Beware of Moving Goalposts

For most people, minor corrections are relatively straightforward. If you’re lucky, your examiners will give you a list of the specific things they want changed and the pages you’ll find them on. This list won’t contain any surprises, as you will have thoroughly discussed its content already during the viva.

Minor corrections should be like this. That doesn’t mean they will be.

It is impossible to relay to you the frustration, anger, and disappointment I have experienced in the past week and a half.

What I can do, though, is warn you about a worst-case scenario. Hopefully you won’t have a similar experience to the one I’ve had. (Most people don’t.) But if you do, at least you’ll be better prepared than I was.

Although my corrections seemed relatively straightforward the first time I read through them, as I began to implement them – and then began to ask questions about them – the plot unravelled with astonishing speed.

Example 1: I was asked to provide information in the Preface to my analysis chapters about a minor event that took place two years after my data was corrected and a month after my thesis had been submitted. During my viva we did discuss the possible implications of this for future electoral process in the country in question, but I was never under the impression that my examiners saw this particular incident as integral to the thesis, my argument, or the case study itself. It was a surprise to find in my list of corrections.

  • Q&A – I pointed out to my internal examiner that the event, though interesting anecdotally, had occurred after my thesis had been submitted and therefore had in no way influenced my data or analysis. Question: Do I still need to address it? Answer: Yes.
  • Moving Goalpost – Accountability for events occurring after submission.

Example 2: I was asked to provide more background detail about the country and region where I conducted fieldwork, including demographic, ethnic, religious, and colonial heritage. This seems a fair enough request. We had discussed the need for more general background information in the viva so this particular correction (at first anyway) was not a surprise either.

When I began to work on this particular correction, however, I soon realised that I had already written over a page about ethnicity that had apparently gone unnoticed. I had also stipulated in the original thesis that I was not going to go into the thorny issue of the colonial legacy because its relevance is hotly contested in the academic literature and none of my research participants ever brought it up. It seemed, therefore, to add immense complexity to the political back-story without adding any clarity.

  • Q&A – I told my internal examiner that I agreed that more background was needed, but wondered whether a discussion of the colonial period was justified, as it didn’t directly impact on my research. Question: Do I need to discuss the colonial period even though it was not a relevant issue raised by my research participants? Answer: You need to better argue your position. At the minute you just say that you are not going to discuss it. Question: Really? I didn’t realise that is how it came across. Ok. So I can just substantiate the argument that it isn’t particularly relevant to this research? Answer: It is relevant to this research because the people speak French and language is part of culture.
  • Moving Goalposts – Expectation of specific corrections (i.e. a discussion of language) from vague instruction (i.e. more background on the colonial period)* and redefinition of the scope of the thesis. (In developing the political culture concept used in my thesis, I specifically argue that language and linguistics are beyond its remit.)

Example 3: I was asked to make three changes in terminology. Two of the three we discussed in the viva and I was happy to accommodate for grammatical and technical reasons. The third change in terminology concerned an analytical label I had developed. We never discussed this in the viva and on the short, informal list of typos handed to me by the external examiner this particular term just had a question mark by it. It was, therefore, a surprise to find it on the list of required corrections.

Had we discussed it in the viva, I could have pointed out that the term in question had already been deliberated over and accepted at a number of conferences. It had also been deemed appropriate by two anonymous referees for a top journal in my field and was due to appear in a forthcoming article that had completed the peer-review process.

  • Q&A – Question: Does this term still need to be changed despite a) having survived a vigorous peer-review process and b) never having been discussed in the viva? Answer: According to my supervisor, no. According to the internal examiner: tbc.
  • Moving Goalpost – Requirement of a change that was not discussed during the viva.

 

Can examiners hold you accountable for events that occur after submission? Can they require specific changes that are not explicitly stated in the formal list of corrections? Can they demand changes that were never discussed at the viva?

I am still trying to find the answers to these questions. Apparently the University has published guidance notes on minor corrections, but so far I have been unable to gain access to them. With only 15 days remaining before the final submission deadline for January graduation, this is an incredibly stressful and frustrating struggle. And one that I can’t help but feel could have been at least partially avoided had I tracked down this guidance earlier.

As things stand, I don’t know where the line is drawn between legitimate corrections and unreasonable demands. I would highly recommend that you track down your University’s formal guidance on minor corrections before your viva. Hopefully you won’t ever need to look at it. But at least it will be there in case you do.

*The formal list of minor corrections does not provide clear instruction regarding the specific changes required by the examiners. I was likewise told that “some statements in the final chapter are too bold” and they need toning down. Exactly which statements this correction refers to are never pointed out; nor for that matter is which chapter they are in (i.e. Chapter Seven or the Conclusion).

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