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Characteristics, Dynamics and Evolving Methodologies of Writing a Dissertation in Digital Age

UserMark time07 May,2016

The English use of the term ‘dissertation’ was first made in 1651 that defined it as “an extended written treatment of a subject.” This was in keeping with the spirit of the word’s early Latin usage as dissersere which meant to ‘examine’ or ‘discuss.’ This Latin term later evolved to dissertare which meant ‘continue to discuss.’

characterstics and evolving methodologies

To ‘continue to discuss’ implies a discussion over time. ‘Discussion’ implies the inclusion of not just one point of view on a particular theme or subject, but myriad points of views or clusters of ideas. In addition, it’s ‘continuing over time’ implies an extended period of time required to complete same. Thus, a dissertation will not just examine a particular subject, it would also review different views about the same and it will do so over an extended period of time.

Other definitions also include characteristics such as “original research” and the inculcation of “scholarly methodology.” Therefore, apart from an extended examination of a particular subject, dissertation also includes “original research” as something ‘unique’ and ‘that one does by oneself’ and shows his/her prowess not only in a particular subject but also his/her ‘mastery over scholarly methodology.’

The Birth of the Digital and Academic Research

The birth of the digital age and the Internet has revolutionized human ways of living, knowing, thinking and existing. An entire generation now has been born in the era of the virtual and has literally grown-up with the Internet. While many Universities were hesitant to accept the new technology and grant it precedence over traditional modes of humanistic scholarship, today there are an increasing number of universities that ask for the dissertation only in the digital mode. As this method is rapidly gaining precedence over the printed word, other debates are rising in this context. Some of these are about practice-led research, the distinction between creative and critical writing and the reluctance of universities to adapt their programs and guidelines according to a fast-altering digital landscape.

The interaction of these issues with a philosophical discussion about the primacy of the word in research contexts and the challenges this established notion faces are some of the stakes raised by the rapidly evolving shift from hard copy to digital. This shift is paradigmatic and is a revolution of infrastructure that is changing our ways of living and existing within this fast-moving technology. In the academic arena of research papers and dissertations, this shift raises the above-mentioned stakes through the ethical use of technology and intercultural issues, multimodality which includes the representation and presentation of theses and dissertations and the processes of archiving, storage and accessibility in the digital age. Finally, an examination into the research methods used within a digital infrastructure is always required. 

What is a Digital Dissertation?

A digital dissertation is not the same as ‘writing a dissertation in the digital age’. The former implies the representation of the dissertation in the virtual mode. Here, the whole process of dissertation writing, from conception to planning and through supervision to storage, archiving and dissemination is implied. At the very basic level though, it implies embodying information in a form that might include, not only written text, but also others formats and modes which might not always be sequential, but which might open up other possibilities and limitations.

Writing a dissertation in a digital age, however, implies that, given the pre-conditions of the latter, the former could be written either with recourse to the technology or using it only as required at each stage of the research. As it is a human tendency to use all the technological resources present at hand in the best way possible, this article will take it as an implication that ‘writing a dissertation in the digital age’ includes putting to good use all the technology that is available within the norms of any particular institution. 

Ethical Use of Technology, Plagiarism and Referencing, and Intercultural Representation

The digitization of research not only allows various modes of textual representation to be combined in unique formats, but also the cross-cultural exchange of ideas. The latter is possible through the dissemination of textual material via open source publishing or through university, publishing house or online academic archiving portals such as JSTOR, Project Muse, EBSCO, etc. It is also made possible through online supervision of dissertations and theses through programs and devices such as Skype, webcam, video-conferencing and various chat services. International and communitarian borders collapse as supervisor and student exchange ideas while situated spatio-temporally in their historical contexts. There is also the question of intercultural representation with due sensitivity towards the norms and values of communities and ethnicities worldwide. As textual material in dissertations, theses, online copyrighted secondary literature and multimedia representations are constantly being read and used in new configurations by students and writers worldwide, the traditional humanistic basis of copyright and plagiarism are also interrogated and challenged in due process.

Issues, Stakes and Solutions:

  • Issues

In the era of the printed word, pictorial and related media representation were made through appendices, plates and peripheral devices such as VHS, audio cassettes and tape recorders and before that through cinematic tape and projectors. The bulk of the dissertation, when it involved a variety of media devices, was awkward and clumsy and cross-referencing to pictures, videos, etc. was done manually. As this was largely a tangible system of thing-media, the cross-references were written in the dissertation footnotes, endnotes, index or appendix. While a words-only dissertation was easier to manage, any multimedia referencing had to be done through the things/machines that drove such media. With the digital dissertation, cross-referencing became easier within a hyperlinked and networked eco-system where a single click on the reference would take one to the related webpage or multimedia file. However, in many innovative dissertations that break down the boundaries between the critical and the creative, images, embedded videos, sound clips and related media are used as alternating with the written word.

  • Stakes

What is singularly at stake here is the inclusion of images or embedded videos alternating with written material that might overwhelm the latter. As visual material catches the eye more immediately, any written text might be subconsciously subverted in the process. Besides, any ethnically or communally sensitive material also requires due explanation.

  • Solution

The issues and stakes mentioned above have their due solutions. There should be due referencing of copyrighted multimedia material through proper citation styles as mentioned in the Harvard Style Referencing System or the APA (American Psychological Association) Style Guide. Referencing and due citation of copyrighted material in the written word generally follows a number of publishing house styles according to the particular discipline. Some examples of textual and multimedia referencing in various disciplines are discussed below. 

Textual (Written Word) Referencing in the Digital Dissertation (Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences)

As the written word is virtualized in a digital dissertation, all references to printed and tangible material will follow the same format as that of a printed thesis. Only if the printed and/or audio-visual material has been digitized, then references to the same will follow the format delineated below. Apart from this, there are web and word processing tools that hyperlink in-text references and also allow for superscript or subscript toggling. Here, an end-note, a foot-note or a bibliographical reference might be viewed in part or full by hovering the cursor over the hyperlinked in-text reference or the superscript or subscript. The hyperlinks might be clicked to visit the endnote, footnote or bibliographical material.

Above all, in case of electronic sources that are digitized in databases connected directly or indirectly to the Internet, the hyperlinks might be cross-referenced to those databases or, as applicable, to the materials that are freely available over the web. Some of these cross-referencing formats are as follows:

In the Harvard style referencing system, electronic resources are formatted as below:

(Every category for the Harvard referencing style here has been taken from the University of Leicester Library Help in Referencing:

  • E-Books, intra-textual citations and page numbers

If an e-book is similar to a printed book, the rules of referencing follow that of the latter. When there are no page numbers, as in an e-reader, the reference should indicate the place in the e-book from where the quote or reference comes from; for e.g.  the location, %, or chapter.

  • Format: Author, Date, % or Author, Date, Chapter
  • Example: Bourne, 2014, 58% or Hill, 2012, Ch. 4 
  • Website in Bibliography

As in printed bibliographies, all lists of articles, books and websites are all intermingled in the same list. The style of referencing a website in an electronic bibliography is as follows:

  • Format: Webpage name, Resource, Webpage location, Date Accessed.
  • Example: University of Warwick Student Improvement Program (No date) Plagiarism and Originality at University. Available at: (Accessed: 12 February 2015) 
  • Electronic Books

Where an e-book looks like a printed book, it follows the referencing format, including publication details and page numbers of the latter. If the book has been downloaded to an e-reader, the web address of the source and the download date need to be mentioned.

  • Format: Author, Date, Title, Website URL, Download Date
  • Example: Crohn, L. (2014) Collected Works. Available at: (Downloaded: 18 June 2015). 
  • Electronic Articles

If a digital article looks like its print counterpart, all referencing including page numbers follow that of the latter. Again, if the article is in html and no page numbers are given, the latter is replaced by the webpage of the article and the date of access.

  • Format: Author, Article Name, Journal, Page, Website URL, Date Accessed.
  • Example: Winterbourne, M. (2015) ‘Accounting for select behavioral responses during an influenza pandemic using home TV viewing’, BMC Infectious Diseases, 15(21). Available at: (Accessed: 25 July 2015). 
  • Websites

Websites are an integral part of new media and have unique referential format and style as per Publishing House Style Guides.

  1. WebPages with an author

  • Format: Author, Date, Website Name, Website URL, Date Accessed.
  • Example: Timber, P. (2012) Pritchard Timber’s Social Science Resources. Available at: (Accessed: 28 May 2014) 
  1. WebPages with corporate authors

  • Format: Corporate Office or Agency, Date, Website Name, Website URL, Date Accessed.
  • Example: Met Office (2014) A global perspective on the recent storms and floods in the UK. Available at: (Accessed: 10 May 2014). 
  • WebPages with no author

The title of the webpage is used in place of the author.

  • Format:
  • In-text citation: Citation, Webpage Name, Date
  • Bibliography: Webpage Name, Date, Website URL, Date Accessed
  • Example:
  • In-text citation: The museum shows the vast influence China has had on the rest of the world (Cultural China, 2014)…
  • Bibliography:Cultural China (2014) Available at: (Accessed: 3 August 2014).

When no author is identified and the website has no title, the website URL or web address is used along with the date accessed.

  • Blog Posts

With the birth of Web 2.0 and the creative commons, it became necessary to include blogs into scholarly referencing as much valuable and unique research went into their making.

  • Format: Author, Date, Blog Post Title, Blog Category or Tag and Date. Blog URL, Date Accessed.
  • Example: Robinson, N. (2014) ‘Wanted: New president of Europe’, Newslog, 2 June. Available at: (Accessed 3 June 2014).

Electronic and Audio-Visual materials that are digitized are usually referenced using the APA House Style.

(Every category for the APA referencing style mentioned below has been taken from the online resources at Camden-Carroll Library in the research section of Morehead State University)

Some of these are as follows:

  • Audio (Podcasts)

  • Format: Producer or Writer. (Function). (Date produced or posted).Name of podcast or audio recording [Kind of Work]. Recovered from web address.
  • Example: Trine, S. H. (Writer) & High Octave Media (Producer). (2008, March 21).Piano Symphonies with Sapienza Helena Trine [Audio podcast]. Recovered from
  • Images (Online)

  • Format: Author or Artist if available. (Year of Creation of the Image).Name of work [Kind of Work]. Recovered from URL of website
  • Example: Clemens, J. (1951).On high [Painting]. Recovered from the Gallery of Modern Art, Yale University website: 
  • Video (Film) (Recorded)

  • Format: Director and/or Producer (Purpose). (Release Year).Name of video [Medium consulted]. Accessible from web address of distributor.
  • Example: Waschiliski, L., & Bromwich, K. (Producers, Directors, & Writers).Getting older: The Relativist Popular Psychology of Ageing after Modernity in the USA [DVD]. Purchasable from 
  • Video (Film) (In Theaters)

  • Format: Producer and/or Director. (Purpose). (Release Year).Name of film [Type of work]. Country of origin: Name of Studio.
  • Example: Rudin, S., Coen, J. & Coen, E. (Producers), & Coen, J. &  Coen, E. (Directors). (2007). No Country for Old Men [Motion picture]. United States: Scott Rudin Productions & Mike Zoss Productions. 
  • Video (Television Episodes) (Recording)

  • Format: Director and/or Author. (Purpose). (Broadcast Year). Name of Episode [Kind of Work]. In Name of Producer (Purpose), Name of Television series [Medium consulted]. Accessible from web address of Distributor.
  • Example: Novak, K. (Writer), & Rich, D. (Director). (2011). K-9s [Seasonal TV episode]. In L. Willows & S. Derek (Producers), Denville County [DVD]. Available from
  • Video (Television Episodes) (Broadcast)

  • Format: Director and/or Author. (Purpose). (Year of broadcast). Name of Episode [Type of Work]. In Name of Producer (Purpose), Name of Television series. City of production: Title of Studio.
  • Example: Grutyer, T., & Wallace, J. (Writers), & Kay, L. (Director). (2010). Given Them All [Television series episode]. In J. Trampling (Producer), Denville County. San Jose, CA: MGM Television.
  • Videos (Online)

  • Format: [Screen name]. (Date produced or posted). Name of video [Medium consulted]. Recovered from web address.
  • Example: Yale University. [Yale]. (2009, November 12). An introduction to network assemblages as part of the creation of Rhizomatic Swarms[Video file]. Retrieved from

Apart from the intentional ‘shock-effect’ used as part of the critical-creative or practice-led dissertation, embedded images or video-essays should always be cross-referenced at the end of the page, or, if the image or audio-visual material is online, then hyperlinked to the relevant database, archive, channel or website address. This prevents the immediate effect of pictorial representation as overwhelming or subverting the written section. Besides, sensitive visual material should always be explained in detail.

In both cases of intentional/non-intentional plagiarism, software or online services are not enough. Although, these tools are helpful in checking various web pages and databases for similar content, much of these avoid semantics and cannot prevent the plagiarism of ideas. Hence, supervisors should always take into account, proper referencing of all possible secondary literature.

Multimodal Representation and Storage/Archiving Issues

In critical-creative and practice-led research that advances from an original contribution to  knowledge to developments in methodology, the shift from second-order mode of representation (such as language) to first-order ones in the creative, fine and performance-based arts, involve inter-semiotic flux of signs and require case studies of individual theses and dissertation that are beyond the immediate scope of this blog. Besides, there are also issues and stakes about archiving, storage and accessibility of digital dissertation and theses that require detailed analysis of networks and concepts, including research methods that are also outside the scope of the present essay.

There are numerous issues that surround the writing of a dissertation in a digital age. As methodologies keep evolving, stakes are raised regarding ethics, plagiarism and referencing, intercultural representation and the dynamics of presentation, re-presentation, storage and archiving of theses and dissertations in a digital age. While technology keeps evolving, so do digital methodologies and the key issue here is that of plagiarism and due referencing. However, with the evolving modes and methods of representation and research, these issues also keep changing and new rules are made to deal with the complex systems of a rapidly expanding digital infrastructure.

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