ARTICLE 104: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree studies: The Layout of the Thesis or Dissertation: Referencing Sources

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Is it acceptable to include books that you read in the references or bibliography of your thesis or dissertation even if you did not use any of the information in the books?

Is it acceptable to include books that you did not read in the references or bibliography of your thesis or dissertation?

How much of a book should you read before you can include it in your list of references or bibliography?

How much of a book should you read before you must include it in your list of references or bibliography?

Hello, I am Hannes Nel, and I discuss the following aspects of referencing sources in this article:

  1. The reference system.
  2. Works cited.
  3. Bibliography.
  4. Sources consulted.
  5. References.

The reference system. The term reference system is used to embrace the conventions or rules for specifying details such as author, date, publisher, and so on, of sources of information to which reference may be made in a thesis or dissertation. There are several different referencing systems of which the Harvard, APA (American Psychological Association) and Vancouver systems are some of the best-known examples. In part a derivative of these, the Author-date system is also widely accepted across most, if not all, disciplines.

Works cited. Works cited comprises a list of all sources that are referred to either in the text or the footnotes of a thesis or dissertation. The Works cited (also sometimes called Sources cited) is the most common form of bibliography, although the heading Bibliography or References or List of references is often substituted for Works cited. Works cited is an alphabetical list of the sources you used in the body of your project. It should be the last pages in your report, but mostly come directly after the body of the report before any annexures or appendixes. Some universities, however, prefer works cited to come after annexures or appendixes.

Bibliography. Strictly speaking, a bibliography is a list of published works, although by common usage both published and unpublished material are listed in a bibliography. A selected bibliography contains those sources cited, together with the more relevant works that have been consulted. A brief annotated bibliography is a list of references, at least some of which are followed by a note on the content and usefulness of the references.

Sources consulted. Sources consulted are a broader kind of bibliography and consists of a comprehensive listing of works consulted, including those that are not quoted from, or to which reference has not been made.

References. The term References is the most commonly used of these terms across different disciplines. Whichever term is used, however, the heading is placed, in the case of theses or dissertations, at the top of a page using a similar format to chapter headings. The references are usually placed immediately after the last chapter of a thesis or dissertation, but some writers prefer to place the references after appendices or annexures.

References differ from a Bibliography. In the list of References you list only items that you have actually cited in your research paper. In a Bibliography you list all the material you have consulted in preparing your assignment or thesis whether or not you have actually cited the sources.

Every book, article, thesis, document or manuscript and electronic source that has been consulted and cited should be included in the list of references. The references should follow a logical arrangement in alphabetical order of author’s names. Current practice in most disciplines favours one comprehensive listing – not a division into primary sources and secondary sources, or books, journals, newspapers, documents and official papers, and manuscripts, although such a separation is sometimes required if a large number of sources have been consulted. Listing internet sources separately makes sense because their format is different from books, etc.

There are no absolute rules on referencing, and conventions for referencing electronic sources are not yet firmly established.

The method adopted is influenced by the method of citation in the body of the thesis or dissertation, the system of footnoting employed, the practice of a particular field of study, and the requirements of your study leader, department or university. Should you find that the format recommended in the Author-date system in my next video is not acceptable in all respects, you should change from the system presented here to the one prescribed by your study leader or university.

Setting out and punctuation in references follow a different format from a footnote. For example, in a footnote the author’s name is given in the natural order of initials or first names followed by the surname, but in a list of references the surname precedes the initials or first names. The reason for differences in format lies in the purpose of each system. The purpose of a footnote is to give the specific location of the source of a statement (fact, idea, concept) made in the text, including the number of the actual page on which the statement appears in the original source. Such a practice assists the reader to verify the information.

The purpose of a bibliographical entry in a list of references, on the other hand, is to identify the whole work rather than a specific part of it. It would be cumbersome to repeat the general reference on each occasion that a source is cited in a footnote, yet the full details of the source need to be included somewhere in the thesis or dissertation for readers to consult as required. Such detail is especially important with revised editions (in which the case number of the edition also should be given), or where a work has been republished by another publisher. The major aim of a referencing system should always be to achieve clarity and consistency and, above all, accuracy in referencing.


A reference system is the conventions or rules for specifying the details of data sources.

Works cited is an alphabetical list of the data sources that you used in your thesis or dissertation.

A bibliography is a list of published data sources that you consulted for your research.

Sources consulted is a list of published and unpublished data sources that you consulted, including the ones that you did not use in your thesis or dissertation.

A bibliography is a list of all the data sources that you used in your thesis or dissertation.

Through common usage the difference between works cited, bibliography, sources consulted and references have become unclear.


Remember to give credit to the sources from which you found the material you used directly in your project. You must do this whenever you use a complete piece of someone else’s material or a recognisable part of that material. In this respect you need to take notes carefully so that quotes are accurate, and to observe the conventions of quotations and footnotes in the printed text.

You should acknowledge all data sources that you used in your thesis or dissertation.

This can include artefacts, interviews, models and many more.

However, you should not list data sources that you did not use even if you consulted them.

Enjoy your studies.

Thank you.

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ARTICLE 103: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: The Layout of the Thesis or Dissertation: Quotations

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Do you think your study leader or lecturer will accept it if you develop your own way of writing quotations?

And rather than to explain concepts, procedures, philosophies and so on, you illustrate your arguments by submitting artefacts?

And you describe the context of your research by means of works of art?

Well, it is my experience that many professors are open minded and flexible enough to give you credit for your innovative ideas.

Perhaps one should not go too far with this kind of maverick attitude, though.

I discuss the requirements for quotations in this article.

Quotations must observe the grammatical structure of the sentence of which they are part. This means that verbs must agree in person, number and tense, and pronouns must observe the grammatical structure of the whole. Some universities require that quotations be written on a line lower than the paragraph in which it is used, indented from both sides and written in Italics. Others have different requirements, which can best be explained by means of examples.

Example 1. It would probably be artificial and lead to confusion if data collection and the analysis of data are discussed separately. As Glaser and Strauss (2006: 73) put it:

“The continual intermeshing of data collection and analysis bears directly on how the data collection is brought to close. A researcher can always try to collect more data by checking hypotheses or for generating new properties, categories and hypotheses.”      

In the instance of this research, however, additional information on certain aspects were needed to “complete the puzzle”, and to confirm statements that are often perceptions rather than facts, hence there is greater ‘coverage’ than warranted.

Example 2. It would probably be artificial and lead to confusion if data collection and the analysis of data are discussed separately. As Glaser and Strauss (2006: 73) put it:

The continual intermeshing of data collection and analysis bears directly on how the data collection is brought to close. A researcher can always try to collect more data by checking hypotheses or for generating new properties, categories and hypotheses.

In the instance of this research, however, additional information on certain aspects were needed to “complete the puzzle”, and to confirm statements that are often perceptions rather than facts, hence there is greater ‘coverage’ than warranted.

Example 3. It would probably be artificial and lead to confusion if data collection and the analysis of data are discussed separately. As Glaser and Strauss (2006: 73) put it:

“The continual intermeshing of data collection and analysis bears directly on how the data collection is brought to close. A researcher can always try to collect more data by checking hypotheses or for generating new properties, categories and hypotheses.”

In the instance of this research, however, additional information on certain aspects were needed to “complete the puzzle”, and to confirm statements that are often perceptions rather than facts, hence there is greater ‘coverage’ than warranted.

Your own discussion and the quotation of something that a different author wrote can also be integrated into one paragraph.

Example 4. It would probably be artificial and lead to confusion if data collection and the analysis of data are discussed separately. As Glaser and Strauss (2006: 73) put it: “The continual intermeshing of data collection and analysis bears directly on how the data collection is brought to close. A researcher can always try to collect more data by checking hypotheses or for generating new properties, categories and hypotheses.”

In the instance of this research, however, additional information on certain aspects were needed to “complete the puzzle”, and to confirm statements that are often perceptions rather than facts, hence there is greater ‘coverage’ than warranted.

Quotations can be written in a smaller size and different type of font from your own writing.

Example 5. It would probably be artificial and lead to confusion if data collection and the analysis of data are discussed separately. As Glaser and Strauss (2006: 73) put it:

“The continual intermeshing of data collection and analysis bears directly on how the data collection is brought to close. A researcher can always try to collect more data by checking hypotheses or for generating new properties, categories and hypotheses.”

In the instance of this research, however, additional information on certain aspects were needed to “complete the puzzle”, and to confirm statements that are often perceptions rather than facts, hence there is greater ‘coverage’ than warranted.

Some universities feel that a long (indented) quoted extract not embodied in the structure of a paragraph should not be placed in quotation marks unless the original is either in direct speech, or in quotation marks for some other reason. A space should be left between the paragraph and the beginning of the quotation. The quotation should be indented and typed in single line spacing, and another space left before the paragraph continues, or a new paragraph starts.

Quotations at the end of a sentence take a full-stop outside the closing inverted comma.


R.K. Yin does not refer to the term generalisation as if its meaning is totally limited to ‘statistical generalisation’.

Where the quotation forms a complete sentence on its own, or is isolated by a colon or dash from the main sentence structure, the closing stop comes inside the closing quotation mark.

Maree (2011: 172) wrote: “It is usually impossible to include the entire population in your study, the two main restrictions being time and cost.”

Where a quotation is broken by the omission of a phrase, three dots should be inserted to indicate the break.


“As the theory grows … the analyst becomes committed to it.”

Where a complete sentence or series of sentences is omitted, four dots should indicate the break.


“A key strength of the case study method is the use of multiple sources and techniques in the data collection process…. Data collection is largely qualitative, but may also include quantitative data.”

Where a long, indented quotation is started in the middle of a sentence, three dots should precede the first word to indicate the omission of the first part of the sentence.


“… starting and examining rival explanations will greatly strengthen any claimed generalisations.”

Where the last part of a long, indented, quoted sentence is omitted the last word should be followed by four dots: three to indicate the omission of the words, the fourth to indicate the full stop at the end of the omitted part.


“Given all these conditions, if a study only uses structured interviews, the study is most likely to be a survey or poll ….”

Where possible, short quoted phrases and single lines should be embodied in the paragraph, and indentations left for longer quotations. Long quotations need not always be separated from the paragraph, for example if they form an integral part of the structure of the paragraph.


Quotations must observe the grammatical structure of the sentence of which they are part.

Quotations can be written in many ways, although the differences are mostly subtle and a matter of taste.

The differences mostly hinge around the following:

  1. If there is an open line between the paragraph and the quotation or if the quotation is typed as if it is an integral part of the paragraph.
  2. If there is an open line between the quotation and the next paragraph.
  3. If the quotation is indented on both sides or on the left side only.
  4. If the quotation is typed in italics or a smaller font size than the paragraph.
  5. If single line spacing is used or the same spacing as the paragraph with which the quotation goes.
  6. If the quotation is encapsulated in quotation marks or not.

Other requirements that some universities have include:

  • The position of the closing full-stop after the sentence and quotation.
  • The use of three or four dots where a sentence or quotation is broken.
  • Embodying short quotes in a sentence of paragraph.


As for typing formats in general, the requirements for quotations need not be rigid.

The most important requirement is consistency.

Your study leader or lecturer will probably accept the way in which you type quotations, if you do it consistently the same throughout your thesis or dissertation.

Enjoy your studies.

Thank you.

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ARTICLE 102: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: The Layout of the Thesis or Dissertation: Typing Format

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

The attention that a student pays to the layout of the thesis or dissertation is often an indication of what the quality of the work is.

Why would a post-graduate student pay careful attention to the quality of his or her research and the contents of the thesis or dissertation if they do not care about the quality of the reporting?

You will save yourself lots of time if you study the university policy on the layout of the thesis or dissertation before you start writing your thesis or dissertation.

The hints that I share in this article should be accepted by most universities.

However, you should also consult the university policy, even if your study leader or lecturer suggests that you use the suggestions given here.

General layout rules

Universities mostly require either double or one and a half spacing, font size 12 on one side only of A4 paper. Quotations and footnotes should be single spacing and either in Italics or a smaller font size, for example font size 10. The preferred font type is Times New Roman although some universities might also accept other font types that are easy to read and sufficiently formal, such as Ariel.

The following are examples of such requirements taken from the policies and procedures of different universities.

Typing format, text structure and general prescriptions

You need to format your thesis or dissertation exactly according to the university’s instructions. A good thesis or dissertation should be extensive and precise. Use a good yet simple and concise language (UK version of English) and keep sentences short without damaging the flow of your arguments.

A-4 size bond paper of a good quality should be used. The thesis or dissertation must be printed in at least one and a half spacing with one and a half spacing between paragraphs. Paragraphs are justified against the left-hand margin. Take care to be consistent and follow the general typing rules.

The margins at the top, bottom and right-hand side should be 25 mm, while the left-hand margins should be at least 30 mm.

Some universities have no set rules for how long a thesis or dissertation should be. A thesis does not normally exceed 50 000 words of text (approximately 150 pages). It is often accepted that dissertation on PhD level should not be more than 70 000 words.

Language and spelling

If English is your second language it is most important that help is sought during the initial draft reading process already. Faultless language, good style and correct spelling are a prerequisite for the writing of a thesis or dissertation. It is difficult to learn technical writing skills as well as concentrate on a second language.

It is advisable to have your thesis or dissertation language edited by an expert if English is your first language and a must if English is your second or third language.

Check your writing for spelling and grammatical errors. Also pay attention to minor details such as punctuation and when to use a full stop or comma. Use the spell-check facility of your computer but keep in mind that it is not foolproof.

Don’t try to make your writing look more academic by using highfalutin words and concepts that you do not really understand.


Always write full sentences.

All sentences should have a verb.

Keep your sentences simple and as short as possible without damaging the flow of your arguments.

Use adverbs such as ‘however’ to link sentences. This will often improve the flow of your argument or narrative.

Sentences and paragraphs should be linked to one another. Avoid jumping around between unrelated arguments, topics or discussions.


Reports of work done are usually written in the past tense except for discussions and conclusions, which are written in the present tense.

The present tense is used where universal truths such as natural laws are stated.

Do not change tenses in a sentence unless there is a good reason for doing so.


Paragraphs will help you organise your writing by breaking the text up into manageable sections.

Short paragraphs are better than long ones. Variation in paragraph lengths reduces the monotony and renders the work easier to read.

Paragraphs should be linked to one another to ensure the flow from one paragraph to the next.

Each paragraph should deal with one aspect only. A conclusion or summary should be a next paragraph.


Lower-case letters are used, except in cases where grammatical rules require capital letters.

The first word in a sentence and in a direct quotation is capitalised.

Proper nouns are capitalised and common nouns such as mountain and business are capitalised if they form part of a name. For example, ‘the mountain is dark and covered in mist’ versus ‘Table Mountain is dark and covered in mist’.

Common nouns are capitalised when they are used with a number or letter to designate a specific thing, for example ‘Room 101’.

Acronyms and abbreviations

An acronym is a word formed from the initial letters of a name or by combining initial letters, or parts of a series of words. The full word, name or concept that can have an acronym must be written out in full, followed by the acronym in brackets where they are used for the first time in your thesis or dissertation.

Certain acronyms, like ‘radar’ and ‘scuba’ have become accepted words and can be used without any explanation.

Abbreviations are short representations of words or terms, for example e.g. for ‘exempli gratia’ or ‘for example’. They should be used with discretion because they can make the text difficult to read. Unfamiliar abbreviations must be written out in full, followed by the abbreviation in brackets where they are used for the first time in your thesis or dissertation.

You should have a list of acronyms and abbreviations as an addendum at the end of your thesis or dissertation.

The word ‘percentage’ is written out in the text and written as a symbol (%) if it is used with a number, e.g. ‘15%’.


Pages are numbered from 1 in sequence throughout the thesis or dissertation, not chapter by chapter. The first (cover) page is page number one, but the page number is not shown. Page numbers are shown from page two.

Page numbers should run consecutively through the thesis or dissertation with all pages numbered.

Number items or paragraphs that need to be numbered in numerals and sub-paragraphs in further numbers. The paragraph number “7” would, for example, be followed by sub-paragraph number “7.1.”, and sub-paragraph “7.1.” would be followed by sub-paragraph “7.2.”) or, if the sub-paragraph is further divided, by sub-sub-paragraph “7.1.1.”. Some universities prefer that the full stop after the last number presenting a sub-paragraph or lower be omitted.

Bullets are used if you have three or less points to number.

Figures are numbered numerically and go with the figure heading under the figure. Figures should fit onto not more than one page.

Tables are also numbered numerically, and table numbers go with the table heading above the table. This is because tables can stretch over more than one page.


Chapters and sections should have headings. Headings should be selected carefully and should be short and to the point. It should be a ‘summary’ of the contents of the chapter or section.

Headings that do not constitute full sentences do not end with a full stop, unless the contents of the section follow directly after the heading on the same line.


You need to consult the university policy for the layout of a thesis or dissertation.

Make sure that the layout that you use will be acceptable to the university.

Issues that you should check include the following:

  • Line spacing.
  • Font size and type.
  • Paper size and type.
  • Page numbering.
  • The numbering of tables and figures.
  • Headings.
  • Margins.
  • Language usage and spelling.
  • Paragraph length, spacing, numbering and justification.
  • The use of capital letters.
  • Punctuation.
  • Sentences.
  • Tenses.
  • The use of acronyms and abbreviations.


Some universities will allow you some leeway in the layout of your thesis or dissertation.

This, however, will mostly be when you add to or enhance the prescribed format and playout.

You might, for example, add an illustration representing the context of each chapter directly after the chapter heading.

Or you may include an electronic copy of your thesis or dissertation if you are required to submit a typed and professionally bound report.

Enjoy your studies.

Thank you.

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ARTICLE 101: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: The Layout of the Thesis or Dissertation Part 5 of 9 Parts: Ethics Part 3 of 3 Parts

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

I discuss the following issues on ethics in this article:

  1. Trust.
  2. Deception.
  3. Analysis, reporting and publishing.
  4. Plagiarism.
  5. Legality.
  6. Professionalism.
  7. Research ethics and society.
  8. Copyright and intellectual property right.
  9. The originality of your research.
  10. Promulgation of results.

Trust. Trust is the classic key to good research relations. Even so, trust is a constant challenge in any research process. All participants and stakeholders in a research project must have a healthy trust relationship. This includes knowing that you, as the researcher, can be trusted not to erode the relationship between participants to the extent that they would be reluctant or unwilling to co-operate. Trust also applies to the report or the discursive practices defining the standards for presenting both you and the work as trustworthy.

Deception. We have seen that the handling of subjects’ identities is an important ethical consideration. Handling your own identity as a researcher can also be tricky. You must have a good reason for not revealing yourself as a researcher to those you want to study. Most of the time, however, you will benefit from conducting transparent research. Even when you must conceal your research identity you need to keep in mind that, because deceiving people is unethical, deception within research needs to be justified by compelling scientific or administrative concerns. Even then, the justification will probably be arguable.

There is no excuse for providing members of your target group any false information about your own identity, whom you represent, what the purpose of your research is or what the research findings will be used for. It is, therefore, advisable to promise to send the participants copies of your research report before you submit it or use it. If time allows you should also provide the respondents time to appeal against the contents or findings of your report. Some people will set this as a precondition for their participation.

Analysis, reporting and publishing. In addition to your ethical obligations to subjects, you also have ethical obligations to your colleagues in the scientific community. In any rigorous research, you as the researcher should be more familiar than anyone else with the technical shortcomings and failures of the study. You have an obligation to make such shortcomings and failures known to your readers. Even though you may feel foolish admitting mistakes, you should do it anyway.

Negative findings should be reported if your respondents point them out, provided you can confirm them, of course. In science it is often as important to know that two variables are not related as to know that they are. Similarly, you must avoid the temptation to gain recognition and praise by describing your findings as the product of a carefully pre-planned analytical strategy when that is not the case. Findings are sometimes unexpected, even though they may seem obvious in retrospect.

You should always strive to maintain objectivity and integrity in the conduct of scientific research. This implies the following:

  1. You should always adhere to the highest possible technical standards in your research.
  2. You should always indicate – at the conclusion of a research study – the limits of your findings and the methodological constraints that determine the validity of such findings.
  3. You should not under any circumstances manipulate your data or observations.
  4. You must adhere to the public nature of scientific practice. One implication of this is that you should always be prepared to disclose your methodology and techniques of analysis.

In addition to the ethics of analysis and reporting, it is also imperative that you must maintain the same standard of ethical work when publishing your findings. The ethics of publishing involve the following issues:

  1. Appropriate ascription of authorship to a publication.
  2. Rejection of any form of plagiarism.
  3. No simultaneous submission of manuscripts.

Plagiarism. Somebody once wrote that nothing that is now written has not been written before. I would have given credit to the original writer of this insightful statement if I knew who it was. No doubt there are many who claimed credit for being the first. It might be true, but you should not use it as an excuse for claiming authorship of someone else’s work. You will know when you are plagiarising someone else’s work. For example, if you are rewriting what is written in a book that is open right next to you on your desk, then you know that you should acknowledge your source. It is even worse if your readers can see that what you wrote is not your own because of subtle tell-tale signs, for example a sudden change in writing style, a cliché, switching from first to third person, etc.

It takes a good measure of honesty, maturity and a healthy self-image to always give credit for good work by others. It is, furthermore, not necessary to be paranoid about being honest. You will have ample opportunity to show your cognitive thinking and creative writing skills in a thesis or dissertation of more than a hundred pages. Besides, giving credit where credit is due lends validity, authenticity and quality to your work.

While examining the research literature, particularly when photocopying and taking notes, you may copy extracts from sources verbatim (exactly as it was written in the original document) with the intention of incorporating these extracts into your final written report. Although it is common practice to accumulate an abundance of quotations in the initial information collection stage, it is essential when writing the final report that quotations be selected judiciously and used sparingly. Over-quoting can damage the flow of your arguments. The essential selection criterion to follow is relevance, whereas the basic mechanical consideration is the length of quotation. Long quotations are rarely justified and may cause readers to wonder whose ideas they are assessing.

The ability to cite the work of others appropriately is a major indication of your ability to interpret data and to generate your own ideas and arguments on a particular topic from the data that you collected.

You commit plagiarism in your thesis, dissertation, or any other document that you write, when you use words, ideas or opinions that you obtained from the written work of somebody else without giving credit to the original writer. Strictly speaking it is still plagiarism even if you break the original argument down into its component parts (deconstruct) or change the original meaning or level of the original message or argument (reconstruct). This can become confusing when doing research because, after all, you must consult other sources of information. Furthermore, most research is to some extent a reconstruction or deconstruction of existing knowledge with the aim of adding value or providing a new perspective on existing knowledge and philosophy.

The obvious solution would be to acknowledge your sources. You must provide references whenever you quote (use the exact words), paraphrase (use the ideas of another person, in your own words) or summarise (use the main points of another’s opinions, theories or data).

The number of sentences or pages of somebody else’s work that you use are not relevant. Whether it is one sentence, a whole section or perhaps even an entire chapter or assignment, it is still plagiarism. You will know when you are guilty of plagiarism, therefore you cannot argue that you did it accidently or unintentionally. If you use somebody else’s work as if it is your own, you are guilty of plagiarism.

Plagiarism can lead to you failing your studies and perhaps even being expelled from the university.

Legality. You must always ensure that your conduct of the research and reporting your research findings are done within the boundaries of legislation. Legality relates strongly to ‘informed consent’. Although you should guarantee confidentiality, participants in your research need to understand and accept the potential risks of participating. Cruelty to animals, damage to the environment, etc. may be illegal and you need to avoid such transgressions.

Professionalism. Regardless of whether you belong to a professional body or not, you are always expected to conduct your research in a professional manner. This includes making use of scientific methodology and acknowledging any sources that you consult and use. It also implies accuracy in collecting data and reporting analysis of data collected. Research must always be of benefit to the research participants and society at large.

Research ethics and society. The most important principle that guides the relationship between science and the rest of society is that of accountability. Although we sometimes refer to the scientific community as a distinct and relatively autonomous sector of society, this does not mean that the scientific community can do what it wants without regard for the rights of the rest of society. This accountability refers to a general obligation to conduct research in a socially responsive and responsible manner. Accountability in research is manifested in the following:

  1. A rejection of secret and clandestine research.
  2. An obligation to the free and open dissemination of research results.
  3. A responsibility to funders and sponsors of the research.

Coypright and intellectual property right. In the academic context, copyright is primarily about getting the most from your hard work rather than legal complications and plagiarism. Legislation largely protects your copyright. However, some universities have a precondition for embarking on master’s or doctoral studies that the copyright belongs to them. This is mostly specified in your enrolment application, but you need to make sure what the regulations are and that they are acceptable to you.

Intellectual property right describes a class of several different legal regimes that generally concern creations of the human mind. Copyright can be regarded as a subsection of intellectual property right (together with trademarks and patent laws).

The originality of your research. It is not only the identity of individuals that needs to be protected. Especially in online research the challenge to protect data is rather daunting. There is so much information available on the internet that it is almost impossible to protect and ensure the validity of information. Computer programs can store information passively or incidentally. It is almost impossible to book a hotel room without the hotel or accommodation service provider capturing substantial personal information belonging to you. Some electronic watches not only tell you the time and date, they also measure and store your heart rate, blood pressure, weight gain or loss, running times, etc.

The ease with which electronic devices can collect and store personal information is becoming a challenge and opportunity for researchers. Because of this, ethical issues continue to grow more complicated as new technologies and capacities develop.

Electronics make it increasingly difficult to protect and prove the originality of your research. It is already difficult to create original ideas, philosophies and theories – to prove that the results of your research are your own and original is even more difficult. Acknowledging the sources that you consulted is a good start – at least you will show that you respect the intellectual property of others. With such literature and field study as foundation, you should demonstrate sound arguing and thinking skills. This will already count in your favour when your work is evaluated for originality.

Promulgation of results. The worst scenario imaginable for an individual who completed a thesis or dissertation is the report becoming a dust-collector on a library shelf. To avoid this, you should make the results of your research available in a format usable by people who may benefit from it (with prior permission, of course). You can, for example, have all or some of your findings published, act as a speaker for symposiums, etc.


Trust is the foundation of cooperation.

Even though research on master’s and doctoral level is mostly an individual project, you will need the assistance of many other role players.

Therefore, the success of your study largely depends on mutual trust between you and others who are involved in your work.

You should not deceive people about your identity, whom you represent, what the purpose of your research is or what your research findings will be used for.

You owe it to the academic fraternity and society to make any shortcomings and failures of your study known.

Transparency is key.

Always give credit for writing and other forms of research by others that you use in your thesis or dissertation.

Do not transgress legislation, rules, regulations on any level when conducting research. However, it is possible that legislation might obstruct progress or be wrong for a variety of reasons. Therefore, it might sometimes be necessary to follow you own good judgement. Just keep in mind that we are all subjective.

You must always conduct your research in a professional manner.

Keep in mind that you are accountable to society for the research that you deliver. Therefore, your research should be to the benefit of society or at least part of society.

And preferably not at the expense of other sections of society.

Make sure what national legislation and the university’s policy regarding copyright and intellectual property right are before you enrol for post-graduate studies.

Obviously, you must be willing to accept and abide by such legislation and policies.

Proving the originality of your research is difficult to achieve.

It would be impossible to check the internet and other sources of information to ensure that your ideas and arguments are your own.

The best you can do is to acknowledge the sources that you use.

Do not use this situation as an excuse for committing plagiarism.

Share the result of your research by writing books and articles, making videos, acting as a speaker at conferences and lecturing.


In my 98th article, dealing with deconstruction and empirical generalisation, I asked if deconstruction is not just a euphemism for plagiarism.

The answer is captured in my discussion of plagiarism in this video.

Almost all researchers need to use the work of others in their research.

Such work can serve as the foundation for your research and to corroborate and enrich your arguments.

However, you must always acknowledge the work of others that you use.

Enjoy your studies.

Thank you.

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ARTICLE 100: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: The Layout of the Thesis or Dissertation Part 4 of 9 Parts: Ethics Part 2 of 3 Parts

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

What does ethics in research entail?

Some post-graduate students will think that not committing plagiarism is what it is all about.

And they will not be entirely wrong.

Not committing plagiarism is an element of ethics.

However, there are many other facets to the concept.

Ethics are not only important for writing your thesis or dissertation, but also for the safety and integrity of the participants.

Especially the target group for your research.

I discuss the following issues on ethics in this article:

  1. Axiology.
  2. Codes of consent.
  3. No harm to participants.

Axiology. The quality of our research will be judged according to the criteria of validity and authenticity. This brings us to the concept “axiology”. Axiology addresses the nature of ethical behaviour. In research axiology refers to what you belief to be ethical. Basic beliefs about what is ethical are embedded in research paradigms and guide the researcher’s decision making. The purpose of the research needs to be balanced with what you value as well as other ethical considerations in the conduct of research, notably validity and authenticity.

Validity and authenticity are prerequisites for understanding. It is in this that epistemology and ethics are brought together. It is also a meeting point between epistemology and ontology because what we know (ontology) is tied up with what we understand (epistemology).

Ontological and educative authenticity, on the other hand, were designated as criteria for determining a raised level of awareness; in the first instance, by individual research participants and, in the second, by individuals who share a particular value system and, therefore, maintain contact for some social or organisational purpose. That is why the validity of your epistemological approach starts with ontology. It is rather difficult and mostly unnecessary, to separate epistemology from ontology, because they form a unified system and are highly interdependent. Epistemology is the declarative extension of ontology and often includes additional ontological statements.

It is, however, important that you do not confuse ontology and epistemology. As a matter of routine, it helps to mention ontology first, and then epistemology, since it enables you to base your study on a statement of “fact” (which can include your target group, world or society) before you do any explaining and theorising.

It is, sometimes, necessary and useful to develop models of real-life situations or artefacts for research purposes. Choice of representation (i.e., the way in which models must be articulable) does, in fact, have real implications for what aspects of the research target receive the most attention – what the model handles well, and what gets minimised or left out. On the other hand, models of what there is (ontology) need to be explained by what can be known and how it can be known (epistemology). We know that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line – this is what we know, or the ontology. How we know this, that is. the evidence that the shortest route between two points is a straight line, is the epistemology.

Epistemology is not just a way of knowing. It is also a system of knowing through cognitive reasoning based on internal logic (contextualising information gathered to your research purpose) and the wider applicability of the knowledge, that is external validity (ensuring that findings are in line with the general environment and that they will be acceptable to other stakeholders).

Epistemology is intimately linked to a world-view. People from different continents, countries and even regions will often not have the same outlook or frame of reference towards the world around them. Thus, the conditions under which people live and learn, shape both their knowledge and their world-views.

Codes of consent. Codes of consent deal with if the target group for the research participates voluntarily or not. Qualitative research can be an intrusion into people’s lives, especially if it is social research. The interviewer’s knock on the door or the arrival of a questionnaire in the post or by email signals the beginning of an activity that the respondent has not requested, and one that may require a significant portion of his or her time and energy. Participation in a social experiment disrupts the subject’s personal and work schedule.

What is needed is informed consent, meaning that the research subjects need to know that they are being researched and what the nature and purpose of the research are. Participants in research should base their voluntary participation on a full understanding of the nature of the research and possible risks involved. When obtaining their consent, you need to appreciate that the participants may be under subtle pressure to co-operate, and you should take this possibility into account.

Consent is considered ‘informed’ when, in a language that the participants understand, you explain to them the nature of the research, their right to refuse to participate or withdraw from participation at any time, factors that may influence their willingness to participate, and the data collection methods to be used. The participants must have a complete understanding of the nature, aims and processes of the research, its intended outcomes, as well as any consequences that may follow from participation and publication.

Participants in research are often required to provide personal information about themselves, such as their age, weight, eating habits, drinking habits, smoking habits, etc. Such information may be unknown to their friends and associates and they might not want people close to them to know. Furthermore, research on human activities often requires that such information be revealed to strangers. Other professionals, such as physicians, and lawyers, also require such information. Their requests, however, may be justified because the information is required for them to serve the personal interests of the respondent. Social researchers can seldom make this claim. Like medical scientists, they can only argue that the research effort may ultimately help all of humanity.

No one should be forced to participate in research. This norm, however, is far easier to accept in theory than it is to apply in practice. It is unlikely that people will participate voluntarily if they do not believe that they will, somehow, benefit from participating. That is probably the most important reason why the response rate to questionnaires is often low, and you should plan on receiving only a fraction of the questionnaires back that you send out. Any response rate higher than 10% is good, unless you take special steps, like delivering and collecting the questionnaires personally.

No harm to the participants. Research should never physically, psychologically or financially injure the people involved, regardless of whether they volunteer for the study. Questions that would embarrass people or endanger their home life, friendship, career, etc. should not be asked or, if asked, be done with the consent of the participants. Sometimes subjects are asked to reveal deviant behaviour, attitudes they feel are unpopular, or demeaning personal characteristics, such as low income, the receipt of welfare payments, etc. You, as the researcher, should agree not to reveal such information and you must keep your undertaking. You must look for the subtlest dangers that information might end up in the wrong hands and guard against them.

The ethical norms of voluntary participation and no harm to participants have become formalised in the concept of informed consent, which we touched on under the sub-heading “codes of consent”. 

To avoid harm to respondents, you as the researcher should have the firmest of scientific grounds for asking questions that may cause injury to others. The objective of informed consent may be rather difficult to achieve and maintain in the case of internet or other electronic research contexts. You might not even have physical contact with the participants in the research. The challenge is exacerbated if the maintenance of anonymity is also needed. With this as background, informed consent can sometimes cause harm, be counterproductive or simply impossible to achieve.

Qualitative research projects may also force participants to face aspects of themselves that they do not normally consider. The project can be a source of continuing, personal agony for the subject. If the study concerns codes of ethical conduct, for example, the subject may begin questioning his or her own morality, and that personal concern may last long after the research has been completed and reported.

Subjects can also be harmed by the analysis and reporting of data. If the respondent reads the research report it might happen that he or she may find themselves characterised in an index, table or description. Having done so, they may find themselves portrayed – though not identified by name – as bigoted, unpatriotic, irregular, etc. 

An obvious and generally applicable concern in the protection of the participants’ interests and well-being is the protection of their identity, especially in survey research. Two techniques – anonymity and confidentiality – can be used in this regard.

Anonymity. A respondent may be considered anonymous when you cannot link a given response with a given respondent. This means an interview survey respondent can never be considered anonymous, since an interviewer collects the information from an identifiable respondent. Assuring anonymity makes it difficult to keep track of who has or has not returned the questionnaires.

Anonymity relates to the issue of privacy and is especially difficult to maintain on the internet. Privacy is regarded as the right to withhold information from public consumption. People often use publicly accessible information spaces, like Facebook, but maintain strong expectations of privacy. Because of this, privacy often refers to the way information is used rather than how easy or difficult it is for people to gain access to such information.

Confidentiality. Confidentiality means that you, as the researcher, should protect your participant’s identity, places of work and stay, and the location of the research. In a confidential survey, the researcher can identify a given person’s responses but essentially promises not to do so publicly.

You can use several techniques to ensure the maintenance of confidentiality. All stakeholders in the research team who might need to maintain confidentiality and who will have access to data and findings should be trained in their ethical responsibilities. All names and addresses should be removed from the questionnaires as soon as they are no longer needed and replaced by special identification numbers, not their national identification numbers. A file should be prepared linking special identification numbers or codes with real identification numbers. This file should be kept in a safe or lockable filing cabinet to which only people who need to know have access.  

It is your responsibility to inform the respondent if a survey is confidential rather than anonymous. Do not use the term anonymous if you mean confidential.  


Axiology addresses the nature of ethical behaviour.

Basic beliefs about what is ethical are embedded in research paradigms.

You need to achieve a balance in your research between ethics, your values, validity and authenticity.

Validity and authenticity are prerequisites for understanding.

Ethics is based on the ontology and epistemology of your research topic.

Codes of consent deal with if the target group for your research participates voluntarily or not.

Participants in research need to be informed about the purpose and nature of the research, how they will be involved and possible risks.

Participants are sometimes asked to share personal information with the researcher.

No one should be forced to participate in research.

You should keep in mind that the response rate to especially questionnaires is often low.

Research should never physically, psychologically or financially injure participants in the research.

Participants must not be harmed by the collection, analysis or reporting of data.

Questions asked to participants must be relevant and necessary for the research.

Anonymity and confidentiality should be maintained if necessary.

Anonymity is difficult to maintain.

Confidentiality means that the participant’s identity, places of work and stay and where the research took place must only be revealed on a need-to-know basis.


Maintaining sound ethical standards is important for the protection of the interests of others who participate in your research.

However, most importantly, you should protect your own interests.

It is in your interest not to cause damage to other people.

And it is in your interest to submit good quality work.

Because gaining higher qualifications is supposed to prepare you for a career and quality life.

Enjoy your studies.

Thank you.   

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ARTICLE 99: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: The Layout of the Thesis or Dissertation, Part 3 of 9: Ethics in Research Part 1 of 3

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Do people still care about the truth?

Did people ever care about the truth?

Are opinions more important than facts?

And what will the implications be if the truth is no longer important, and opinions are more important than facts?

I discuss the principles of ethics in research in this article.

Ethics are typically associated with morality, that is matters of right and wrong. You need to know, understand and accept the general consensus amongst academic researchers about what is acceptable and not acceptable in the conduct of scientific inquiry. The following principles are fundamental to an ethical approach to research:

  1. Research should always respect and protect the dignity of participants in research. This requires sensitivity, empathy, and accountability towards the target group for your research. The greater the vulnerability of the participants in the research (community, author, expert, etc.), the greater the obligation of the researcher to protect the participant. To this end, you as the researcher should:
    1. Ensure that you know and understand the values, cultures and protocols of your target group. It might be necessary to be academically or culturally qualified to work with some communities.
    1. Consult experts on communities if you lack the qualifications, knowledge and cultural background to work with them.
    1. Share your findings honestly, clearly, comprehensively and accountably with only those who are entitled to have access to the findings.
    1. Report your findings, and the limitations thereof, openly and honestly so that peers and the public in general may scrutinise and evaluate them, keeping in mind that your findings may probably only be shared with certain people.
    1. Acknowledge and point out the possibility of alternative interpretations.
    1. Respect the right of fellow researchers to work with different paradigms and research methods and accept it if they disagree with your finding and interpretation.
    1. Agree to disagree rather than to defend your point of view fanatically in an effort to sway others.
    1. Honour the authority of professional codes in specific disciplines.
    1. Refrain from using your position for undeserved, corrupt or otherwise dishonest personal gain.
  2. Because ‘harm’ is defined contextually, ethical principles are more likely to be understood inductively rather than applied universally. That is, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, ethical decision-making is best approached through the application of practical judgement related to the specific context.
  3. When making ethical decisions, you should balance the rights of participants with the social benefits of the research and your right to conduct the research. In different contexts the rights of subjects may outweigh the benefits of research.
  4. The importance of adhering to ethical requirements is equally important regardless of which stage of the research process is involved.
  5. Ethical decision-making is a deliberate process, and you should consult as many people and resources as possible in the process, including fellow researchers, people participating in or familiar with the contexts or sites being studied, research review boards, ethic guidelines, published scholarships and where applicable, legal precedent.

With the above principles in mind, the ethical issues that impact the most on research are:

  1. The notion of truth.
  2. Axiology.
  3. Codes of consent.
  4. No harm to the participants.
  5. Trust.
  6. Deception.
  7. Analysis and reporting.
  8. Plagiarism.
  9. Legality.
  10. Professionalism.
  11. Research ethics and society.
  12. Copyright and intellectual property right.
  13. The originality of your research.
  14. Promulgation of results.

The notion of truth. Truth is largely governed by critical epistemology. Critical epistemology is an understanding of the relationship between power, cognitive reasoning and truth. This implies that the way we think about concepts, theory, philosophy and phenomena determines what we would regard as truth. You should uphold the epistemological principles that apply to all researchers, meaning that truth should be a product of logical reasoning and evidence. In terms of critical epistemology, however, we need to be careful – it is easy to twist your arguments to fit your preferences by describing them in terms of an unfounded epistemology. The need for and availability of power can erode logical truth. Sometimes writers and researchers work with a predetermined political agenda in mind, for example to gain support from a particular group or to promote a political objective, rather than to strive for scientific validity. You will only truly develop new knowledge or add to existing knowledge, that is, make a positive epistemological contribution to science, if you are objective and honest in your interpretation and analysis of information. This brings us to the epistemic imperative.

In the world of science our aim is to generate truthful (valid/plausible) descriptions and explanations of the world. This is called the epistemic intent of science. “Epistemic” is derived from episteme, the Greek word for “truthful knowledge”. We use “truthful” as a synonym for “valid” or “close approximation of the truth”. We accept knowledge to be accurate and true when we have sufficient reason to believe that it is a logical and motivated representation or explanation of a phenomenon, event or process. There needs to be enough evidence to support such claims. It mostly takes time to accumulate evidence and claims of truth must withstand repeated testing under various conditions in order to be accepted as valid or, at least, plausible.

“Instant verification” of a hypothesis or theory is largely impossible to achieve. Research takes place all the time, and scientific communities accept certain points of view, hypotheses or theories as valid and plausible, based on the best available evidence at a given point in time. However, new empirical evidence contradicting current “truth” can be revealed by new research at any time in the future. The obvious thing to do when this happens would be for scientists to revise their opinions and change their theories.

Commitment to “truth” is not the same as the search for certainty or infallible knowledge. Neither does it imply holding truth as absolute without any concern for time and space. The notions of “certainty” and “infallibility” would suggest that we can never be wrong. If we are to accept a particular point of view as “certain” or “infallible” we are in fact saying that no amount of new evidence can ever lead us to change our beliefs. This would obviously be a false stance, making a mockery of scientific enterprise. Life and the environment are dynamic concepts – not only do they change because of internal and external forces impacting on them, but we also discover flaws in our beliefs and perceptions. None of the paradigms that we discussed already go so far as to claim that truth is exact and perfectly final. Pre-modernism might be regarded as an exception by some. The commitment to true and valid knowledge is, therefore, not a search for infallible and absolute knowledge.

Even though we know that “truth” is a rather volatile concept, the “epistemic imperative” demands that researchers commit themselves to the pursuit of the most truthful claims about the world and the phenomena and events that have an impact on human beings. This has at least three implications:

  • The idea of an imperative implies that a type of “moral contract” has been entered into. It is neither optional nor negotiable. This “contract” is intrinsic to scientific inquiry. Every researcher and scientist should commit themselves to this contract. When you embark on a scientific project, or undertake any scientific enquiry, you tacitly agree to the epistemic imperative – to the search for truth. But the epistemic imperative is not merely an ideal or regulative principle. It has real consequences. This is evident in the way that the scientific community deals with any attempt to circumvent or violate the imperative.
  • The “epistemic imperative” is a commitment to an ideal. Its goal is to generate results and findings which are as valid or truthful as possible. The fact that it is first and foremost an ideal means that it might not always be attained in practice. All research, however, should represent steps closer to accuracy and truth. It seems to be unlikely, if not impossible, to achieve perfect accuracy and truth, amongst other things because of methodological problems, practical constraints (such as lack of resources) and a dynamic environment. We are often required to settle for results that are, at best, approximations to the truth.
  • The meaning that we attach to the concept “truth” presupposes a loose, somewhat metaphorical relationship between our scientific proposition and the world. Contrary to the classical notion that “truth” means that what we regard as reality, and what reality actually is, as being the same, we accept that this relationship is not that simple. The notion of “fit”, “articulation” or “modelling” is a more appropriate term for two reasons: Firstly, it suggests that a point of view can be relatively true. Articulation is not an absolute notion but allows for degrees of accuracy. Secondly, the term “articulation” can refer to the relationship between our points of view and the world (the traditional notions of “representation” or “correspondence”), or to the relationships between our points of view. In the latter’s case, we would use the term “coherence”. This means that “articulation”, “fit” or “modelling” is used to refer to both empirical and conceptual correspondence. When our conceptual system exhibits a high degree of internal coherence, we could also speak of the concepts as “fitting”, “being articulated” or “being modelled” well.


Ethics deal with matters of right and wrong.

The principles of an ethical approach to research are:

  1. Respect and protect the dignity of participants in research.
    1. Base ethical decision-making on the application of practical judgement in a specific context.
    1. Balance the rights of participants with the social benefits of the research and your right to conduct the research.
    1. Maintain and apply sound ethics throughout the research process.
    1. Treat all participants and stakeholders in your research ethically.

Truth is largely governed by critical epistemology.

It should be the product of logical reasoning and evidence.

The need for and availability of power can erode logical truth.

Always keep the epistemic imperative in mind when conducting research.

The implications of the epistemic imperative are:

  1. A moral contract is intrinsic to scientific inquiry.
  2. All research should represent steps closer to accuracy and truth.
  3. Truth is not always absolute or timeless.


On the questions that I posed in my introduction –

All people do not care about the truth.

But, as you know, this is nothing new.

Not all people seem to have the ability to foresee the consequences of dishonesty for individuals, families, communities, cities, countries, the world.

Ironically lack of visionary thinking has this nasty way of causing great damage to the myopic in the end.

Enjoy your studies.

Thank you.

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ARTICLE 98: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: The Layout of the Thesis or Dissertation Part 2 of 9 Parts

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

I discuss deconstruction and empirical generalisation in this article.

Is deconstruction just a euphemism for plagiarism?

After all, what we do when we deconstruct a concept, argument, knowledge or philosophy, is to take what somebody else said or wrote and change it to serve our own purpose.

You be the judge if deconstruction is theft or progression.


Deconstruction is not an independent research method as such, but rather a way in which data that you collected for your research is ‘unpacked’ into more useful chunks that belong together and that can be articulated to the purpose of your research. To rearrange the data, you need to identify the right meanings for terminology and concepts.

Constructivism as a paradigm addresses deconstruction. Some academics are of the opinion that deconstruction belongs with post-structuralism. However, it is important to also discuss it separately as part of the process of research methodology seeing that it is necessary, regardless of your paradigmatic preference.

To clarify the difference between constructivism as a paradigm and deconstruction as a research method – constructivism deals with the way in which people perceive their research environment; deconstruction deals with the way in which you, as a researcher, will contextualise and articulate the research data that you collect to convey the ‘message’ of your investigation.

When deconstructing data that you collected, you will group them under headings and sub-headings that will enable you to offer the data in harmony with the purpose of your research, hopefully on a higher level of abstraction or at least in a more creative manner. When studying towards a doctoral degree you will need to ‘create’ new data, which will probably include some deconstruction.

When doing research for a master’s degree and even more so for a doctoral degree, you will need to group your data into a set of categories and transform the groupings into abstract types of philosophies and knowledge which you need to analyse further. Dedicated computer software enables you to code your data so that deconstruction is much easier to accomplish by just grouping pieces of information under specific codes and then analysing and recombining the information into new messages. In this manner you can reconstruct the data that you collected into a logical, accurate and authentic thesis or dissertation.

Deconstructing data is not about disclosing an already established, underlying or privileged truth, thereby committing plagiarism. Rather, it is about synthesising existing data in such a manner that the inherent truth of the data is extracted and offered as an alternative, higher level construction of reality. In the case of doctoral studies such deconstruction should lead to alternative meanings, aligned with the problem statement, problem question or hypothesis of the research.

It stands to reason that the products of a research deconstruction need to be tested by checking with readers, and by exploring with especially your study leader, the extent to which the set of deconstructed components as captured in your thesis or dissertation, is in line with the general usage and meaning of the components, while being articulated to the purpose and requirements of your research and contextualised to the scope and range of your research target group.

As is often the case with master’s and doctoral studies, the deconstructed information may apply more widely than just the target group for the study. The deconstructed data may not be limited to component meanings associated with only your abstracted categories as defined in your thesis or dissertation. How you group your data is up to you and you may test new concepts and their technical or academic definitions. The dominant logic of the process of deconstruction is abduction, although induction plays a part in testing the scope and range of the constructed concepts and their meaning in terms of a variety of related everyday meanings.

For the sake of efficiency, you will start with meaningful components that you already deconstructed previously. By linking subsets of components, according to plausible themes, which should be the problem statement or hypothesis of your research broken down into abstracted categories, you can produce a compact set of concepts and associated academic meanings articulated to the purpose of your research. These ‘sets of concepts’ are the typologies through which you communicate your arguments in a thesis or dissertation.

Typologies not only provide descriptions but also enable a clear exchange of deeper understanding about the meanings of words and concepts with which you work in your thesis or dissertation. Hence, typologies answer ‘what’ questions but not ‘why’ questions. Stated differently, your typologies reflect the ontology of your research, which you will need as the foundation for the epistemology, which would be your discussion, analysis and explanations of your arguments.

The epistemology of your thesis or dissertation proposes and tests discriminating insights about associations between elements of the regulatory and the primary ‘why’ questions. Because a theory or argument should at least hold across the same for your research, the testing should be applied to each unit of a selected sample to ensure validity with a reasonable probability of being accurate. You will not statistically calculate the probability that your sample is large enough to provide a good measure of accuracy when conducting qualitative research. However, you should take great pains in ensuring accuracy of your findings, for example by making your sample as large as possible, consulting as many different sources of information as you can reasonably obtain, asking readers for comment, arranging focus groups, etc.

Empirical generalisation

Empirical generalisation should not be confused with empiricism, which is a paradigm, as you should know by now. Empirical generalisation is studies based on the collection and presentation of evidence to prove a hypothesis or claim in the form of a problem statement or question. The evidence needs to be shown to be accurate, valid and credible. As such it represents the most basic requirements for qualitative research.

Empirical research mostly refers to evidence that can be observed and measured, which implies quantitative research. It can be directed at the ontology of a phenomenon, requiring you to focus on “what”, as well as the epistemology of phenomena, requiring answers to questions like “how many?”; “why?”; “what are the results?”; “what is the effect?”; and “what caused it?”.



  1. Is not an independent research method.
  2. Is used to group and articulate data to the purpose of research.
  3. Fits in well with constructivism.
  4. Can be rendered efficient through coding.
  5. Synthesises existing data to identify the inherent truth in the data.
  6. Needs to be checked by other stakeholders in the research.

On doctoral level, you will:

  1. Create new data from existing data.
  2. Escalate data to a higher level of abstraction.
  3. Develop or identify alternative meanings for words and concepts aligned with the problem statement, research question or hypothesis for your research.
  4. Mostly use induction.

On master’s degree level, you will:

  1. Deconstruct data to make it more creative.
  2. Mostly use deduction.

On doctoral and master’s degree level:

  1. Data need to be grouped into a set of categories and transformed into abstract types of philosophies and knowledge.
  2. You should aim at generalisation of your findings.
  3. You must ensure that your findings are logical, accurate and authentic.
  4. Typologies can be used:
    1. To communicate arguments in your thesis or dissertation.
    1. To describe concepts relevant to your research.
    1. To enable a clear exchange and deeper understanding of the meanings of concepts and words.
    1. To serve as an ontology upon which the epistemology for your research can be developed.

Empirical generalisation means providing solutions to a research problem, answers to a research question or evidence to prove or disprove a hypothesis.

Evidence must be accurate, valid and credible.


So, what do you think?

Is deconstruction just a euphemism for plagiarism?

Let’s put this question on ice for the time being.

The three articles following on this one deal with ethics.

Perhaps we will be in a better position to answer the question after we have taken a closer look at ethics and what it means.

Enjoy your studies.

Thank you.

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ARTICLE 97: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: The Layout of the Thesis or Dissertation Part 1 of 9 Parts

Written by Dr. J.P. Nel

This article is an introduction to eight more articles on how to structure your thesis or dissertation.

I already pointed out in my initial articles that a thesis for master’s degree studies and a dissertation for doctoral studies are not the same.

Even so, there are enough similarities so that we can discuss them together.

Besides, it is a good idea to use the thesis that you write for your master’s degree as a learning opportunity for when you embark on doctoral studies.

And most universities will not object if you write and approach your thesis as you would a dissertation.

I will point out salient differences between a thesis and a dissertation.

Research without writing is of little purpose. There are, of course, other ways of communicating your research findings, most notably through oral presentation, but putting them on paper remains of paramount importance. The thesis or dissertation remains the major means by which you should communicate your findings.

It is something of a paradox, therefore, that many researchers are reluctant to commit their ideas to paper. Then again, not all people like writing and some might claim that it requires writing talent. For those who enjoy writing, this can be the most enjoyable part of the research process, because when compiling your research findings, you need to take what you wrote in the body of your document and create something new from it. Even though you have your research data to fall back on, you still need to think creatively. This takes some courage, hard work and lots of self-discipline.

It is always important to do immaculate and professional research. However, your biggest challenge is to develop an interesting and well-structured thesis or dissertation from the research data. Any research paper is based upon a four-step process. Firstly, you need to gather lots of general, though relevant, information. Secondly, you need to evaluate, analyse and condense the information into what is specifically relevant to a hypothesis, problem statement or problem question. Thirdly, you need to come to conclusions about the information that you analysed, and formulate findings based on your conclusions. Finally, your thesis or dissertation should again become more general as you try to apply your findings to the world in general or at least more widely than the target group for the research.

Different disciplines will use slightly different thesis or dissertation structures, so the structure described in the following nine articles is based on some basic principles. The steps given here are the building blocks of constructing a good thesis or dissertation.

A thesis or dissertation should clearly and thoroughly indicate what you have done to solve a problem that you identified. In addition, it should be factual, logical and readable. A good thesis or dissertation should be comprehensive and precise. Most importantly, though, it must be professionally researched.

Some of the contents of your research proposal will not have changed and should be included in your dissertation, as should some of the information that did change, but in the improved format or content. Your problem statement, question or hypothesis, for example, might have changed. The literature and other sources of information that you consulted will have changed and should include many more sources than the original list.

You should ensure that the time set aside for writing sessions is sufficient, as constant restarting and trying to find out where you left off when you last worked on the thesis wastes time and interferes with your thinking processes. If you are fully employed you should write after hours at least one hour per day, five days a week. Even then you will need to catch up by working over weekends, long weekends and holidays.

It is when writing a thesis or dissertation that you will really come to appreciate your desktop or laptop computer. When writing a thesis or dissertation, you should:

  1. Manage your time well.
  2. Make electronic backups of your work as often as possible.
  3. Plan each chapter in detail and structure your thesis or dissertation before you start writing. The layout of your thesis or dissertation may change over your period of study. Even so, good preparation is still important.
  4. First write your draft, then edit it critically and eliminate unnecessary material. Do not expect to get it right the first time around. Review is part of post graduate studies.
  5. Motivate the necessity of the study and explain the goal clearly.
  6. Give your study leader and anybody else who might read your thesis or dissertation a clear understanding of the research problem. The implications should be explained in such a way that everyone reading the thesis or dissertation has the same orientation towards the problem.
  7. Provide sufficient theoretical background to base the study on.
  8. Clearly describe the data collection methods and aids used.
  9. Provide sufficient and accurate data and indicate exactly how the data was used to solve the research problem.
  10. Conform to the university’s requirements for typing, printing and binding, and also meet the requirements set out formally in the learning institution’s post graduate policy and procedure.

We have come full circle from discussing the research process, all the concepts that you should apply and the tools that are available, to unpacking the research in the form of a thesis or dissertation. The following nine articles, therefore, return to the beginning of the research process and deal with the entire process, the only difference being that now we focus on putting the thesis or dissertation on paper.


The thesis or dissertation is the major means by which to communicate research findings.

Writing a thesis or dissertation requires creative thinking, some courage, hard work and lots of self-discipline.

You must find out in advance what the university’s requirements, rules, regulations and procedures for master’s or doctoral studies are and abide by them.

And you must manage time well.

Conducting research and writing a thesis or dissertation mostly consist of four main steps:

  1. Gather information.
  2. Evaluate, analyse and condense the information.
  3. Come to conclusions and findings.
  4. Apply your findings in practise.

The requirements for a thesis or dissertation are:

  1. It must clearly and thoroughly indicate what you have done to solve a problem.
  2. It must be comprehensive and precise.
  3. You must research the topic of your research professionally.
  4. In the case of doctoral studies your dissertation must align with your initial study proposal.
  5. You should continually make electronic backups of your work.
  6. You must plan and structure your thesis or dissertation before you start writing.
  7. You should review your work regularly.
  8. You should do enough literature study.
  9. You must clearly motivate the importance and value of your research.
  10. You must explain the research problem.
  11. You must clearly describe how you will collect and analyse data.
  12. You must show how you use the data that you collect in your thesis or dissertation.


The eight articles following on this one are critically important for your further studies.

You can use them to guide your research process.

You can also use them to do a self-evaluation of your work before you submit the final manuscript for your thesis or dissertation.

Enjoy our studies.

Thank you.

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ARTICLE 57: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Phenomenology

Written by Dr. J.P. Nel

Do you think personal perceptions can be a true reflection of the nature of events or phenomena?

Can opinions based on nothing more than experience be accepted as valid and accurate data for research?

Can you come to logical findings if you do not use cognitive thinking and reflection when conducting research?

Here we have a paradigm that does all of those things.

I discuss phenomenology in this video.

Phenomenology is a philosophy that believes that individual behaviour is the product of a person’s experience through direct interaction with phenomena. An objective external reality is believed not to have any effect on behaviour.

Social reality is believed to have meaning; therefore it should be taken into consideration when developing knowledge. Social reality is important for the way in which people behave as well as the factors that determine behaviour. This implies that research falls back on the common-sense thinking of individuals.  Actual experience is the essence of data used in phenomenology. Opinions, point of view, beliefs, superstitions, etc. are not taken into consideration.

Phenomenology deals with how people make sense of the world around them and how this can be used to understand phenomena and human behaviour. Phenomenologists realise that they should take their own perceptions into consideration when investigating those of other people. Their perceptions, however, should be based on experiences.

The data, research approaches and methods used in the natural sciences differ markedly from the data, research approaches and methods used in the social sciences, notably phenomenology. Data is analysed by reflecting on how we experienced events and phenomena, and gathering meaning from our reflections and consciousness.

Research falls back on the common-sense thinking of individuals because of the importance of social reality. The objective of phenomenology is to investigate and describe an event or phenomenon as consciously experienced, without theories about their causal explanations or objective reality. The description needs to describe as accurately as possible the phenomenon, without judging, in order to remain true to the facts. Phenomenological research, thus, studies people’s perceptions, perspectives and understanding of a particular situation, event or phenomenon to construct meaning.

Human beings interpret interaction with phenomena and attach meanings to different actions and/or ideas to construct new experiences. You, as the researcher, need to develop empathic understanding of phenomena to know how individuals interpret what they observe or experience, to understand the feelings, motives and thoughts that determine the behaviour of others.

Research based on a phenomenological paradigm strongly focuses on capturing the uniqueness of events or phenomena. For example, as part of research in human behaviour you may immerse yourself in the lives of convicted criminals. In carrying out such an inquiry, you might observe convicts in a correctional facility, share their particular struggles, conflicts and fears in an attempt to derive a deeper understanding of what it is like for them to serve time in the facility.

Phenomenological studies attend not only to the events being studied but also their political, historical, and sociocultural contexts. The studies strive to be as faithful as possible to the actual experiences, especially as it might be described in the participants’ own words. In the example of research in a correctional facility, you would, for example, ask convicts to describe situations where they felt that their lives were threatened.

In such inquiries, phenomenological studies resist the use of concepts, categories, taxonomies, or reflections about the experiences. This implies that generalisations should be avoided because they may distort the desired focus on the uniqueness of the events. You would also avoid any research methods having a tendency to construct a predetermined set of fixed procedures and techniques that would govern the research project. 

An alternative to seeking assertions of enduring value or considering all human experiences as unique, can be to aim for a limited form of generalisability. Such a limited form recognises the uniqueness of local situations but accepts that, depending on the degree of similarity of the sending and receiving contexts, some transferability of findings is possible.   

Phenomenological research embraces participants as stakeholders and participants in the research process. Even if limited, you and the participants can make some generalisations of what a phenomenon is like as an experience from the ‘insider’s’ perspective by analysing multiple perspectives of the same situation. This is yet another example of ‘emic’, the insider’s point of view, as opposed to ‘etic’ which would be the outsider’s point of view.

Phenomenologists are reluctant to follow a structured step-by-step research procedure. They argue that this would erode the integrity of the observed phenomenon. Research guidelines might be necessary just as long as it does not become a rigid procedure.       

Almost any qualitative research method can be used, including interviews, questionnaires, focus groups, etc. The only precondition is that the data should be a full description of actual experiences.

The data collection method used will largely decide how the data will be analysed. Keep in mind that data can be gathered as and when an event takes place, which would mean that the data can change in unexpected ways and directions. You should focus on deep understanding of the data through analysis. The data and its analysis should contribute to the achievement of the purpose of your research. Reflection is needed to extract meaning from data, and you will need to carefully analyse the data to achieve this.

Phenomenological studies emphasise hermeneutic or interpretive analysis of actual experiences. It is also associated with symbolic interactionism, which argues that the individual is continually interpreting and analysing the symbolic meaning of his or her environment, with symbolism often being the spoken or written word. Phenomenology tries to interpret and describe experiences in a way that others will also be able to understand.

Phenomenology is opposed to the positivist paradigm and most other technicist paradigms. The reason for this is that phenomenology requires collecting and reflecting on actual experiences which will seldom include quantitative analysis. Data gathered phenomenologically would mostly be subjective whereas the positivist paradigm requires objective data.

Researchers criticise phenomenology for many different reasons. The paradigm is interpreted and used in a variety of ways by different researchers, with the result that the meaning of the philosophy has been eroded. Secondly, there is little, if any consistency in the examples given in many different fields of research, all claiming to be case studies of phenomenology. Thirdly, phenomenological observations are not always useful for research purposes because of the lack of cognitive thinking and reflection. Fourthly, the limited provision for the development of generalizable knowledge is contrary to the purpose of especially doctoral studies.


Phenomenology studies experience through direct interaction.

Social reality rather than the external reality is investigated.

The researcher’s and target group’s perceptions are used to understand phenomena and human behaviour.

Research attends to political, historical and socio-cultural contexts.

The uniqueness of events and phenomena can be the focus of the research.

The researcher can analyse data by falling back on common sense thinking.

Accurate descriptions of events and phenomena are related.

Events and phenomena are not judged.

Conscious experiences are described without theory and causal explanations.

The use of concepts, categories, procedures, reflections, taxonomies and techniques are resisted.

Phenomenology is associated with ethnomethodology, symbolic interactionism, hermeneutics and interpretivism.

The paradigm is opposed to scientism, positivism and modernism.

Criticism against the paradigm are:

  1. That cognitive thinking and reflection are neglected
  2. It is difficult to find valid examples of the use of phenomenology.
  3. It is seldom possible to generalise research findings.
  4. Researchers are confused about the meaning of the paradigm.
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