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Department of Politics, Birkbeck, University of London

Guidelines for MSc and MRes Dissertations

What is a dissertation?
The dissertation counts for one-third of the entire degree i.e. 60 credits. It is a long
written piece of research with a minimum length of 12,000 words and a maximum
length of 15,000 words including all footnotes, references and appendices. The aim of
the dissertation is to enable students to advance their knowledge of the field covered
by their degree programme by pursuing an independent research project on a chosen
topic within the field. Students completing the dissertation will have examined a
subject in substantial depth, shown evidence of an ability to undertake sustained
critical analysis, developed and improved their research skills, and produced a long
piece of written work that demonstrates understanding of their area of study.

Who writes a dissertation?

The submission of a dissertation is a requirement for completion of all the MSc and
MRes programmes in the Department of Politics. Students taking the MSc in
Government, Policy and Politics can either do a dissertation or submit a research
portfolio instead. Guidelines about the research proposal are available from the
Programme Director for the MSc in Government, Policy and Politics upon request.

The dissertation proposal

The topic for your dissertation, which must be relevant to your degree programme,
must be approved in advance by your Programme Director. To have your topic
approved you must completed a dissertation proposal form (see annex of this
document) and upload to to the dissertation Moodle base for your programme
( You should then await confirmation from your Programme
Director concerning the approval of this topic. The deadline for submitting the
dissertation and ethics proposal forms varies from programme to programme. Your
Programme Director will be in touch to confirm the deadline but it is expected that
all dissertation and ethics proposal forms should be submitted by the end of the
spring term at the very latest.

Ethics proposal form

All research that is carried out by Birkbeck students that involves intervention or
interaction with human participants, or the collection and / or study of data derived
from living human participants (e.g. conducting research interviews), requires ethical
approval. Please see the annex to the document for the ethical approval form.

For further details on the College’s policy on research ethics, please see:

Submitting your dissertation

All dissertations must be submitted on the 15 September of the year in which they
are to be examined (if 15 September is a Saturday or Sunday, then they are due on the
preceding Friday). Please submit one hard copy to the Department of Politics
office (10 Gower Street, London WC1E 6DP) by 5pm on the day of the deadline and
and upload your dissertation electronically to the dissertation Moodle base for your
programme. This should appear as one of your modules when you log into
If you cannot access Moodle or your dissertation module does not appear, please send
your dissertation by email to

The length of the dissertation should be 12,000-15,000 words inclusive of appendices

and bibliography. A dissertation which exceeds this word count by more than 10%
may be penalised by the examiners. The dissertation must be electronically typed,
printed and wire spiral bounded upon submission. The font must be of any legible
font type, size 12 and 1.5 line spacing. The dissertation should include a completed
cover sheet (see annex).

The role of the dissertation supervisor

The dissertation is intended to provide an opportunity for students to pursue a
research project independently. Students are, therefore, entirely responsible for the
work for their dissertation. The role of the supervisor is to offer advice and guidance,
not to direct the research. Your supervisor will help you to identify a topic, to draw up
a suitable preliminary bibliography and to plan the primary and secondary research
you will need to do for the dissertation. He/she will be available to advise you on
approach, coverage, questions to be asked and the outline structure and research

You should have up to three meetings with your supervisor. It is up to you to contact
your supervisor for meetings and you should make sure that you do so in good time.
Please note that the supervisor is under no obligation to meet you during the summer
term, which runs from July to October so it is advisable that all supervision meetings
take place before then. Nor is the supervisor required to find you a suitable topic for
the dissertation, read preliminary drafts of your work, offer you guidance or assistance
after the end of the summer term or proof read your final draft.

Additional Support
In workshop week, which is held in both the autumn and spring terms, lectures and
seminars for specific modules are replaced by general study skills sessions and other
events. A departmental dissertation workshop is held in the autumn workshop week to
provide general guidance on writing a dissertation in the field of politics. A
programme-specific workshops that offers guidance on conducting research related to
your degree programme is held in either the autumn or spring workshop week. The
Departmental Office will provide you with details of these events in due course.

Birkbeck’s Centre for Transformative Practice in Learning and Teaching also offers a
range of academic development workshops for students. Some courses are initially
only available to first year undergraduates, but other students can join a standby list.
All workshops are free of charge unless stated otherwise. Topics covered in these
modules include:

Reading skills
Note taking
Time Management
Essay writing
Academic English

For more details, please see:

Assessment Criteria
The dissertation is assessed according to the following criteria, with credit given to
the extent that:

 the research question is well-defined, and contextualised;

 an argument is specified, coherently presented and supported by evidence;
 alternative arguments are analysed;
 the approach is critical, not descriptive;
 a relevant methodology is employed;
 relevant sources have been consulted;
 knowledge of relevant literature, issues and debates is demonstrated; and
 the style and presentation is clear and careful, and appropriate academic
conventions have been observed.

Marking Schema
The pass mark for the dissertation is 50. Dissertations written for courses or during
examinations are marked according to the schema:

0-29: A totally inadequate dissertation, which does not specify a research question,
fails to present an argument, is largely descriptive, shows little or no knowledge of
the topic, or its intellectual context, does not refer adequately to the relevant
literature, fails to follow an appropriate methodology, and is shoddily presented

30-39: An inadequate dissertation, which fails to identify a research question

adequately, does not present a clear argument, includes some relevant material,
but does not evidence of sufficient reading and is overly descriptive

40-49: A poor dissertation, which identifies a research question, states an

argument, shows some knowledge of the literature and addresses the question, but
does not sustain the argument, is overly descriptive, and lacks originality,
sufficient knowledge of the relevant literature, issues and debates, and

50-59: A satisfactory dissertation, which defines a research question adequately,

makes an argument, shows an awareness of the major issues, shows some
knowledge of the sources and of alternative approaches to the subject, but does
not adequately develop or sustain the argument, does not show a clear
understanding of alternative arguments, and makes uncritical use of sources.

60-69: A good dissertation, which offers a precise specification of the research

question, presents a clear and coherent argument that is well-substantiated by
evidence, treats the issues in a critical and balanced way, shows an awareness of
context, sources and different explanations, and achieves a high standard of

70-79: A dissertation of distinction quality, which addresses a well-defined
research question, displays exceptional knowledge of the literature and/or a
substantial measure of originality, and achieves a high standard of presentation.

80-100: A dissertation of distinction quality, which is outstanding in virtually all

areas of a calibre far beyond what would be expected at this level. Contains
substantial evidence of original and independent thought.

The dissertation must be your own work. Plagiarism - the presentation of another
person's thoughts or words as one's own - in the dissertation constitutes grounds for
failing the dissertation; more serious sanctions may be also applied if circumstances
warrant them. Please read the plagiarism guidelines in the annex to this document to
ensure that you understand the concept of plagiarism and why it should be avoided.

Deferring your dissertation

Students who wish to defer their dissertation must inform their Programme Director
before the dissertation is due. Students who do so without claiming mitigating
circumstances that are then accepted by their Programme Director will be given one
additional attempt to pass. Students who claim mitigating circumstances that are
approved by their Programme Director will be offered two remaining chances to pass
the dissertation. Deferred dissertations can be submitted by 15 May (or the Friday
before if 15 May is a Saturday or Sunday) or September 15 (or the Friday before if 15
September is a Saturday or Sunday) in the year following deferral.

For further details on mitigating circumstances, please see:


1. Dissertation Proposal Form

2. Ethics Proposal Form
3. Dissertation Cover Sheet
4. Some tips on writing a postgraduate dissertation
5. Birkbeck plagiarism guidelines

Department of Politics


Please copy and paste this form into a new document, complete it, and upload it to the Moodle site for
your dissertation, which you can find at


E-mail address:

MSc or MRes programme:

Full-time or part-time?

Title of proposed dissertation

Description of subject area

What scholarly literature will you be examining?

What primary research material might you use?

Have you identified or spoken with a potential supervisor? If so, who?



 The purpose of this form is to make sure that you as a researcher, your
research participants and the College are safeguarded.
 Please think carefully about each of the questions and give as much
information as possible about what your research with human participants,
sensitive topics, sensitive materials or human remains will involve.
 If you are a student then your form should be sent for consideration to your
supervisor in the first instance.
 Students should be aware that the submission process may vary by
Department, please refer to your own Department for how to submit your
 If you are a member of academic staff your completed form should be
submitted directly to the department ethics officer (listed on the website).
 Once approval has been received, the supervisor or staff investigator is
responsible for ensuring a copy of form is logged with your department office.
 No research with participants may begin before ethics approval has been
 Please refer to the additional guidance on ethical research provided by your
department, the school and the college.

A: Your details

1. Name of investigator:

2. Academic Status (e.g. staff, PhD student, postgraduate, undergraduate):

3. Department:

4. Programme of study (if you are a student):

5. Name and department of supervisor:

6. Contact email:

B: Your project

1. Title of your study:

2. Main research question (brief abstract of your study):

3. Research schedule

 Date of ethics application:

 Date project started or is due to start:

 Proposed starting date of data collection:

 Date by which research must be completed:

4. Other organisations

 Are you applying to an external body for funding?

 Are you involving an external body (e.g. a school, charity or company) in your
data collection or for access to participants?

 If yes, does that external body have their own ethics approval process?

 If yes, please give details of committee, stage of process/decision:

 If no, does that external body require institutional certification of ethics

approval from Birkbeck?

 If you are a member of academic staff applying for external funding (e.g. from
the AHRC, ESRC, etc.) are you seeking approval for:
-Outline proposal YES/NO
-Full proposal YES/NO
-Modification to your previously approved project YES/NO
If this is an application for approving a modification, please provide the title
and date of your initial application.

C. Methodology

1. Your participants:

 Who are they?

 How many?

 How will they be selected?

 Are there any inclusion/exclusion criteria?

2. If you are using live participants, does your research involve:

 Unpleasant or emotionally difficult stimuli? YES/NO

 Unpleasant or emotionally difficult situations? YES/NO
 Invasive procedures? YES/NO
 Deprivation or restriction of basic needs (e.g., food, water, sleep)? YES/NO
 Unpleasant or emotionally difficult situations? YES/NO
 Drug administration? YES/NO

 Any procedure which could cause harm to the participant? YES/NO
 Any participants whose physical/mental health could be put at risk? YES/NO
 Actively misleading or deceiving the participants? YES/NO
 Withholding information about the nature or outcome of the study? YES/NO
 Any inducement or payment to take part in the study? YES/NO
 Any procedure that might inadvertently cause distress? YES/NO

If you answered YES to any of these questions please details the steps you will take
to additionally safeguard your participants:

3. Where will your investigation take place? Provide details of the setting for your
interaction with participants:

4. How will you collect your data (e.g. experiments, questionnaires, interviews,
group discussion)?

5. Are you using any forms, questionnaires, interview schedules or other materials
to gather your data? If yes, please provide copies.

6. Briefly describe what participating in your study will involve:

D. Informed consent

1. How will you explain to participants what will be involved in taking part in your

Information sheet distributed to each participant YES/NO

Information sheet displayed on screen for all participants YES/NO

Information included in header of questionnaire YES/NO

Other (please provide details):

2. Do your participants include minors (under the age of 16 years) YES/NO

Please indicate which age groups will be involved:

0-4 years (Requires consent from parent or guardian.)
5-12 years (Requires formal consent from parent/guardian, informal consent
from child.)
13-16 years (Requires dual but independent formal consent needed from
parent/guardian and from the young person)

If you are diverging from this practice of consent for minors please provide your
rationale and the steps you will take to gain consent.

3. Do your participants include vulnerable individuals or those with limited legal
capacity? YES/NO

If YES, please provide details of who else will give informed consent:

4. Will this study be conducted in a school or other institution where the

researcher has a duty of care? YES/NO

If YES, please provide details of opt in/opt out consent from parents or

4. Are you using the Birkbeck template information and informed consent forms?

If NO, please provide details of how you will gain informed consent.

Please provide the information sheet and consent forms you plan to use.

E. Confidentiality

Are you seeking to ensure the confidentiality/anonymity of your participants?

If NO, provide details of what steps will be taken to ensure that participants
understand and agree that their participation will not be kept confidential and the
reasons why?

If YES, provide details of how will you ensure the confidentiality/anonymity of your

 During data collection and analysis?

 In the dissemination of your research (e.g. in essay, theses, talks,

websites or research publications)

F. Storage and Dissemination of Data

1. How will your data be stored, transferred, transcribed?

2. How will your data be saved, shared and disseminated after the project is

G. Risk

1. Risk to the Research Participant/Materials

Does your research involve: (If YES, please provided details)

 Live participants? YES/NO

 Sensitive topics? YES/NO

 Sensitive materials (e.g. diaries, letters, confidential papers)? YES/NO

 Human remains? YES/NO

 Wider community? YES/NO

If your research involves minors or vulnerable individuals have you had the
necessary criminal background check required?

2. Risk to the Researcher

(If YES, please provided details)

Is the research environment potentially dangerous? YES/NO

Will the investigation involve illegal activity

or the discussion of illegal activity? YES/NO

If you are involving live participants, will you be alone with them? YES/NO

3. Risk to the College

(If YES, please provide details)

Might the research raise media/social/legal concern in the public domain? YES/NO

Could this potentially compromise the reputation of the college? YES/NO

Do you envisage needing help or advice in managing legal

or media attention? YES/NO

H. If you feel the proposed investigation raises other ethical issues please
outline them here.


 I have answered the above questions as fully and honestly as possible.


 I agree to inform my supervisor/departmental ethics officer if there is any

change to the research project detailed here and if my supervisor deems
necessary will seek additional ethical approval.

 I agree to carry out the study in an ethically informed way and to ensure that
participants, researcher(s) and the college are safeguarded.

 I agree to carry out the study in line with current Freedom of Information and
Data Protection practices, including storing and transferring data securely.

 I confirm that the research conforms to expectations of ethical research in my


SIGNATURE of researcher: Date:


For completion by the supervisor/mentor:

It is the supervisor/mentor’s responsibility to ensure that once this application has

been approved it is kept on file in your departmental repository and available for

If you determine that this application does not raise any additional or novel ethical
issues and is deemed to be ‘routine’ you must answer YES to the following

If the answer to any of these questions is NO, or you have any concerns about the
ethics of the proposal, please send this application to your department’s ethics
officer to be handled as ‘non-routine’.

 I have read the application and/or discussed its ethical implications with the
student and confirm that in my view all ethical issues have been addressed:

 I consider the application to be ‘routine’ because it does not raise ethical issues
beyond those of a study which has already received school ethics approval:

If NO please provide details of the ethical concerns briefly here:

SIGNATURE of supervisor: Date:

If you have signed the application off as ‘routine’ please send this form to your
departmental ethics officer to confirm approval and send to the departmental

If you have signed the application as ‘non-routine’ please send this form to your
department ethics officer for further consideration.

For completion by departmental ethics officers:

1. I consider this application: routine / non-routine.

2. While the nature of the application is 'non-routine', I have worked with the
applicant and/or supervisor to address ethical implications and confirm that in my
view the ethical implications have been addressed, and I hereby grant approval for
the project to commence. YES/ NO

If you have replied NO, please provide details of the ethical concerns briefly here:

SIGNATURE of the departmental ethics officer: Date:

If you consider the application ‘routine’ or have replied ‘YES’ to question 2 above
please return this form to the investigator/supervisor who will inform the student that
the project may commence and send this form to your departmental repository.

If you have replied ‘NO’ please indicate an appropriate reviewer external to your
department (but within the college) who may be more cognisant of specific
disciplinary issues in regard to ethics and send this form to the school ethics
committee at

Name of External Reviewer:


Have they already agreed to serve as an external reviewer? YES/NO

Have you already contacted them regarding this application? YES/NO

SIGNATURE of departmental ethics officer: Date:


For completion by the departmental ethics officer:

1. I consider the application: routine / non-routine

2. If ‘non-routine’:
Please provide details of the ethical concerns briefly here:

Staff proposals for ethics review should be considered by the DREO. If the DREO
considers the proposal to be routine then they can sign the form to indicate this and
the research can begin. The exception is ESRC funded research which must be
reviewed by the SSHP Ethics Committee and cannot be signed off by the DREO. All
non-routine proposals must be referred to SSHP Ethics Committee by the DREO.

Name of External Reviewer:


Have they already agreed to serve as an external reviewer? YES/NO

Have you already contacted them regarding this application? YES/NO

SIGNATURE of departmental ethics officer: Date:

For completion by the EXTERNAL REVIEWER

Has the investigator/supervisor addressed all ethical concerns satisfactorily?


If NO, please detail the ethical concerns that need to be address and return
this form to the investigator/supervisor for their consideration.

If YES, please sign below to indicate that this project now has ethical approval
to commence. Send this approved form to the school ethics committee at who will inform the departmental ethics officer and
investigator/supervisor that the project may commence. This form will be sent
by the investigator/supervisor to their departmental repository.

If you consider the application ‘routine’ or have replied ‘YES’ to question 2 above
please return this form to the investigator/supervisor who will inform the student that
the project may commence and send it to their departmental repository.

SIGNATURE of External reviewer: Date:

Template information sheet and consent form
** This should be completed/modified to fit your own study**

Sample information sheet

Department of ..............
University of London
Malet Street,
London WC1E 7HX
020 7631 6000

Title of Study:
Name of researcher:

The study is being done as part of my ....... degree in the Department

of ............, Birkbeck, University of London. The study has received ethical

This study wants to explore ...................

If you agree to participate you will agree a convenient time and place for me
to interview you for about an hour. You are free to stop the interview and
withdraw at any time.

Your data will kept be anonymous by …….. and will be stored ………..

The analysis of you participation in this study will be written up in a report of

the study for my degree. You will not be identifiable in the write up or any
publication which might ensue.

The study is supervised by _________________ who may be contacted at

the above address and telephone number.

Sample consent form
** This should be completed/modified to fit your own study**

(Remove this section if you are conducting a postal or online questionnaire

which doesn’t need consent form.)

Title of Study:

Name of researcher

I have been informed about the nature of this study and willingly consent to
take part in it.

I understand that the content of the interview will be kept confidential.

I understand that I may withdraw from the study at any time.

I am over 16 years of age.




There should be two signed copies, one for participant, one for


Ethical approval for all research. Ethical approval is required for all research
which involves human participants. This includes research where there is no
face-to-face interaction between researcher and participants (e.g., postal
questionnaires, telephone interviews, and internet surveys).

Protection of participants. All researchers are obliged to protect the physical,

social and psychological wellbeing of their participants, to preserve their
dignity and rights, and to safeguard their anonymity and confidentiality.

Informed consent. Article 17 of the Protocol to the Convention on Human

Rights in Biomedicine or Biomedical Research states: ‘No research on a
person may be carried out without the informed, free, express, specific and
documented consent of the person’. This places a legal obligation on
researchers to obtain and record consent from participants or their guardians,
on the basis of information that should be given to them before their
participation begins.

No coercion. There should be no coercion in the recruitment of participants.

The right to withdraw. There is an obligation on participants to participate in

research for which they have volunteered. Nevertheless, participants must be
given the right to withdraw from any given research, at any time without
penalty and without providing reason. Participants can also require that their
data be withdrawn from the study.

Anonymity and confidentiality. Participants must be assured that all

information they give will be treated with the utmost confidentiality and that
their anonymity will be respected at all times unless otherwise determined by
law (for example, in the case of records maintained by the Prison Service).
Where relevant, participants should be told about where information about
them will be stored, who will have access to it, and what use will be made of
it. Procedures for data storage must conform to the Data Protection Act.
Express permission must be obtained for any non-confidential use of
participant information. Express permission must also be obtained for access
to specified information from confidential records, e.g. medical notes, or
educational attainment records. Where relevant, any limitations to
confidentiality (for example obligations under law, or where there may be a
threat to self or others) must be explained.

Appropriate exclusion criteria. Recruitment of participants for a given study

should apply exclusion criteria that protect the health and well being of
participants (for example, exclusion on the grounds of psychological
vulnerability or a pre-existing medical condition).

Monitoring. Researchers are obliged to monitor ongoing research for adverse

effects on participants and to stop the research if there is cause for concern
about their well-being.

Duty of care. There is a duty of care on researchers to ameliorate any

adverse effects of their research on participants (either personally or by

referral to an appropriately qualified person). As a general rule, researchers
should debrief participants at the end of the research either verbally or in

Additional safeguards for research with vulnerable populations. Special

safeguards need to be in place for research with vulnerable populations.
Vulnerable populations include schoolchildren, people with learning or
communication difficulties, patients in hospital or people under the care of
social services, people in custody or on probation, and people engaged in
illegal activities, such as drug abuse.
For example, research with vulnerable populations may require Criminal
Records Bureau clearance; research with schoolchildren also requires that
parents or guardians be informed about the nature of the study and the option
to withdraw their child from the study if they so wish.

Appropriate supervision. Student investigators must be under the supervision

of a member of Academic Staff. It is the supervisor’s responsibility to ensure
that the student is aware of relevant Guidelines and of the need to observe

How to obtain informed consent: In order that consent be ‘informed’,

consent forms may need to be accompanied by an information sheet for
participants setting out information about the proposed study (in clear and
simple terms) along with details about the investigators and how they can be
contacted. If applicable, this sheet may also make reference to any screening
procedures, the confidentiality of the data, any risks involved, and any other
points which participants might reasonably expect to know in order to make
an informed decision about whether they wish to participate, and which are
not included on the informed consent form.

A checklist of points on the informed consent form that participants are

expected to sign might typically include: (a) That their participation is
voluntary, (b) That they are aware of what their participation involves, (c) That
they are aware of any potential risks (if there are any), (d) That all their
questions concerning the study have been satisfactorily answered.
Documented consent may be signed or initialled (if participants wish to
maintain anonymity). In situations where information about the research and
participant consent is conveyed verbally, it is recommended that the
information be recorded on and read from or cued by a written information
sheet; verbal consent should also be taped in order to provide a record.

Added safeguards may be required to obtain informed consent with

vulnerable populations. For example, research with children in schools cannot
take place without the permission of the head teacher and teacher
responsible for the children. Where they are competent to give it, informed
consent should also be obtained from the children themselves. In addition,
parents or guardians should be given all relevant details of the study (in a
letter) along with an opportunity to withdraw their child from the study if they
so wish (passive consent). If the school requires it, parents may also be
required to return signed consent forms (active consent).

This document is modified from the guidelines for minimum standards of
ethical approval in psychological research, British Psychological Society

Further detailed recommendations regarding ethical considerations can be

found in the Statement of ethical practice for the British Sociological

Department of Politics



Student Number:

Programme of Study:


Title of Dissertation:

Word Count (including all footnotes, references and appendices):

Disability and dyslexia support: Do you have an Individual Student Support Agreement with the Birkbeck
Disability Office that is relevant to this coursework? Yes or No (Please delete as appropriate)
Plagiarism statement: Coursework is monitored for plagiarism and if detected may result in disciplinary
action. In submitting this coursework, I hereby confirm that I have read Birkbeck's plagiarism guidelines and
taken the online tutorial on avoiding plagiarism and on this basis declare that this coursework is free from
Plagiarism guidelines:
Plagiarism tutorial:

Dissemination: I agree to this coursework being made available anonymously to future students in the
Department of Politics. Yes or No (Please delete as appropriate).

Some Tips on Writing a Postgraduate Dissertation
A dissertation should address a well-defined research question, specified at the outset.
It should present a logically developed argument, the claims of which are supported
by evidence where necessary.

Dissertations typically follow one of four methods:

 a case study is used to assess, explore, validate or critically examine an

argument, theory or theoretical perspective advanced in the literature;
 a comparative study is undertaken where a process, development or institution
is examined in two or more settings; or
 quantitative data is used to test existing arguments or to form a new
 a critical analysis of a theoretical argument or perspective is advanced that
engages closely with primary texts.

A dissertation must have an element of your own research. This can be demonstrated
by exploring previously neglected primary sources, undertaking an original theoretical
analysis or interpretation of existing literature, or using primary material to develop
your own critique of existing scholarly arguments. It is not enough simply to review
the books and articles which you have collected on the topic.

The dissertation should demonstrate not only that you can collect evidence and
consider a particular problem or topic in detail, but also that you understand how the
topic relates to the work others have done in the same field. The review of the
literature should show how the works of different authors on the topic relate to one
another and where your own work is intended to fit in, and the analysis should show
an awareness of what others who have addressed related questions have already said
(or are saying) and of the implications of their various views and positions for your
own work.

Choosing a topic
Start thinking about possible topics as early as possible. Look at relevant debates in
the literature to see how problems are framed and what arguments are made. Choose
something that interests you, since enthusiasm is an important motivating factor in
writing a good dissertation. Remember, though, that the project must be intellectually
feasible, practicable in terms of gaining access to the necessary sources and
manageable in the time available. The subject may be related to your work, but note
that the dissertation has specific academic aims and requirements which differ from
the aims and requirements of reports and studies you may be asked to prepare in the
course of your work.

Note the requirements outlined above to determine whether a topic will be suitable for
a dissertation. Consider in particular whether:
- there is a relevant academic literature which can be discussed in the literature
review and built on in developing the research;

- the topic allows for an original contribution, for example by using primary
- the research question is genuinely researchable; in other words, whether it can
be answered through systematic academic enquiry, as opposed to mere
assertion or speculation.

Relevance to the degree programme

The dissertation is submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements the MSc/MRes
degree programme on which you are enrolled. It should therefore relate to the syllabus
of one or more components of the degree, and be linked to a recognised body of
literature in whichever field the degree is taken. Students undertaking an MRes must
be able to demonstrate that they have applied concepts or used methods taught on the
modules in social research methods.

Although structure varies according to the topic and methodology chosen, a
dissertation typically consists of several parts, which should be formally indicated by
section breaks or chapters. A possible structure is as follows:

 The introduction states the objectives of the dissertation, outlines the research
question, and identifies how it is intended to meet the objectives and answer
the question. In other words, the research methodology employed is described
and its appropriateness to the topic explained.
 The topic is placed in its academic context by reviewing the relevant scholarly
literature and relating the research question to academic debates.
 Primary and secondary source material is presented, with an appropriate
account of how primary material was gathered (e.g. how an interview schedule
was developed) and how sources might be interpreted in the light of their
 An argument or interpretation is advanced in the light of the evidence.
 The conclusion presents a summary of the findings of the dissertation, relates
these to the argument outlined in the introductory chapter and states precisely
what has been demonstrated.

Each of the main sections or chapters (i.e. not including the introduction and
conclusion) should begin with a paragraph outlining its aims and content, and
conclude with a brief summary.

Presentation: Some do’s and don’ts

The same rules of clear and simple expression should be followed in writing a
dissertation as would be in writing an essay. Discussion should be broken up into
sections and sub-sections, but excessive fragmentation should be avoided. Breaking
up the text into too many very short sub-sections prevents coherent presentation and
can encourage a superficial treatment of a wide range of material rather than a
detailed and well-substantiated account of a tightly defined area. Organise the
discussion into paragraphs and avoid bullet points.

Present data with graphic illustrations (graphs, tables, charts, diagrams, flowcharts or
organigrams) where appropriate. Make sure that the text explains and discusses the
data. Do not consign important information to appendices; whereever possible,
integrate it into the text. All graphics must be clearly presented, be a reasonable size,
have relevant headings and acknowledge sources.

Remember that writing takes a long time, far longer than you may anticipate, so plan
carefully and leave plenty of time for re-drafting and a final proof-reading before the
submission deadline.

Sources and references

Research for the dissertation may involve use of a variety of primary and secondary
sources. Where relevant, students are encouraged to make use of primary material, for
example, from interviews, surveys, or the analysis of original documents. It is
necessary to adopt a clear and consistent method for recording and referring to
primary sources. It is also important to make sure that any planned fieldwork is
practicable, feasible within the time available, and ethical. Students should discuss
such issues with their supervisor.

The same rules on providing text references and bibliographic information in essays
should be followed in writing the dissertation. However, due to the greater range of
material used, more thought may need to be given as to how to ensure that references
are appropriately and consistently provided. The guidelines on referencing provided
by the Department may answer some questions; otherwise, consult your supervisor.
As with essays, there are several different referencing conventions and it does not
matter which one you adopt provided that you sources are properly cited, all the
necessary information is given and consistency is maintained. However, the 'Harvard'
system is particularly recommended, not least because it is relatively simple and 'user-

What to avoid

Most weak or failing dissertations reflect a combination of sloppiness, procrastination

and/or lack of work. However, even candidates who work hard sometimes produce
relatively weak dissertations, because they have fallen into one or more of the 'traps'
described below. These are the most common complaints examiners cite when
criticising dissertations that show real ability and application but nonetheless fall short
in some way. While none of these is fatal, all are worth avoiding, as they can seriously
detract from the quality of the dissertation:

 Excessive description. The dissertation should offer an analytical treatment of

the subject under investigation. This is probably the most common weakness
cited by examiners.
 Poor definition of the question. One of the biggest differences between a
dissertation and an essay or exam is that it is up to you to define the research
question you wish to answer. Often, this is the most difficult task of all. It is
also one of the most important. A fuzzy question often results in a weak
overall structure, since the structure of the dissertation should be designed so
that each section contributes to the argument you are making in response to the
 Poor integration of theoretical and empirical material. This is probably the
second most common weakness. Many dissertations contain theoretical
discussions that are meant to inform the analysis of the material under study
but that are never rigorously and clearly applied to it. All too often, the
theoretical section simply stands isolated from the rest of the text - a summary
of some political science theory that is never referred to again in the

dissertation. Its inclusion reflects an awareness that it is somehow relevant but
it is never brought to bear on the case or cases under discussion.
 Poor contextualisation. The dissertation should demonstrate that you
understand how the topic relates to the work others have done in the same
field. The review of the literature should identify relevant debates and outline
the positions of the main participants in order to situate the topic of your
dissertation and the argument that you present. Do not make an argument in a
 Uncritical use of sources. It is important to subject sources to critical
scrutiny. A wide range of sources may be used in a dissertation, but students
should demonstrate an understanding of whether a source should be treated as
authoritative and of the need to cross-check and ‘triangulate’ important
empirical claims. Academic sources should also be interrogated for logical
argument, internal coherence and strength of evidence.

Typographic spelling and other technical errors should be avoided by leaving

sufficient time for proof-reading the final draft. Particular care should be taken with
figures, statistics, diagrams and tables, ensuring that the information presented is
clear, that headings and captions are fully self-explanatory, and that sources are
correctly attributed.

Birkbeck Plagiarism Guidelines

Written by Birkbeck Registry and adapted for TSMB by Nicholas Keep

What is plagiarism?
Plagiarism is the most common form of examination offence encountered in
universities, partly because of the emphasis now placed on work prepared by
candidates unsupervised in their own time, but also because many students fall into it
unintentionally, through ignorance of what constitutes plagiarism. Even if
unintentional, it will still be considered an examination offence.

This document, developed as guidelines to departments by Birkbeck Registry, is

intended to explain clearly what plagiarism is, and how you can avoid it.
Acknowledgement is made to guidance issued by the USA Modern Language
Association (MLA, 1998).

Plagiarism is the publication of borrowed thoughts as original, or in other words,

passing off someone else’s work as your own. In any form, plagiarism is unacceptable
in the Department, as it interferes with the proper assessment of students’ academic
ability. Plagiarism has been defined as “the false assumption of authorship: the
wrongful act of taking the product of another person’s mind, and presenting it as one’s
own” (Lindey, 1952, p2). Therefore, using another person’s ideas or expressions or
data in your writing without acknowledging the source is to plagiarise.

Borrowing others’ words, ideas or data without acknowledgement. It is acceptable, in

your work, to use the words and thoughts of another person or data that another
person has gathered but the borrowed material must not appear to be your creation.
This includes essays, practical and research reports written by other students including
those from previous years, whether you have their permission or not. It also applies to
both ‘hard-copy’ material and electronic material, such as Internet documents.
Examples include copying someone else’s form of words, or paraphrasing another’s
argument, presenting someone else’s data or line of thinking. This form of plagiarism
may often be unintentional, caused by making notes from sources such as books or
journals without also noting the source, and then repeating those notes in an essay
without acknowledging that they are the data, words or ideas belonging to someone
else. Guard against this by keeping careful notes that distinguish between your own
ideas and researched material and those you obtained from others. Then acknowledge
the source.

Example 1

Original source:

To work as part of a team, to be able and prepared to continue to learn throughout

one’s career, and, most important, to take on board both care for the individual and the
community, are essential aspects of a doctor’s role today.

Greengross, Sally (1997), “What Patients want from their Doctors”, Choosing
Tomorrow’s Doctors, ed. Allen I, Brown PJ, Hughes P, Policy Studies Institute,


The essential aspects of a doctor’s role today are to work as part of a team, be able
and prepared to continue to learn throughout one’s career, and, most importantly, to
take on board both care for the individual and the community.


One social writer believes that the essential aspects of a doctor’s role today are to
work as part of a team, be able and prepared to continue to learn throughout one’s
career, and, most importantly, to take on board both care for the individual and the
community (Greengross, 1997).

Example 2

Original source:

The binary shape of British higher education, until 1992, suggested a simple and
misleading, dichotomy of institutions. […] Within their respective classes, universities
and polytechnics were imagined to be essentially homogeneous. Their actual diversity
was disguised. [….] The abandonment of the binary system, whether or not it
encourages future convergence, highlights the pluralism which already exists in
British Higher Education.

Scott, Peter (1995), The Meanings of Mass Higher Education, SRHE and Open
University Press, Buckingham, p43.


Prior to the removal of the binary divide between polytechnics and universities in
1992, there was a misleading appearance of homogeneity in each sector. Now there is
only one sector, the diversity of institutions is more apparent, even if convergence
may be where we’re heading.


Peter Scott has argued that prior to the removal of the binary divide between
polytechnics and universities in 1992, there was a misleading appearance of
homogeneity in each sector. Now there is only one sector, the diversity of institutions
is more apparent, even if convergence may be where we’re heading. (Scott, 1994)

In each revision, the inclusion of the author’s name acknowledges whose ideas these
originally were (not the student’s) and the reference refers the reader to the full
location of the work when combined with a footnote or bibliography. Note that in the
second example, the argument was paraphrased – but even so, this is plagiarism of the
idea without acknowledgement of whose idea this really is. In writing any work,
therefore (whether for assessment or not) you should document everything that you
borrow – not only direct quotations and paraphrases but also information and ideas.
There are, of course, some common-sense exceptions to this, such as familiar
proverbs, well-known quotations or common knowledge. But you must indicate the

source of any appropriated material that readers might otherwise mistake for your
own. If in doubt, cite your source or sources.

Copying material verbatim

Another example of plagiarism is the verbatim copying of chunks of material from
another source without acknowledgement even where they are accepted facts, because
you are still borrowing the phrasing and the order and the idea that this is a correct
and complete list. Also, you might be infringing copyright (see below). For example if
you wrote based on example 2 above ‘The binary shape of British higher education,
until 1992, suggested a simple and misleading, dichotomy of institutions. (Scott,
1995)’ then this still could be regarded as plagiarism as you used his exact words. It is
important to rephrase the ideas in your own words, to show that you understand them
while still acknowledging the source.

Re-submission of work
Another form of plagiarism is submitting work you previously submitted before for
another assignment. While this is obviously not the same as representing someone
else’s ideas as your own, it is a form of self-plagiarism and is another form of
cheating. If you want to re-work a paper for an assignment, ask your lecture whether
this is acceptable, and acknowledge your re-working in a preface.

Collaboration and collusion

In collaborative work (if this is permitted by the lecturer) joint participation in
research and writing does not constitute plagiarism in itself, provided that credit is
given for all contributions. One way would be to state in a preface who did what;
another, if roles and contributions were merged and truly shared, would be to
acknowledge all concerned equally. However, where collaborative projects are
allowed, it is usually a requirement that each individual’s contribution and work is
distinguishable, so check with your lecturer. Usually, collusion with another candidate
on assessed work (such as sharing chunks of writing or copying bits from each other)
is not allowed.

Copyright infringement
Finally, you must guard against copyright infringement. Even if you acknowledge the
source, reproducing a significant portion of any document (including material on the
Internet) without permission is a breach of copyright, and a legal offence. You may
summarise, paraphrase and make brief quotations (as I have done from my sources),
but more than this risks infringing copyright.


Modern Language Association (1998) Guide for Writers of Research Papers (4th
edition), MLA, New York

Lindey, A. (1952) Plagiarism and Originality. Harper, New York.