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Your presence in the text

In a thesis, the relevance and importance of you as the author can change from section to section. The way your identity intrudes into the text depends to a large extent on accepted use in your particular discipline. Take your cues from the way this is done in published articles and seek the advice of your supervisor.

'I' or 'we' is commonly found in mathematical writing, but is usually advised against for industrial or civil engineering. I and 'my' can commonly be intrinsic for psychoanalytic writing, for instance - and case-study writing in a number of disciplines - but not for psychology. You will find 'we' in history theses, and even 'nous' in French.

Traditionally in much academic writing, it is not generally accepted to write: 'I think…' or 'It is my opinion…', because this detracts from the supposed objectivity of scholarship. It is true that too much insertion of yourself in your writing swings the focus away from the material you are investigating and on to you. However, under the influence of a number of (post-)modern philosophers and other theorists, this may even be desirable in some disciplines. It is a debate that is still in flux within the academic community.

It sounds awkward to style yourself as 'the author', 'the present writer', or 'the researcher'. There are more graceful ways of expressing your own opinion. If you are uncertain how to avoid an over-personalised tone in sections of the thesis where you do not want this, or too much passive voice, you can use the following expressions to make your position clear in relation to your sources:

Showing support or agreement

Example: 'The following discussion is based on the work in Murray et al.(1990).'

Example: 'From the above discussion, it is clear that the design of moment connections involving solid members offers considerable insight into…'

Example: 'The characteristics of vapour flows in falling film evaporators are well described by Stenhede (1982).'

Showing disagreement

Example: 'Bruegge et al. (1992) review OMT; however, their paper is from a project management and team communication perspective and is not relevant to the argument presented here.'

Example: 'Neither mathematics nor the classic Newell and Simon (1972) descriptions of human problem solving are particularly useful in domains where absolute correctness, resolution, proof and related concepts are inappropriate.'

Active or passive voice?

The examples above show that the passive voice (verbs which do not indicate who or what is doing the action) can be a useful way of avoiding unnecessary intrusions of the author into the text. Some academic writers feel, however, that the use of the passive voice can lead to writing in which sources or agents are not clear. Certainly, repeated use of the passive results in texts which are 'flat' and tedious to read.

The difficulty with endless passive sentences is that the reader tends to lose sight of any agent, and the writing becomes dominated by things and concepts instead of people. You may see passive voice dominating in published articles, but this is often for reasons of space. Do not be afraid to use active voice - especially in your Discussion section, where it is sometimes important to indicate that it is you thinking certain things and having particular opinions. In Methods sections of many theses (in Medicine, for example), it is acceptable to break the monotony of many passive voice sentences with some active voice.

Compare the two texts below and decide which you think is preferable.

Passive voice text

The systems most favoured for investment were shown to be planning, design and production. Many manual systems were reported as being current investments across the sector. Only the largest firms, however, showed any degree of interest in integrated systems. Textile and clothing firms, in particular, were seen to be investing in automated production, design, planning and reporting technologies.

Active voice text

Our research has shown that in terms of current investments, manufacturers favoured planning, design and production systems, with firms across the sector reporting investments in a range of manual systems. Only the largest firms, however, showed any degree of interest in integrated systems. We have seen textile and clothing firms, in particular, investing in automated production, design, planning and reporting technologies.

See also the Grammar section on Passive voice.

Signalling importance/significance

Make it very clear to your reader where you feel the significance of your work resides. Do not be shy about this by playing down your achievements. Published scholars develop expertise, not only in showing off their work to best advantage, but also pointing out explicitly and precisely what is valuable about it.

"The value of this research project lies in its demonstration of the immense difficulties facing… "

The limitations of your study

It is important to signal to your reader where the competence of your study ends. Theses are usually constrained by time, by difficulties with subjects or informants, by unavailability of evidence, by wisdom only gained in hindsight. Be candid about these where they affect results in a major way. Do not overplay them, however, as in the following sample:

"With a view to this I have become aware of deficiencies in my methodology and I will discuss some of these below. "

You do not want to highlight deficiencies to your examiner! Likewise, do not refer to extraneous hindrances ("my supervisor got divorced", "my hard disc caught fire", etc).

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