Skip to main content

My Pedagogical Research

This work was presented at KTH Scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) March 29, 2019

The slides are here: sotl_malm_slides.pdf

Fact or Fiction? – Citation Categories and their Use Cases in Thesis Bibliographies at KTH


Background and purpose


Since the first level (bachelor) thesis was introduced at KTH in the degree programs students are exposed to scientific writing at an early stage in their education. A key element of scientific writing is an efficient use of citations i.e. references to published work in the area. From a teacher perspective many first level thesis reports showed poor quality in this respect. In order to be able to study this observation, from a quantitative or empirical point of view, development a well-defined scientific method was highly motivated.


Work done


In my work a method, based on so called content analysis, was proposed and used to study student behavior in first level thesis reports, regarding their use of citations. The objective was to look at categories of in-text citations and to find evidence, supporting a hypothesis, that student use of citations show distinct patterns. These patterns could reflect that they rely too much on facts and show too little evidence of learning, regarding synthesis from reliable and valid scientific sources, in their respective technical domain. The citation category method, proposed by me, starts from an a priori set of “use cases” or “in-text citation categories”. Based on these categories all citations could be coded for further statistical analysis.





The empirical results were based on nine first level (BS) reports. These were selected to represent programs at the different schools at KTH. A full search was done in DiVA for the time span June 2013- June 2015 and the selected reports are a random sampling of the 1300 reports, found in the in the database.

The results clearly points towards a use of citations, where “presenting a fact” is emphasized over most other use cases. The use of a citation to “introduce or discuss contrasting views” or “in support of an argument” is seldom observed. On the other hand, the bulk of the in-text citations are used to shape the background survey. In extreme cases the whole thesis structure is based on the ideas, found in the studied literature. Finally, it is found that the reliability and validity of sources is sometimes commented upon by the thesis authors.


Take-home message


As students are exposed to scientific writing for the first time they display a pattern of using citations mainly to present facts. They have not yet learned that citations have many other valid use cases such as introducing or discussing contrasting views. Students need training and exposure to scientific writing in order to develop and broaden their use of citations. A natural extension of my study would be at the second level since these students have more training in scientific writing.