Academic Research Writing Tips

When conducting your graduate research and writing your thesis or dissertation, keep these tips on data collection, grammar, organization, and plagiarism in mind. 

A Few Things to Avoid in Research Writing

Plagiarism
Taking someone else's work and passing it off as your own, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

Most cultures agree that you should acknowledge the source when quoting someone else's words exactly as written or spoken. American academic culture requires carefully citing other's words, pictures, etc., in all forms of communication.

Research writing requires that you cite other people's ideas with full information of the source, even when you paraphrase or summarize with your own words. The goal is to have enough information that the reader can find the same reference you used. The format for citations and reference information varies by discipline. You should be sure to find out what the acceptable format is from the faculty member who assigned you to project.

Please keep in mind that intentional plagiarism is a serious offense and can result in dismissal.

To learn more about this topic, please see the Council of Writing Program Administrators website: http://www.wpacouncil.org/node/9

Unapproved Data Collection or Use
Using someone else's data or gathering data from people or animals without having approval

  • Are you using data that have already been gathered by someone else? Even if you are going to look at the data in a completely different way, get permission to use that data through contacting the source or carefully citing the source if the data were previously published in a book, website, or journal. Do not assume that the data are in the public domain unless that is specifically stated.
  • Are you using or collecting data from people for your research? Get approval (or an exemption) from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at Appalachian. Approval or exemption is necessary before any data collection starts.
  • Are you using animals in your research by more than just observing them in nature? Get approval from the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) at Appalachian. Approval is necessary before any data collection starts.

Common Grammatical Errors

English has an interesting history as a language; it was heavily influenced by invasion, colonization, and innovation over many centuries.

The original languages spoken in Britain were most probably Celtic, but the Germanic invaders (their languages already influenced by Roman invaders) caused a replacement of the Celtic languages in the main part of Britain. Subsequently, Scandinavian, Roman, and Norman (French) invaders influenced the development of the English language. Many of those cultures' words and expressions were incorporated into the language, yielding a rich language with a huge vocabulary. More recently, Victorian England absorbed vocabulary from the many colonies it controlled, and the Industrial Revolution in England and the United States led to the creation of words to describe new things and ideas.

Then there are the differences caused by the divergence of British English and American English: Words are spelled slightly differently; idioms are different; acceptable writing style varies in the level or formality expected.

This leads to a conundrum for non-native speakers: The way that nouns, verbs, pronouns, and modifiers are used in American English can differ depending on the origins of the particular words. So patterns that are always the same in another language (how to create plurals, placement of adjectives and adverbs, etc.) may depend upon what words are being used and how in English.

There are several errors that are common to non-native speakers of English, and most can be traced to the differences between sentence construction, subject and verb agreement, and pluralizing in the two languages. Here is a site that lists common errors that second language (ESL) learners often make:

http://college.cengage.com/devenglish/fawcett/evergreen/7e/students/esl_errors.html

With such a complex language, there are also many words and idioms that are commonly misused by native and non-native English speakers alike:

http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/errors.html

Lack of Organization

Most academic research writing in the United States is "thesis driven" meaning that the main point is stated early in the document, followed by the supporting information. Here is a general outline you can follow when writing, but be sure to understand what your instructor or mentor is expecting!

  1. State your main points explicitly in an introductory section.
  2. After the introductory section, you may need to include a discussion of the history or background needed to put your points in context; this is often where you will present other people's work with appropriate citations (being careful to avoid plagiarism!).
  3. Next provide the evidence, information, data, or argument to support your main points, and be sure that you connect back to your main points.
  4. Last, provide a conclusion that recaps your main points; you might also address the shortcomings in your argument and ideas for future research.

There is a wealth of information available at the Purdue University Online Writing Lab: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/ designed to help with the "American" style of writing.

Also be sure to take advantage of Appalachian's University Writing Center! They are in the basement of the library from 9 to 9 Monday through Thursday and 9 to 1 on Friday. Drop-ins are welcome or you can make an appointment by calling 262-3144.

http://www.writingcenter.appstate.edu/

Interested in joining an online support group for research writing?

Sponsored by the Cornell Graduate School, the Productive Writer is free and open to all, especially graduate students who are writing papers, proposals, fellowship applications, theses, and dissertations. It's easy to join; just click here.