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 13: How to Write the First Chapter of Your Thesis or Dissertation.

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


Most universities will allow you to choose a name for your first chapter.

It can simply be “Introduction”.

You can also choose a more descriptive name of the contents of the chapter, for example, “Contextualising the Study.”

Some universities might even allow you to insert a Preface before your first chapter.

You should check with the university first before you add a separate preface to your thesis or dissertation.

I will share a few thoughts on the preface near the end of this post for the sake of clarity.

Each chapter in your thesis or dissertation should have its own introduction, but that is not what I will discuss here, so don’t get confused.

Writing the first chapter is the launchpad for writing a thesis or dissertation.

It points the writing process in the direction it should go and lay out what your research project should achieve.

The following are possible headings for your first chapter:

  1. Introduction. It might be confusing if you include an introduction to a chapter called “Introduction”, but that should not be a serious problem.

You can discuss the following issues in the introduction:

  1. Your problem statement, problem question or hypothesis.
  2. Clarify the problem statement, question or hypothesis.
  3. Background information on the field in which the study will be conducted.
  4. You should narrow the wider scope (the background information) down to a viable target group or target area.
  5. Explain why the problem or hypothesis is important.
  6. Introduce and develop the topic for your research.
  7. Introduce the title for your thesis or dissertation.
  8. Statement of objectives
    1. Break the purpose down into objectives and objectives into sub-objectives or tasks.
    1. This breakdown can be useful when you need to prepare questions for interviews or questionnaires that you intend to send to members of your target group.
  9. Definition of related concepts
    1. Concepts and words are often understood and used differently by different academics.
    1. It will often be impossible to determine what the right meanings are.
    1. Therefore, do your homework to determine as accurately as you possibly can what the concepts and words that you will use mean and then explain how you will use them.
  10. The motivation for the study
    1. You need to explain why you wish to investigate the problem of your choice.
  11.  Current knowledge of the problem
    1. Most universities will not even allow you to enroll for doctoral or master studies if you cannot show that you have enough prior knowledge of the topic of your research.  
  12. Potential benefits of the research
    1. You need to explain who will benefit from your research as well as how they will benefit.
    1. This can be integrated with your motivation for the study.
  13. Ethical issues
    1. You need to conduct your research and write your report in a manner that will be acceptable to any reasonable person and that does not transgress any legislation, rules or regulations.
    1. The university will require you to confirm in writing that this is the case.
  14. The structure of your study
    1. The structure of your research will depend on the university requirements, the research approach, research methods, paradigms, data collection methods and data analysis methods that you will use.
    1. Your personal style will also play a role.
  15. Summary of Chapter 1
    1. Each of your chapters needs to have an introduction and a summary.
    1. You can add conclusions and recommendations that you gained from the chapter here.
    1. Cutting and pasting sections from the body of the chapter is not a summary – it is an extract.
    1. The summary should not contain new information.
    1. It will, therefore, be unlikely that you will acknowledge sources in the summary.
    1. You should summarise the chapter in such a way that all the important facts and arguments are given in a concise manner.

The preface

Some universities will allow you to include a preface before your first chapter.

You will probably only write the preface after the thesis or dissertation has been completed.

Or you can write the preface while you are writing the rest of your report.

A preface is usually a combination of disparate elements, necessary for the clarification of aspects of the work, but not necessarily concerned with the development of the argument.

Some claim that a good preface consists of three distinct parts – a general presentation of the research problem, the purpose of the research, and stating your position in terms of your capacity and limitations to do the research.

All of this can also be included in the first chapter.

Be careful of not using the preface to rationalize.

Do not use the preface to make excuses for not submitting quality work. If that is the case, no preface can save you – your study leader and external examiners will see that your work is not up to standard.

You may wish or need to supply information on the historical or literary background of your research topic, intellectual climate and biographical material relevant to a fuller understanding and appreciation of the research material.

Do not use the preface to put the blame for your challenges on your family, your employer, study leader, the university, the world.


The first chapter of your thesis or dissertation prepares the reader for the scientific argumentation and evaluation of the information that you will gather and analyse.

You should use the first chapter to contextualise your study.

It explains the importance of your research topic, how you will investigate the problem or hypothesis that you formulated, the area and target group for your research and what your research project should achieve.

Although you will need to show what you expect to achieve, you need to guard against showing that you have already decided what the results of your research will be.

You need to be objective and conduct research with an open mind.

Some universities will allow you to include a preface before your first chapter. The best way to write a preface is to write it while you write your thesis or dissertation.

Go back to the preface when you think of something that you desperately need to write but that does not fit into the structure and layout of your thesis or dissertation.

Do not use the preface for anything that might damage your end-product. 

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ARTICLE 6: The Layout and Structure of a Table of Contents for a Ph. D. Research Proposal

Written by Dr J.P. Nel


The table of contents is your first opportunity to impress upon the Postgraduate Committee and your study leader the importance and value of your planned research.

Especially experienced professors often claim that they can already see if your study proposal is viable or not by just looking at the table of contents.

Just to avoid confusion – you can have two tables of content in your research proposal. The first would be the table of contents for the proposal itself and the second can be the proposed table of contents for your research report.

In this post, I will share with you hints on what you should write under each heading of your table of content to gain the approval of the Postgraduate Committee and your study leader.

The table of contents

To begin with, here is an example of a table of contents for a research proposal.

Table of Contents

                                                                                                Page no

1     Introduction                                                                          1

1.1  Introduction to the problem                                                 1

1.2  The Primary Focus of the Study                                           2

1.3  The Importance of the Problem                                            2

1.4  Definition of the Problem                                                       3

1.5  Definition of Concepts                                                           3

1.6  The Motivation for the Study                                                 5

1.7  Current Knowledge of the Problem                                      5

1.8  Potential Benefits of the Research                                       6

2     Research Design                                                                 7

2.1  The Research Approach                                                       7

2.2  Research Methodology                                                         8

2.3  Data-collection Strategy                                                         9

2.4  Ethical Issues for Consideration                                           10

2.5  Proposed Chapter-outline and Deadline Dates                  11

3     References                                                                            12

4     Definitions                                                                             13

5     Quick Reference Manual                                                    14      

You will notice that the research proposal consists of three main sections, namely the introduction, the body and supplementary information.

In the introduction, you should discuss the context and purpose of your planned research.

In the body, you should discuss how you will approach and conduct the research.

Supplementary information should lend authenticity and validity to your proposal.

1     Introduction                                                                         

1.1  Introduction to the problem

See if you can here already impress upon the Postgraduate Committee the importance of the study by discussing your ideas in the context of your planned target group or target area.

You should link your introduction to the environmental factors that you regard as wonting and show how your research can solve problems in that context.

Do not criticize if you do not have facts to substantiate your claims.

1.2  The Primary Focus of the Study

Keep in mind that your research proposal, like your eventual research report, should follow the so-called golden thread that runs through your study.

To achieve this, let the environment and context that you discussed in the introduction to the problem develop into your focus for the study.

After all, you should focus on the research problem if you are to solve it.

1.3  The Importance of the Problem

Link the importance of the problem with the previous issue, that is the focus of your study. Discuss why the problem is important and who will benefit if the problem is solved.

Do not claim over-emotional problems. Always reason in an objective and professional manner.

It is especially when you choose a critical paradigm, for example, critical theory, critical race theory, or feminism that researches sometimes can ignore the facts to prove a point about which they feel strongly.

1.4  Definition of the Problem

Please do not now define a problem that has no relevance to what you discussed so far. Your problem statement, problem question or hypothesis should follow from what you already wrote.

The research approach that you will follow will largely decide if you will define a research problem, research question or hypothesis.

You will probably formulate a hypothesis if you intend to use quantitative research.

You will probably formulate a research problem or research question if you intend to use a qualitative approach.

You can have more than one research problem or question, but don’t list too many. I would suggest not more than three.

1.5  Definition of Concepts

The definition of concepts is a challenge even in the policies and procedures for Ph.D. and master’s degree studies of universities and other research organisations.

That is why you will need to explain what you mean by key terms and concepts.

Once you have explained what you mean by such terms and concepts, you must apply the meanings consistently.

1.6  The Motivation for the Study

The motivation for the study links up with the importance of the study. The importance of the study is mostly also the motivation for the study.

You should not use something like “It is important because my dad wants me to study for a Ph.D.” as a motivation for the study.

Your motivation for the study should reflect the needs of the community, a sponsor, the academic fraternity, even perhaps the entire world.

The potential value of your study should invite acceptance, validity and sincerity.

1.7  Current Knowledge of the Problem

It would be risky to choose a research topic about which you know nothing.

You will probably need to do some prior studying and you should provide evidence of such prior knowledge and, perhaps, experience.

You can also mention the profiles of the individuals or organisations who will be involved in your research if it is relevant.

Just keep in mind that they cannot do your research for you.

1.8  Potential Benefits of the Research

Your research must have theoretical value, practical value and scientific value.

Theoretical value would be the new knowledge that will result from your research.

Practical value would be what can be applied in the industry.

Scientific value can be to the benefit of a field of science.

Theoretical, practical and scientific value can form the basis for future research.

2     Research Design                                                                

2.1  The Research Approach

You should mention if you will do quantitative or qualitative research.

Briefly explain why you chose the approach that you did.

You can also discuss the paradigmatic approach that you will follow here, or you can discuss it under a separate heading, also here.

2.2  Research Methodology

Make sure that the research methodology that you will use is reconcilable with the research approach that you chose.

2.3  Data-collection Strategy

Data collection strategies are often regarded as research methods.

I don’t think this is a serious problem because data collection strategies are, indeed, often also research methods.

Then again, not all data collection strategies go with all research methods or even research approaches.

This, however, is also not a serious problem.

You will learn that what you intended to do cannot be done once you get to the point where you need to do the research and collect the data.

2.4  Ethical Issues for Consideration

We will discuss ethical issues in much more detail in a future post because ethics in Ph.D. are a mouthful. It includes issues such as being honest, protecting the identity of people involved in your research, not committing plagiarism, trust, deception, legality, professionalism and many more.

2.5  Proposed Chapter-outline and Deadline Dates

The proposed chapter outline can be a provisional table of contents for your research report.

You will also need to provide deadline dates for your research.

We will discuss the chapter-outline and deadline dates separately in future posts.

3     References

You can have a separate heading for literature study in which you list the references that you already consulted and a list of references for your research proposal.

Don’t list references that you did not use. If you list references that you did not use yet in your literature study, you will need to point this out.

4     Definitions and a Quick Reference Manual

You might have separate headings for references and a quick reference manual.

Not all study leaders will allow this, though.

Definitions and the quick reference manual are mostly there to help you maintain consistency in your writing.

Summary and close

In summary:

  1. If your research proposal does not show that your research topic is important and that you can do the research, the Postgraduate Committee will probably not approve your application.
  2. Keep your research proposal sufficiently simple for you to understand everything that you write.
  3. Make sure that you know what the university will require you to cover in your research proposal.
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