Tracking the path to research claims


All researchers make claims about their work.

Remember the phrase staking a claim? That’s what we are actually doing when we claim something. We are metaphorically placing a marker in a field that we are prepared to stand on, stand for –  and defend. We plant that marker at the end of the account of our research. We’re here, we say. This is where, why and how I’ve got to this point.

So… What does claiming look like? Well, we researchers always claim that we make a particular contribution to what’s already known about our topic.  We sometimes claim that we provide new insights, alternative approaches, different interpretations, innovative methods, novel results. We might also claim that our work has the So What Now What factor  – there are significant implications that arise from the work – there’s a need for more or particular research to be done, for law and/or policy to be changed, for practitioners to do some different things and/or not do others.

What’s also important is that we researchers make our claims in and through writing. And any account of the research we’ve done should provide a traceable pathway from start to finish, from warrant to claim. When they get to the end of our text, readers must understand what claims we’re making and how we got there. Along the way, we need to show – evidence – that our ending claims are warranted and justified.

Making claims can be a particular challenge for doctoral researchers. It is hard to summon up the chutzpah to make a firm claim. PhDers sometimes dodge the issue by concluding their thesis by restating their results and perhaps offering short and vague suggestions about potential consequences. Alternatively, occasionally nearly-docs overstate what they have done, making sweeping generalisations. Or – a particular bugbear for me – they conclude their thesis with recommendations – as if thesis readers, particularly examiners, are in a position to act on what they say.

In order to make reasonable and defensible claims, all researchers have to do three things:

( 1) make sure that the claims match their research tradition, design and its results. So for instance, we can’t claim that policies need to change if we have only a handful of interviews, but we can claim that such research raises questions that need to be investigated further. Another example – we can’t claim causality if what we have are correlations.

(2) make sure that the research is trustworthy – we have to provide sufficient details about what we did and why, and make sure this information is available to be checked – so we always provide an audit trail with relevant details of data and analysis – perhaps even the data set itself.

(3) summon up the courage to get off the fence and own our expertise, while acknowledging the inevitable particularity, and the limited scope of our research. We recognise our blank spots – the things that the research design, methodology and methods just didn’t allow us to do.

Examiners look very carefully in the thesis for the argument that leads to claims. They read forwards and backwards tracing the path that leads to final claims.

Here are some of the things that examiners ask while they are reading a thesis:

  • Is sufficient data presented to support the claims that are made?
  • Has the full data set has been used – or not, and if not, has the researcher made it clear why and how this data was selected for presentation in the text?
  • How is the data, analysis and interpretation presented? Quotations? Tables? Images? Graphs? Diagrams? Have the implications of these forms of presentation been recognised and taken account of?
  • How have multiple data sources been brought together? Are alignments, misalignments and tensions with these data sources recognised and dealt with?
  • Are the claims congruent with the data and analysis presented? Can I trust the researcher?
  • How is the data and its analysis connected with relevant research, theory and literatures – and possibly the social and policy context?
  • What evidence is presented in the text that the researcher has spent time reflecting on the significance of their findings? On their research? On their development as a researcher?

These are general questions of course, and as such they need to be made bespoke to discipline and research tradition. Supervisors can help doctoral researchers consider the particularities related to their claim-making.

Revising the thesis for submission can usefully include claim-tracing – going backwards through the text from the conclusion to check that there are no missing parts to the the argument path, it’s not a maze, there are no gaps or time -consuming detours.

And the examiner questions listed in this post are a place to start.