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Research Student Handbook

Research Writing and Thesis Requirements

Research Writing and Thesis Requirements

A research degree is examined on the basis of a piece of research presented in the form of a thesis submitted within the prescribed period of study. The production of that thesis is, therefore, your main task. In order to undertake this work you will need a well-focused research topic and a research question or hypothesis, a knowledge of the existing secondary literature on the subject, a well-thought out methodology for tackling the research, and the ability to produce a well-structured argument, lucid and well-presented prose. Many ancillary skills may be required to do this: language proficiency, information technology and digital literacy skills, the latest theoretical and methodological approaches in your discipline, to name but a few.

Successful research students understand the task in hand, plan their work carefully, acquire the training and skills required, and take a systematic approach to research and writing, and always keep their deadline for submission clearly in view. They are helped in this task by supervisors, with whom they work closely. A thesis needs to conform to accepted academic conventions, to avoid plagiarism and to follow the ethical guidelines laid down for research. Students have to work within strict deadlines laid down for completion, which vary according to the type of degree being taken and the registration status of each student.

You need to know what you need to achieve in your research in order to obtain your degree. A thesis must conform to standards laid down by the University and to follow proper academic conventions.

There are different regulations for each programme of study.


Regulations relating to each research programme can be found under Section 2: Faculty of Graduate Research.

The University provides general regulations regarding the format of the thesis, which need to be closely followed, as detailed in the Statement of Procedures: Presentation of Theses/ Dissertation for Degrees in the Faculty of Graduate Research.

These provide information on all aspects of the overall layout of a thesis, including word length (up to 100,000 for a PhD, 60,000 for an MPhil,  40,000 for an MbyRes), division into chapters, the margins, spacing, and how it should be bound and the number of copies you need to produce. If you would like to see an example of a successful thesis please ask your supervisor to show you one. Or you can use the e-Theses resource in the Library which contains MbyRes/MPhil/PhD theses deposited to Open Research Exeter (ORE) since 2007.

Alternative Form of Submission

Changes to the guidance on the presentation of theses have been made resulting in a re-definition of what we mean by the term ‘thesis’ which reflects the wide variety of ways in which research is carried out and assessed. This allows, for example, for the production of a thesis in an alternative format, which may include either:

(a)  The presentation of part or all of the thesis in an alternative format e.g. it may be a multimedia document (e.g. an element or the thesis in its entirety, which is presented in a format appropriate perhaps for presentation at a conference)

(b)  A constructed text such as a piece of art, or a record of professional practice in the form of a series of case-studies, which must be accompanied by a commentary. You should seek advice from your supervisor if you wish to consider the use of an alternative thesis format.


The University Library provides useful guides to referencing conventions such as Harvard, APA, MHRA etc. It is best to discuss which referencing system is most appropriate to your discipline / topic with your supervisor as some disciplines may have a preference for a particular system.

Plagiarism by any students is a serious offence: it can lead to your deregistration from the University. The University has issued the following guidelines relating to plagiarism.

Plagiarism is defined as the act of representing another's work or ideas as one's own without appropriate acknowledgement or referencing. There are three main types of plagiarism:

  • Direct copying of text from a book, article, fellow student's essay, handout, thesis, web page or other source without proper acknowledgement.
  • Claiming individual ideas derived from a book, article etc. as one's own, and incorporating them into one's work without acknowledging the source of these ideas.
  • Overly depending on the work of one or more others without proper acknowledgement of the source, by constructing an essay, project etc. by extracting large sections of text from another source, and merely linking these together with a few of one's own sentences.

For instances of suspected plagiarism for postgraduate research students where suspected plagiarism is discovered at the pre-submission stage, the College Dean shall deal with the matter internally in the first instance. In those cases in which a meeting with the student is convened, the maximum penalty shall normally be a requirement to re-draft the relevant section(s) of the thesis to the satisfaction of the supervisor and the College Dean. Cases where minor redrafting would be inappropriate in view of the prima facie case found by the College Dean should be referred to the Faculty Office.

For instances of suspected plagiarism for postgraduate research students where suspected plagiarism is discovered by the examiner(s) at the post-submission stage, the examiner(s) shall prepare a jointly-signed report to be sent without delay to the Faculty Office, copied to the College Dean. The Director of Academic Services in consultation with the Dean of the appropriate Faculty shall decide whether the case warrants convening a Committee of Academic Enquiry or whether to refer the case back to the College Dean to deal with the matter internally. If the case is referred back to the College Dean to handle, the maximum penalty shall normally be a requirement to re-draft the relevant section(s) of the thesis to the satisfaction of the supervisor, the examiners and the College Dean. The Board of Examiners should not meet, or prepare a final report, until the Chair of the Board is notified of the outcome of the case.

Full details of the University's policies and procedures on plagiarism.

If you are in any doubt as to what constitutes plagiarism and how to avoid it please talk to your supervisors or another member of the academic staff of CLES.

There are a number of benefits to making your research and thesis available via Open Access:

  • Increases citations and the visibility of your research
  • Helps to build your research career
  • Increases chances of further funding opportunities and collaborations
  • Meets the transparency/openness agenda

The key points of the University’s Open Access Research and Research Data Management Policy for PGR Students are as follows:


A copy of your final thesis/dissertation will need to be submitted to the institutional repository, Open Research Exeter (ORE), prior to the award of your degree.

Research Papers

Students should comply with funder and University Policy requirements on Open Access. All PGR students should ensure that research papers published whilst affiliated with the University are made available on in ORE, as open access, as soon as possible. PGRs funded by the Research Councils or the Charity Open Access Fund, including The Wellcome Trust may be eligible for to funds to pay a publisher to make an article immediately open access. Advice and support are available from the Library. In addition, PGR candidates are required to upload the final version of their thesis/dissertation into the institutional repository, ORE.

Research Data

  • Students should comply with funder and University Policy requirements on research data management.
  • Responsibility for ongoing, day-to-day management of their research data lies with PGR students. Where the PGR is part of a project, data management policy will be set and monitored by the Principal Investigator (PI) and the PGR will be expected to comply with project guidelines.
  • The lead PGR Supervisor is responsible for advising the PGR student on good practice in research data management.
  • PGR students and their supervisors should discuss and review research data management issues annually, addressing issues of the capture, management, integrity, confidentiality, security, selection, preservation and disposal, commercialisation, costs, sharing and publication of research data and the production of descriptive metadata to aid discovery and re-use when relevant.
  • checklist to support PGRs and their supervisors in the annual research data review is available.
  • At the end of the degree, PGR students should register selected research data in Open Research Exeter (ORE). Information about the data should be included as a statement in the thesis record using the Description field. When legally, commercially and ethically appropriate, this selected research data should also be made available on Open Access in an appropriate repository.
  • PGR students will be able to embargo their research data in order to have a period of privileged use of the data that they have created or collected for a standard period of up to 18 months initially.

Research Data Management Guidance

In order to save time and effort later on in your degree, before you start collecting or creating research data or materials research students should consider the following:

Managing references

Using a reference manager such as EndNote or Mendeley helps with the organisation and citation of journal articles and the notes you make about them.

Data storage

Where will you store your research data/materials? Research students are allocated up to 20 GB of storage space on the University's U drive which is regularly backed up and can be retrieved if you accidentally delete a file or it gets corrupted. If your data is confidential and/or sensitive don't use cloud storage such as Dropbox or share it using email. Confidential and/or sensitive data should be encrypted and stored according to ethical approval.

Data back-up

Make sure you make regular back-ups of your files to avoid data loss, especially if you store your data on a memory stick or portable hard drive.

Organising your files and folders

Create a logical file storage system to find files easily, for example, with separate folders for reports, presentations, projects etc., and sub-folders separating raw data, tools, and analysed data. You should also develop a naming system for your files so that you know which version has included revisions or use a document control table on the front page.

Document your data creation/collection

It is easier to document data when you start creating or collecting your research materials rather than retrospectively. Think about what information you need about the data/materials so that you or somebody else can reuse and understand the data in the long-term. Information could include how data were created or digitised, what hardware/software was used, how the data was analysed, what their content and structure are and any manipulations that may have taken place.

Know your funder's policy on Open Access to research data and research publications

The University and your funder normally expect you to put your research data and publications on Open Access when appropriate.  There are exceptions for commercial, confidential and copyright reasons. See the Digital Curation Centre's page for an overview of funders' policies and the University of Exeter PGR policy.

Further Information

The following links provide further help and guidance on Open Access and research data management:

There are also training sessions on Open Access and Research Data Management as part of the Researcher Development.