This post by Dr Anaise Irvine first appeared on Thesislink in June 2018.
Have you ever read a scholarly article or book and thought: what utter rot!
If so: good.
As brand new undergrads, we are taught to think of scholarly materials as sources, as if they are the places where knowledge originates. We are taught to use them, quote them, learn from them.
As we progress, we are encouraged to think critically; to question, examine, and scrutinise our sources. Often, this means being skeptical of where information comes from (academic journals being traditionally ‘good’ sources; Wikipedia ‘bad’, and so on).
But as we become independent scholars in our own right, we need to be able to form opinions about what is acceptable or contestable in others’ work based on the content, not just the source. That means applying our subjective judgement to say: yes, I agree with this, or no, I have other ideas.
Sometimes, you might spot a weakness in another scholar’s methods that makes you question their results. Other times, you might disagree with someone’s work on ideological or philosophical grounds. Whatever the case, it is completely normal, productive, and expected for scholars to disagree with each other. If we all lived in a state of permanent consensus, there would be no debate; and it would be difficult to generate new ideas.
However, when you’re a student, it can be intimidating to disagree with a scholarly text. Often, the author of the text will be someone senior, with influence in the field. You might feel awkward about potentially offending them, especially if that could impact upon your career options. Plus, there’s always that worst-case-scenario fear: what if the author you’re critiquing ends up as your examiner?*
Ultimately, as independent thinkers, we all have the right to critique each others’ work. However, if you’re worried, there are some techniques you can use to express your disagreement diplomatically.
Keep it about the work, not the author
A scholarly disagreement doesn’t have to be personal. You can respectfully express reservations about someone’s work by focusing on specific aspects of the work itself. Which part of their research troubles you? The methods? The approach? The interpretation of data? The underlying assumptions? By keeping your objections specific, you make it clear that you are questioning the work, but you are not attacking the author/s personally.
Give a nuanced opinion
Scholarly work is complex stuff. It would be too simplistic to judge another scholars’ work as simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Even shoddy research usually has some redeeming qualities, and even brilliant research is not perfect. You can make your critiques more fair (and demonstrate your sophistication as an academic) by assessing others’ work in a balanced way. What works? What doesn’t? What do the author/s offer that can be built upon?
‘Critique’ doesn’t mean ‘criticise’
You wouldn’t normally write that a fellow scholar is rubbish and worthless (even if that’s what you secretly think!). You might, however, select your words carefully to indicate the extent of your feeling. There are many words and phrases you can use to indicate that you see problems with a piece of research; and some are stronger than others. If you are uncomfortable critiquing others’ work, you might like to choose some more gentle phrasings. However, if you feel sure that you can defend your opinion, it’s OK to use more strongly-worded phrasings too. Here are a few options of varying assertiveness:
|“Partially addresses”||This research doesn’t quite go far enough|
|“Neglects to address”||The researchers have forgotten something major (more assertive)|
|“Overlooks”||Maybe this just slipped the researchers’ minds|
|“Ignores”||The researchers actively neglected this|
|“Does not account for”||This research excludes an important factor|
|“Is not relevant to”||A group is not represented or included|
|“Excludes”||A group has been actively excluded (more assertive)|
|“Could be interpreted as implying”||The researchers have been slightly careless with their wording|
|“Misleadingly implies”||The researchers have shown some bias|
|“Erroneously states”||The researchers have made a factual mistake or false claim|
|“[Alternative method] could have been used…”||The chosen method wasn’t quite right|
|“This limits the application of the results”||The results are robust but only for certain circumstances|
|“This casts doubt on the results”||The results might have some merit but with caveats|
|“This invalidates the results”||The results cannot be trusted at all|
*Fortunately, you can stop that from happening! You can provide your supervisor with a list of people who you do not want to be examiners (within reason), and they will not be appointed. Even if you don’t speak up, your supervisors can advise against a person becoming your examiner if they are aware that you have critiqued that person’s work.