The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

Increasingly, legislation is impinging on the dissertation process, and students may all now be required to complete risk assessments before they start their research. The impetus from this comes from Health and Safety legislation in place since 1992, and universities are now beginning to require such assessments for undergraduate and postgraduate students undertaking research. The need for this is perhaps more obvious where students are carrying out experiments in the physical sciences, but may also be important in the social sciences. There may also be a need to seek ethics approval, especially where research involves the use of human subjects.

Given that most economics dissertations tend to be desk studies that do not involve the use of human subjects, the bureaucracy may be viewed as superfluous. Nonetheless, compliance with the law is seen by most institutions as being essential. This may be especially important where economics as a discipline is part of a wider School of Social Sciences. Sociologists who decide to interview local drug dealers as part of their dissertation research clearly face rather different risks and ethical issues than an economist who decides to estimate a consumption function from macro data.

Sample forms can be viewed in the Appendices. The ethics form is designed for a School of Social Sciences. The expectation is that the vast majority of economics projects will qualify to skip from question 1 to question 15, thus minimising the paperwork whilst still complying with the demands of the legislation.

Given the requirements of the Data Protection Act, it is also advisable to ask students to give permission for their completed dissertations to be made available within the university for succeeding generations of students. This then allows a database of previous dissertations to be mounted on an internal website or a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) such as Blackboard or WebCT.

It is also important at the outset to be absolutely clear about some aspects of the dissertation. In particular, students seem to get very exercised about word length. In many UK undergraduate economics programmes, the dissertation counts as a double module in the final year – typically 30 CATS, or a quarter of the assessment for the year. Given the importance of this piece of work (especially where the final year carries a heavy weight), it is probably appropriate for the dissertation to carry a word length of 7,500 to 10,000 words.

Top Tips on the word limit:

  • Be explicit from the start about what is included and not included in the word count. When students get near to submission time, the chances are that they will be hitting the limit, and will want to exclude as much as possible from the count. To remove ambiguity, it is wise to be clear.
  • Provide a list of what can be omitted from the word count, for example:
    • Title page
    • Abstract
    • Table of contents
    • Bibliography
    • Figures (i.e. diagrams, maps)
    • Tables of data
  • Prohibit the widespread use of appendices – otherwise, students will simply carve chunks of material out of the main text and stash it away at the back in the hope that it will not count. Make it clear that appendices will be part of the word count (perhaps allowing some appendices to be exempt, e.g. raw data, with the express permission of the supervisor).
  • Then state that everything else counts. Students will still find questions to ask (what about footnotes?), but if you have been explicit you will be on reasonably firm ground – and you can point out that the rules are the same for everyone.
  • In order to enforce the word limit, you will probably need to impose penalties for exceeding it. A sliding scale is probably best – say, 1 percentage point per 100 words (or part thereof) by which the dissertation exceeds the limit. This provides students with the incentive to learn to be selective and to avoid waffle in presenting their report. And it seems to work!