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Theoretical papers

Structuring the argument of a theoretical paper in the social sciences

A guideline for presenting original ideas convincingly to colleagues in humanities and sciences

If you are considering the possibility of an academic career, you will need to attract the attention of leading international experts in your specific area. You will need to write things that experts will find interesting! That will help you get published in good journals. After that, experts will cite your work, which will enhance your citation statistics. The more international experts include your work in their literature lists, the better you will be able to compete on international markets for good academic positions

The aim of the following guideline is to help you achieve that long-term goal, starting early. The guideline is mainly intended for bachelor's theses and seminar papers at master's level. The basic ideas are presented in the seminar "Music Psychology" in 5th semester BA, to help you get started. The guideline is based on my experience writing papers and books that are frequently cited by international colleagues (see citation frequencies in ­Google Scholar).

The guideline is voluntary. You can write a bachelor's thesis or a master's seminar paper with me without following this guideline. In that case, I would be grateful for comments on the guideline or suggestions about other possible approaches.

Here's what to do. First, read the introductory text at this link: argument.doc. Please study it carefully and ask if anything is unclear. I always welcome questions and suggestions.

After that, go through the following list. One thing at a time!

  • Browse general literature on academic writing, e.g. good essay writing. and ten simple rules.
  • Learn the citation style corresponding to your main discipline, e.g. APA for social sciences, Chicago or MLA for humanities. For APA, use these citation guidelinessample paper, and submission checklist.
  • Optional: browse through my additional guidelines for structuring an argument (pdf, ppt, doc) and using examples.
  • Formulate your question. It should be concise and understandable without additional explanation. There should be a few different possible answers (not just "yes" or "no").
  • Find the best relevant literature. Combine different search terms. Google Scholar is the most convenient but depending on topic you may need different databases. If there is not enough good relevant literature, change your question or plan an empirical (masters?) study to address it.
  • Write a first draft of your abstract using the introductory text (argument.doc). (You can also do this later.)
  • Create a tabular argument (form) and discuss or present it in class. If you are writing a BA-Arbeit or MA-Seminararbeit, include this filled-in table as an appendix and make sure the main text corresponds to the appendix.
  • Ask for feedback and learn how to independently revise your materials. Do so repeatedly as your argument develops. Be creative! 
  • If necessary, challenge accepted dogma. Courage is part of critical thinking.
  • Watch out for logical fallacies in relevant arguments (your, mine, others').
  • Set a date for your talk (ppt). Present your research in a way that motivates your audience to discuss. Consider their suggestions, remarks and questions when writing the paper.
  • Base your text on the tabular argument, but avoid using the terms in the left column in the text ("main topic", "main thesis", etc.) (doc). It should read like a regular academic text. 
  • Imitate the writing style of your main cited literature. Every sentence should be as true and informative as possible. Avoid exaggerations or clichés. An exception to this rule is the presentation of examples at the start. They should be vivid and help your audience to quickly understand the main problem.
  • Avoid long summaries of literature sources. Your paper should not read like a series of summaries. It is your argument, not someone else's! Refer to the literature only to support your argument. If you want to summarize a given article, chapter or book, limit yourself to half a page.
  • Avoid plagiarism, the theft of intellectual property. There are two main kinds: copying wording (Formulierungen) and stealing ideas. Regarding wording, it's best to completely avoid copying and pasting. I can think of three exceptions: direct quotations that will appear as such in your work with author, date and page number ("(Smith, 1997, p. 98)"); entries for your reference list; and words with strange spelling, to avoid mistakes (e.g. the name "Csikszentmihalyi"). If you want to say something that many people agree upon, say it in your own words. Regarding ideas, don't present somebody else's idea as if it were your own; instead, cite the source. To decide what is plagiarism and what is not, imagine that you are the author of the material you are using, and ask yourself how they would feel about your text if they read it. Before submitting your essay, enter it to a free online plagiarism checker.
  • Revise your abstract to match your revised table, and revise your table to match the main text. Everything in the abstract should be expanded upon in the table, and everything in the table should be expanded upon in the main text.
  • Avoid problems encountered by other students (ppt).

Incidentally, it is a good idea to write your thesis in English, even if you could more easily write in another language:

  • Writing a thesis is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve your English with expert guidance.
  • If you put your thesis in the internet, probably 10x more people will read it (or at least the abstract) if it is in English.
  • Getting started with English now makes it easier to write in English later. Take the plunge!
  • Having written your thesis in English, you will find it easier to give an effective conference presentations in English.
  • Writing a thesis in English will impress most of your target future employees, regardless of where you work later on.
Univ.-Prof. Dr.phil.

Richard Parncutt

Univ.-Prof. Dr.phil. Richard Parncutt Centre for Systematic Musicology

Merangasse 70
8010 Graz, Austria

Telefon:+43 316 380 - 8161

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