Just How Precise do Researchers Need to Be?

I remember once submitting an undergraduate ethics essay that I was really proud of. I had researched it thoroughly. I had expressed my ideas (I thought) elegantly. It was tightly structured, logical, and persuasive. But when it came back marked, there was one comment on it that made me want to tear my hair out.

“Most people would agree that murder is wrong,” I had written. It was a casual introductory statement, intended to open a discussion of the possibility and problems of broad consensus on ethical issues. It wasn’t the crux of my argument. But in red pen on the side of the page, my tutor had written: Really? Can you cite a study showing that at least 50.01% of people agree that murder is wrong?

I’m glad I had waited until after class to read my essay feedback. If I’d read that comment in the presence of my tutor, I would have thrown the papers down and yelled “OH, FOR THE LOVE OF…” and then it would have gotten unrepeatable and possibly violent.

No, I couldn’t point to a study showing that at least 50.01% of people agree that murder is wrong. But some things are just true! Surely I didn’t have to be that precise about such a fundamentally obvious and uncontroversial statement?!


Except that this is academia, and precision is critical. What I had written was not a statement; it was an assumption. I assumed that most people would disapprove of murder, and I still hope I was right about that. But I couldn’t be sure that my own experience of living in a generally peaceful society wasn’t colouring my view.

If researchers were allowed to extrapolate based on their own experience of the world – even if they were certain they were right – then the record of knowledge, as represented by academic writing, would be wildly variable. A researcher in Borneo might consider it to be uncontroversially true that the ground underfoot has a rich, soft texture and brown colour; but to a researcher from outback Australia, it would be equally true that the ground is a dusty red. Both are true; but neither truth can be safely applied to the earth as a whole.

Precision in academic writing is about having evidence, being aware of the context to which that evidence applies, and knowing the limitations of that evidence. If I had cited a study showing that at least 50.01% of people agree that murder is wrong, I still would have needed to know: what was the sample size for that study? What was the margin of error? What was the demography of the study’s participants? Were they pressured or incentivised to give certain responses on the topic of murder? Could my claim that most people think murder is wrong really stand up to close scrutiny?

This constant anticipation of scrutiny can be incredibly frustrating. The need for precision stops us from being able to make those big, juicy, exciting claims that we want to make. Instead, it forces us to make small, cautious, tightly constrained claims. But that’s what research is: a mass of small claims, which together form a bulk lot of knowledge.

I always thought that research at a higher level would make bigger, bolder, and more sweeping claims. But I’ve found that the reverse is true. Typically, the further you get into postgrad research, the smaller your claims become. My undergrad essays contained huge claims; whereas my doctoral thesis contains lots of tiny ones. They may be limited, and they may be unglamorous – but I can defend them.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

2 thoughts on “Just How Precise do Researchers Need to Be?

  1. “Typically, the further you get into postgrad research, the smaller your claims become.”, it is so true! Because one of the achievement of doing a PG study is getting critical in thinking and writing. In my idea after a while this behavior sneaks into the everyday life as well rather than just academia. That means it is not easy to accept claims without evidence.

    1. That’s so true Shabnam, I think one of the best outcomes of postgrad study is how it trains you to interpret, question, and analyse other people’s research.

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