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Research postgraduates

Expert guidance from Study Advice at the University of Reading

As a postgraduate researcher you are referring to a wider range of sources, keeping track of more references over a longer period of time, summarising more complex material, publishing your own work … and creating new knowledge. This all presents new challenges when referencing and maintaining academic integrity.

The guidance on this page considers some of the referencing challenges faced by postgraduate researchers.

Can I plagiarise myself?

As strange as it sounds, it is possible to plagiarise yourself. You may have the opportunity to publish parts of your research as a journal article or in conference proceedings before submitting your thesis. If so, the material is now published and available in the public domain so it needs to be referenced as you would do any other source.

You may have published a number of journal articles over the course of your PhD studies and then be intending to publish your whole thesis as a book once you have graduated. It is good professional practice not to submit for publication the exact same material that is already published elsewhere.

Cutting and pasting large sections of your already-published journal articles straight into your book manuscript would not be acceptable. In most cases publishers ask you to declare that the material you are submitting has not previously been published. It is unlikely that you would want to simply duplicate sections of a journal article in a book anyway as they are aimed at different audiences and for different purposes, so some amount of rewriting and restructuring is always necessary.  

You need to consider carefully where and when you decide to publish your work. Your supervisor should be able to advise you on a good publication strategy. The Library also has a Research Publications Adviser who may be able to help.

Rewrite in my own words?

Just put it in your own words…sometimes easier said than done! Paraphrasing and summarising are complex skills that take time to develop. It can be particularly challenging if you are trying to summarise very concise scientific writing in which every word seems precise, or summarising very dense prose that is hard to untangle.

Try these strategies for developing your paraphrasing:

  • Take every opportunity to practice paraphrasing when note-making - avoid copying chunks of text word-for-word or simply underlining text.
  • Read larger sections of text before trying to paraphrase. It is almost impossible to paraphrase line by line as everything seems important. Focus on reading more and extracting one main point, as opposed to lots of individual sentences.
  • Thinking time is as important as reading time. It can be very difficult to paraphrase ideas that you don't fully understand. Allow yourself time to think about what you read, talk about it with others, or imagine how you would explain it to a friend.
  • Keep your purpose in mind! Nobody will be researching your topic in the same way as you, so the audience and purpose for your writing is unique. It is probably quite different to the audiences and purposes of the texts you are reading, so you won't want to express the ideas in the same way - you will need to rewrite them to show how they fit with your own purpose.

Have a look at our brief video tutorial on Effective paraphrasing for postgraduates (link below).

Using your academic judgement

Referencing may have been presented in a very clear-cut and absolute way at undergraduate or masters level - you must do it correctly and you must follow the guidance provided. As a postgraduate researcher, you may find referencing is becoming more of a grey area and there are exceptions or complications to 'the rules'.

This is because referencing forms a vital part of how academics communicate and maintain their academic integrity. It involves developing your confidence and judgement as an academic to make reasoned decisions about how you use sources and how you refer to them fairly.

What might you advise each student to do in the following scenarios?

Scenario 1: Jill goes to a conference and talks with another researcher over lunch. She gets a number of very useful ideas from the researcher during the conversation. When she is back at university, Jill includes these ideas in her thesis. Does this seem reasonable?
Scenario 2: Bilal is conducting research as part of an academic and industry partnership. He is trying to compile his literature review but is finding that there isn't much material published in his area as the data is commercially sensitive and isn't being released by the manufacturers. What can he do?
Scenario 3: Sam has finished his final draft of his thesis and is about to submit it. He reads a journal article that has just been printed in which another researcher has published very similar findings to Sam's. Sam hasn't encountered this researcher's work before, and hasn't included anything about their work in his thesis. Should Sam panic?
Scenario 4: Tanya knows her external examiner can be quite tough. She wants to show that she respects this examiner so she quotes large sections of his latest work in her thesis. What do you think of this strategy?

Note that these are dilemmas for you to consider and practise exercising your critical judgement - there may be no absolute answers. If you do find yourself in a similar situation and are unsure of what to do, discuss it with your supervisor.

How do I reference unusual sources?

Conducting original research often means you need to consult a broader range of sources which may not be covered in the basic referencing guides.

But no matter what source you are citing or what referencing style you are using, there are some common elements that are needed for any full citation:

  1. Author
  2. Date
  3. Title
  4. Publication details

For example all the sources below are different but still have the same common elements:

  Author Date Title Publication Details
Map Ordnance Survey 2001 Map of Roman Britain 5th Edition. Scale 1:625 000. Southampton. Ordnance Survey.
Email communication Wainwright, J. 2013 Management strategy for Reading Borough Council [Personal email] Message to: Stewart, S. 15th May 2013.
Thesis Victor, L. 2009 Teaching Grandmothers to Suck Eggs: A Retrospective Study Thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. University of Leeds.

It is often the publication details which vary the most and need the most consideration of how to present them to be consistent with your referencing style.

If you are not sure how to reference a source, try these steps:

1) Record all the common elements needed for a full citation (see above)

2) Find a model in your referencing style to follow - the joint Study Advice and Library online guide to Citing references has examples.

3) If you can't find a model, be consistent: Follow the same punctuation and layout as your referencing style and include all the elements needed for your reader to find the source.

If you are using whole items like diagrams or photographs in your thesis you may also have to seek permission to reproduce them to prevent any copyright infringement, especially if you are making your final thesis available online. For more information on copyright see the Blackboard course 'Creating your Electronic Thesis' or the University's guidance on Copyright.

How can I keep track of my references?

You are likely to collate hundreds of references over the course of your PhD, so investing some time to set up a logical and easily-managed system that works for you is worthwhile.

Some people prefer a plain Word document that they just keep up-to-date regularly.

However, reference management software like EndNote, Mendeley or Zotero has useful features such as being able to import references from databases, tag and categorise them, and automatically generate bibliographies.

This software can take some time to learn and to set up in the way you want for your referencing style, but it can be very useful.

Journals often have different referencing styles, so if you are planning to submit articles for publication, reference managing software can automatically reformat your bibliography to suit their style, which saves having to do it by hand each time.

The Library supports Endnote. You can attend introductory EndNote training sessions or contact your Academic Liaison Librarian for more information.

Free reference management software such as Mendeley and Zotero often has good online help and tips on how to use them effectively.