Thesis know how – beware the quote dump



I very often see first drafts of theses – and sometimes completed ones – which suffer from quote dumping. A quote dump is when the writer inserts a very large extract of someone else’s words into a text and then does nothing with it. The quote sits there, highly visible in its indented and italicised state, inert, unyielding, impenetrable.

The quote dump often occurs in literature chapters and/or when the thesis writer is discussing theoretical literatures. It’s sometimes used when people are explaining their methodology. It can happen when people genuinely attempt to engage with other people’s words and ideas and either challenge them, evaluate them or make them into foundations for their own research.

While quote dumping might have been the way to get good marks in essays in undergraduate and Masters work, it is a learned strategy that doesn’t fly so well in a doctoral thesis. Yes, the thesis reader wants to know what the thesis writer understands about what they have read, but they want to know as well how the writer interprets and evaluates this material, not merely whether they are capable of finding and selecting a quotation. Thesis readers also want to know what the thesis writer intended them to think about a quotation – is it a key point and if so how? What is so important about these words that they must be separated out from the rest of the text and given a prominent position? How does this sentence or five advance the argument being made?

Using quotations is of course perfectly OK thing to do – I’m not suggesting a ban on quotations, rather a more thoughtful use of them. And one or two quotations without any commentary from the thesis writer can be overlooked. But when a thesis reader finds serial quote dumping – a kind of textual fly-tipping on page after page – then they really do start to worry. Is the writer dumping quotations one after the other because they can’t actually understand the ideas properly, and the quotes stand in for a lack of real comprehension? Or are they afraid to speak out, and are hiding behind the words of important others because they just don’t think that their interpretation will stand up to scrutiny? Is this quote dumping a kind of ventriloquizing act where the thesis writer has their hand metaphorically up the back of the people that they think need to be included? Can the thesis writer not write the ideas in their own words?

Quotations, no more than data, do not speak for themselves. The thesis writer needs to provide some clues to the reader about what they are to make of the quotation they are encountering. Sparely used quotations must be introduced in some way, and the reader given some guidance about what they are to make of them. The quotation needs to flow into the following sentences which in turn amplify and carry forward the idea that the quotation represents. Incorporating quotations into the flow of argument, through appropriate commentary, means that the thesis reader does not feel they have fallen over an obstacle every time they encounter an indented or “…” quotation. They don’t feel that the thesis writer has just dumped the quote because they can’t, or perhaps can’t be bothered, to make clear what the point is, while also making a smooth reading experience.

It is thus very important for thesis writers to think very carefully about when, where and why they use big slabs of quotation. The solution to quote dumping is for thesis writers to be judicious in the number of quotations that are used – and then use the lesser number to effect. A quotation may well be appropriate when the thesis writer wants to show how an idea was elegantly and eloquently put, how a particular idea can be delineated, or how or term is defined, or when a surprising metaphor, an apt analogy or a creative association is made. Quote sparely and to effect!