The 10 Deadly Sins in Academic Papers

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Vanity, Greed, Lust (including hedonism, a lust for money etc.), Wrath, Gluttony, Envy, Sloth – these seven cardinal sins or “deadly sins” continue to be well-known in Western culture. Some of them we find not only in private, but also in professional contexts. These capital vices are responsible for many other “sins” that we may commit in training and profession.

Academic papers are no exception there. They hold many risks of “becoming a sinner”. I have collected and explained the ten most common “deadly sins” in academic papers below. Committing even one of these sins may negatively impact the grade on your term paper, BA/MA thesis or presentations. To complete a successful paper, students must adhere to the slogan of “write, but don’t sin!”

  1. Plagiarism:
    Plagiarism means stealing someone else’s intellectual property. It includes the use of unreferenced text passages, pictures or a combination of both. The discovery of plagiarism in publications may lead to high fines. If plagiarism is discovered in your thesis during the correction process, it must be written anew. If the fraud becomes evident after your graduation, the consequences will be a withdrawal of your academic degree – as the cases of German politician zu Guttenberg & Co. show.
  2. Too-small share of own text:
    Quotes are mandatory in any academic paper. However, don’t overdo it! Turning four books into a fifth cannot be considered work of your own, but rather as summary of individual aspects. This “diligence work” will usually not cause you to fail, but tends to be graded with the worst passing grade – a 4.0.
  3. Too many spelling mistakes and bad expression:
    Mistakes happen. Even after a very diligent correction, the paper may still contain some mistakes. However, if the spelling mistakes become too many and if punctuation is virtually non-existent the best grade a paper can receive is 3.0, no matter the quality of its content. A mass of spelling and grammar mistakes as well as bad diction make it impossible to derive the content of the paper.
  4. Badly legible illustrations:
    High-quality illustrations are the cornerstone of every good presentation. They must not be neglected in term paper or final thesis either. The most common mistakes are: wrong insertion of pictures (copy & paste), distortions, low-resolution and low-contrast pictures including very small fonts, as well as the use of pastel colors that do not stand out much. Pictures like that are not legible and therefore useless.
  5. Content difference between title, thesis statement and overall paper:
    When starting an academic paper one sets out exploring the subject area with great enthusiasm. We gain a vast volume of new information and wish to include every bit in the paper. We lose track of what is essential and the paper will end up having little to do with the initial subject. Think of the toolbox metaphor: If you want to do any crafts, you need to choose the right tools. A circular saw will not do much good for doweling a screw into a wall! Only the necessary tools are put in the toolbox (literature review) and used later (in the discussion). Every tool that does not contribute to success is useless and therefore a waste of space and time. Always apply a counter-check: Did I actually use all the sources from the introduction and literature review in my discussion?
  6. Unclear scope:
    A lack of specific differentiation of one’s own research subject and its placement in the current state of research is a frequent mistake made in academic papers.
    Often students neglect to present the current state of research and only describe their own subject (in the focus/out of the focus). If the overall context is missing it looks as if you did not comprehensively familiarize yourself with the subject. The opposite is bad as well: A poorly specified subject raises expectations that your paper’s scope will be unable to meet.
  7. Too much theory:
    Business-related papers consist of a theoretical and a practical part. The challenge is to find the right length for both of them. Dealing intensely with the basic theories often tempts one to exaggerate the theory part’s length and shorten the practical part. Ideally, the practical share in a business-related paper should be at approx. 2/3, corresponding to a scope of 50-75%. This should not be undercut. All methodically developed results are considered and evaluated in a discussion. Then the author recommends a course of action giving specific instructions on what to do. If the recommendation is missing or presented insufficiently, the paper is useless.
  8. Insufficient methodical coverage of the subject:
    The practical part of the academic paper must be based on a research method. One common mistake is to choose a method that does not live up to the subject. If the method is correct you have to make sure that your data sample is representative or statistically secured. Students often draw conclusions from data based on much too small sample. This common mistake falsifies your results. For example, when deriving a strategy for a company based on 3-5 expert interviews, applying it would be very risky.
  9. Unclear reference of data used:
    When using data in academic papers, it must be made clear where it comes from. If you collected it yourself, make sure to enclosed it with the paper. If you refer to statistics, you must name its source to make connections and references comprehensible. When clear evidence of the original data is missing, the argumentation based on it is not trustworthy.
  10. Insufficient and bad literature:
    There are some rules for choosing suitable literature: Google and Wikipedia articles are no academic sources. Publications of consultancy firms also must be handled with care. Textbooks should not be quoted because they usually are secondary literature. However, they are a good source to identify relevant primary literature on your topic. Peer-reviewed journals and recently published academic articles are a good choice. When quoting, always quote from the original year of publication.
    A paper’s grading is also influenced by the number of sources. Too few sources being considered will have a negative effect on the quality of the academic paper and its grade. As a reference: Seminar papers should have at least 30 indicative literature quotes, Bachelor’s theses at least 60 and Master’s theses at least 100.

One or several of these mistakes will always negatively influence the grade of your paper or thesis. Unfortunately, there is no chance for absolution here. If you keep these potential deadly sins in mind, you are well on your way towards writing a proper academic paper.

Have fun and good luck for your next paper or thesis!

Prof. Dr. Arnd Albrecht
About Prof. Dr. Arnd Albrecht 29 Articles
Since 2010, Prof. Dr. Arndt Albrecht has been a professor for Human Resource Management and International Management at MBS. In addition, he is the Academic Program Director of the Bachelor International Business program. Prof. Dr. Albrecht is involved in research and consulting activities at MBS as well as in his consulting company where he supports industry projects in terms of HRM, leadership and change management. After completing his doctorate, he worked as an international senior manager in the pharmaceutical industry and as a strategic consultant for SMEs and corporations. Prof. Dr. Albrecht is a certified business coach and holds an MBA from Henley Management College.