for one purpose, separate permission will be needed to use that work for another purpose. For example, permission granted to use the work in a printed book does not cover content which is posted online.

The take-home message is that candidates need to be alert to copyright implications regarding their work from the start of the process, and if they think they will be affected, should find out from a local copyright advisor what they will need to do along the route to completion.

Next week Melanie will look at when copyright is not needed. In the meantime, we’d be interested in doctoral students’ and supervisors’ experiences of copyright.



New Year’s resolutions for doctoral writers



By Susan Carter

Years matter to doctoral progress, with increasing pressure to finish within a certain number of them. The idea of New Year’s resolutions implies that you are not satisfied with your own performance in the year that you are leaving behind. Even if you are, it seems reasonable to take up a seasonal sense of deliberate progression at the cusp of a new year when you are thinking about doctoral writing.






This post is built on a seminar that I previously hosted for doctoral students each year in January. Here I am suggesting activities addressed to the doctoral student as ‘you,’ but with the intention that supervisors, academic developers and learning advisors could use the exercise as a seasonal tool to support doctoral students.

Before drawing up resolutions, those in the process of doctoral writing could do a self-audit through a few exercises of introspection. They might

  1. Acknowledge successful working practices by listing the things that they have done reasonably well.
  2. List bad habits that might be rectified.

Weighing up the previous track record could lead on to New Year’s resolutions, and asking what might make this time round more successful in terms of follow-through. In this post I suggest a few strategies for changing habits. I agree with Curry and Lillis (2013: 3) that ‘the ways that people do things often become part of their implicit routine or habitual patterns of activity,’ that is, the real goal of changing how we do things just a little is to build better habits into our regular (implicit) routine. Reflecting on what you do, might do differently, and will do with the goal of doing things better is fairly sensible.

New Year’s resolution exercise for doctoral students


Time management

Make a time frame for the year ahead. What progress you want to make over the coming year? What is the realistic time frame for each foreseeable step forward? Where do you need to be by January 2016? So where do you need to be by July 2015? What will you need to do each month to get there? Take the first month and plan each week. For 2015, at the end of each month plan ahead for the next.

Changing habits

If you do something consistently for two months, you will have established a habit that you will be able to maintain. But if two months seems like a long haul, a good beginning is to start with a two week time frame. Just two weeks—that is not a lot to ask of yourself. What is the first item that you might give two weeks’ consistent effort towards? Are there rewards that you might viably give yourself if you achieve the metamorphosis that you want? Pencil these promises to yourself into your diary too.

Motivation strategies

Many thesis writers, particularly doctoral students, experience problems part way through the degree and find it hard to stay motivated. Here are some suggestions:


  • Revisit your research proposal and outline of thesis structure.
  • Remind yourself of your initial ideas (and enthusiasm) for the research project.
  • Re-examine this proposal: are you still working toward this goal? Has anything changed?
  • Does your initial idea for the structure of the thesis seem viable? Has something changed to make this form less applicable? It can be a really good idea to try and picture the thesis as a whole so that you have a better sense of how each of its parts function in the overall context.

Written work:

  • Re-examine your existing written work / chapters written so far. Write a summary or précis, noting the key elements of chapters you have already been working on.
  • How is the next stage in your thesis going to draw on or link to prior sections? Pick up the existing threads with a mind to reworking them into the writing to be done next.
  • Focus on an element of your research that most interests you.
  • View writing quantitatively—how much do you have? How many words will be in each chapter? How many within each section? Now every month do a word count so you can see the growth.
  • Make a writing contract with a colleague—we will both turn off all distractions (email, cellphone etc.) and write for one and a half hours on Monday morning (or whatever).

Help from others:

  • Make a plan for where you want to go after completion and talk to someone about it. This could be your supervisor but could also be someone else.
  • Plan towards giving a seminar or conference paper. Having a specific target can really help to get you motivated, and writing a discrete entity like a conference paper is a good reminder that you can in fact produce polished and finished work.
  • Maintain contact with others: your colleagues and other doctoral students. Put dates into your calendar so that you participate in departmental seminars. Initiate meeting for coffee or lunch with doctoral friends.
  • Participate in (or set up) a reading group with other doctoral candidates in your discipline in which you discuss particular articles, readings, theories or methodologies.
  • Join or set up a writing group, in which you review, edit and comment on each other’s work—this one need not be limited to those in your field.
  • Book for central seminars provided by the graduate school.
  • See your subject librarian and ask if there are any new data-bases that you could use, .
  • Email a world expert to ask advice on a small point. Then insert them, referencing ‘private conversation, date’.
  • Join Twitter #phdchat and use it to ask and answer questions.
  • Link to a blog that might inspire or sustain you, like Thesiswhisperer.
  • Review the supervisory relationship, and plan a strategy for improving the relationship. Think of how to have a better relationship with your supervisor—how to get what you want by communicating better, producing more writing, knowing your own weaknesses and strengths as well as your supervisors’…then try thanking them for the previous year’s support, emphasizing what worked really well.


A lot of doctoral students find it helpful to work at a particular place and for a regular (and reasonably consistent) time. You will find it easier to achieve the tasks that you set yourself if you have regular work habits.

Having specific times in which you work (at specific places) will also help you to maintain a balance with the rest of your life. You must get enough exercise and social interaction. Value and nourish yourself—you are most probably your own most significant resource.

Finally, in the seasonal spirit of goodwill, send us your recommendations for our New Year’s resolutions.

DIGITAL CAMERACurry, M. C., and Lillis, T. (2013). A Scholar’s guide to Getting Published in English: Critical Choices and Practical Strategies. Toronto: Multilingual Matters








Very best seasonal wishes from DoctoralWriting SIG


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By Susan Carter, Cally Guerin and Claire Aitchison

(Pictures courtesy of MorgueFile)

We can’t give you a Christmas present at this distance, but hope an annotated list of books and articles that might be a perfect fit, colour and design for doctoral writers would be some kind of equivalent.Here are some that we think are great for specific purposes. We hope one is right for you.


The article that has got Susan excited recently is George D. Gopen and Judith A. Swan’s The Science of Science Writing (1990) American Scientist 78(6), pp. 550-558. It explains some of the principles of using syntax for clarity, and offers a set of simple rules. There is not much new with that, right? But what is new here is that they use quite hard science examples to demonstrate, and we find this manages to convince science-minded researchers who begin with the idea that writing is not really important because other people who are experts will be able to figure it out. In this article, Gopen and Swan point out the ambiguity caused by careless fact ordering of the kind that is ubiquitous in science writing, as it is elsewhere, and disprove the idea that semantics and syntax are not important. If you write in hard sciences, this article is handmade for you.


One book firmly counters the belief that writing takes forever: Joan Bolker’s (1998). Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis. New York: Henry Holt, 1998. First, the title itself is encouraging. There’s a section on ‘Getting to the Midpoint’ and ‘Interruptions from Inside and Outside’ that offer suggestions for how to handle some of the setbacks of doctoral writing in that mid-thesis slump lots of doctoral students find themselves in (as well as other useful chapters). If you despair of the time your writing is taking, this is an attractive one-size-fits-all option.




For women engaged with doctoral writing, Diana Leonard’s (2001) A Woman’s Guide to Doctoral Studies (Buckingham: Open University Press) identifies some of the pitfalls of doctoral level study and suggests ways of coping with (or avoiding) them. Women students are likely to find this book’s focus resonates well with their own experience.

Rowena Murray’s (2011) How to write a thesis, Maidenhead: Open University Press, takes a matter of fact approach to getting the writing done—it’s intelligent and practical. Murray believes that it is possible to routinely write 1,000 words an hour, and suggests ways to reach this level of competence. She does this without glossing over the challenges and complexities of doctoral writing. It is one of those books that might make writing a professional skill that you can acquire, and need to if you intend to seek an academic career.

Then for a concrete explanation of the machinery of language within the genre of the thesis, Brian Paltridge and Sue Starfield’s Thesis and dissertation writing in a second language: A handbook for supervisors, London: Routledge, remains hard to beat. This book is for doctoral students who haven’t studied linguistics, and suspect that their supervisors and advisors are not that clear with spelling out how to meet the criteria that will please examiners. We’ve found that the focus on second language explanation makes this a wonderfully clear book for anyone.

One recently discovered gem is Maggie MacLure’s (2013) ‘The wonder of data’, Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies 13(4): 228-232. MacLure legitimises research that chooses to focus on the the data that ‘glows’. By that, she means the items of research data that seem to stay with us, that are not necessarily part of the main argument, nor the information that makes it into the neatly coded themes from an Nvivo analysis. These ‘glowing’ findings are the details we return to again and again, knowing that they mean something important, even though they lie outside the main research project. If you do any kind of qualitative research, this article is bound to resonate with your experience—and maybe it will encourage you to take up some of those interesting, unexpected elements turned up in your research and write about them.

Claire’s top recommendation for Christmas reading is the very wonderful and thought-provoking, Risk in academic writing: postgraduate students, their teachers and the making of knowledge (2013, Multilingual Press). Lucia Thesen and Linda Cooper have brought together a great collection of authors (including some big names) to explore the idea of risk and writing as it plays out theoretically, and in practice, for a diverse range of postgraduate writers and those who work with them. Beautifully written, this book is intellectually rich and engaging. Contributors interrogate risk and agency within broader discussions of centre and periphery, scholarship and knowledge making – and there are also powerful and moving stories of writing in practice.

Finally, the three of us at the DoctoralWriting SIG wish you a great Christmas season and will be posting again towards the end of January 2015.


International students, community of practice, doctoral writing


By Susan Carter
I’m processing the ideas I heard at a one hour seminar on how academics can better support international students here in New Zealand, and considering how comments from it are relevant to doctoral writing. Ten international postgraduate students attended, along with about as many academics.
Two questions governed talk:
• What are the main challenges to international postgrads?
• What could academics do better to support them?
The academics were invited to speak first by the chair (along the lines of seeing whether they had it right according to the students), and quickly identified financial, cultural and language challenges as the main challenges.

Those are broad terms that the talk nuanced more carefully: cultural challenges included different learning cultures, how hard kiwi jargon is to understand and how hard it was not to shake off a sense of alienation. Our own culture is always invisible to us, so it is easy to see cultural difference as appending to the international rather than ourselves. The issue of a sense of alienation tallies with Sara Cotterall’s findings that the departmental ‘community of practice’ in practice is often less cosy, perhaps invisible, for international students (2014). It’s hard when you are an insider to see how discomforting a group is to an outsider. We need to be more consciously aware.

One academic commented that international students are much better at time management than local students—meeting deadlines and finishing within time seems not to be a challenge, despite all that writing in an additional language. At the statistics for completion at both the University of Auckland and the University of Adelaide confirm this—we suspect that it is generally true. However, a student made the point that although academics feel relaxed with international student progress, it has a serious down-side.

International students, she said, complete well because they are very task-focused and culturally programmed to meet deadlines. (And maybe they feel a little less comfortably at home in some social situations that are fun for locals.) Domestic students spend more time with social activities that slow them down. But when it comes to finding jobs after graduation, domestic students have the advantage. After more fun socialising, they have better networks, and networks of live relationships are often what leads a student into employment.

So international students are driven by fiscal reasons to finish fast, and perhaps also come from learning experiences that were more rigorous than those of most of our local students, and this is terrific in terms of impressive output. But academics need also to be teaching doctoral students how to be independent academics and researchers, and this, ironically, includes learning how to work interdependently. That is possibly something where any cultural mismatch between local and internationals students gives locals a significant advantage.

Could this need for networks be factored into doctoral writing, so that writing and writing feedback exchange amongst peers is done more collegially? If academics aim to foster a postgraduate community of practice, maybe they could be a little more emphatic about establishing that doctoral writing is best done with collegial support through regular seminars and peer review of doctoral writing. Claire Aitchison’s inspiring recent post offers a bundle of great suggestions for making writing social.

Somehow, a culture needs to be established that genuinely includes international students. Academics need to find ways to make talk and writing feedback homely for international students. There are many ways to do this, including drawing on volunteers from outside of the university. If you can create places that are less pressured than the supervisory meeting where writing feedback can be given, there are benefits at so many levels. It is not just about English grammar: it is more to do with making community and showing the benefits of professional interdependency. As they talk about writing, and write together, international students will also be developing those relationship-building skills in English language.

I’ve felt that the impressive completion rates of international doctoral students raises questions about why those with English as a first language are somehow unable to quite keep up. Why can’t locals do it too, at home, in their own language, and surrounded by family and friends? Now I am seeing this phenomenon differently. It throws more importance, I think, on all those collegial writing practices that Claire summarises as a way of making it more likely all students will build networks at the same time as they write a thesis.

Cited works

Carter, S. (2009). Volunteer support of English as an Additional Language (EAL) doctoral students. International Journal of Doctoral Studies Vol 4, 13-25.
Cotterall, S. (2014). The mythical community of practice. In Carter, S. and Laurs, D. Developing Generic Support for Doctoral Students: Practice and Pedagogy. Oxon: Routledge.

Moving beyond the Mills and Boon storyline


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By Claire Aitchison

At a writing retreat this week I was reminded again of the importance of finding the right storyline.

Of course there is the generic Research Storyline that goes like this:

There is a research problem –> the extant literature shows –> the research gap is –> the research aimed to investigate -> the methodology/method used -> the findings/results showed.

This storyline foregrounds the research itself. Plus, the style and terminology create a sense of objectivity and the storyteller is invisible. It is the logic of empirical experimental research design as demonstrated in the IMRAD (introduction-methods-results-and-discussion) structure of most scientific papers.

But in fact, the long arm of the scientific method infuses so much of our academic writing that this structural storyline is applicable across multiple disciplines and kinds of studies. It’s the Mills and Boon of academic research writing.

A good storyteller will manipulate the template to suit their needs. For example, today one student doing practitioner research energised the basic research storyline by making herself the central character, and her story unfolded thus:

There was a problem/issue in my workplace that worried me (the research problem) –> some things were already known about it (the Literature) -> but there are some things we don’t know (the Gap) -> I set out to address the unknown (Research Aim) -> this is what I did (Methodology/ Methods) -> this is what I found (Results/ Findings) -> and this is what it means for my work (Implications).

It’s the same story, but told differently. Very often empirical research involves this kind of ‘grand narrative’ or overarching storyline within which smaller sub-stories can sit. Examples of these offspring stories may include the story of doing the fieldwork, the story of the literature, or one part of the literature. There are stories within stories and authors must make decisions about which to include, and how to tell them.

Mimi Zeiger (2000) says the natural storyline for an experimental hypothesis or research testing paper is chronological. In this kind of story, the account of the experiment flows like a recipe that first itemises the ingredients and then describes, step by step, the processes for mixing and baking.

But identifying the right story isn’t always so straightforward. For example, in the anecdote above, the student began by saying how her work felt disjointed, how she’d covered all the components she thought were necessary but that her supervisor wanted her to make links between the sections. Once we’d worked out that the content was right, but the storyline was absent, the discussion moved forward rapidly. Because of the kind of research being undertaken, we realised the story could (indeed, needed to) be personal, and thus we could think through where and how she, as practitioner-researcher, would sustain the storyline across the thesis. As narrator and protagonist she would use the first person and her own personal journey would be central to the telling of the research.

The next student scholar I talked to was also struggling to find the ‘right’ storyline. In this case, the dilemma was about how best to tell the story of the literature. For this study on hospital translations between English and let’s say, Bahasa Indonesian, she’d originally set out her literature review chronologically:

Early literature ->  aspect X -> aspect Y

Later literature -> aspect X -> aspect Y

As we talked more it became clear there were other stories that could be told. There was a fascinating history of how the field came to be dominated by empirical studies written in the English language, and there was another story about the tension between the two themes of pedagogy and practice. As with her original plan, both of these versions would require the author to review the literature—but either would be so much more interesting than a mere description of the chronology.

When I’m working with scholars who are ‘stuck’—perhaps they have lost track of where they are going, they’ve wandered off on a tangent or become bogged down—helping them to identify a single, robust storyline can be a breakthrough. Having a clear ‘grand narrative’ makes it easier to locate subsequent sections or papers in relation to the main story; something can be a particular challenge for those undertaking a thesis by series of publications.

Many texts on doctoral writing refer to the importance of telling a story—but, of course, this requires having the right storyline in the first place!


Zeiger, M. (2000). Essentials of Writing Biomedical Research Papers (2nd edn.) McGraw-Hill, New York.


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