I know confusion exists about the topic of names in academic writing because I see that confusion in the dissertations I edit. All the errors I cover in this post are problems I have seen at least once (and sometimes much more often than that).
The three topics we’ll address here are appropriate use of individuals’ personal titles, appropriate use of full names versus surname-only, and correctly attributing coauthors when a source has exactly two authors.
Titles and Propriety
The first error I see crop up sometimes, which should be easy to avoid, is referring to cited authors by personal titles such as Mr., Ms., Prof., or Dr. Name. I think this mistake appears because academic writing is probably the only genre in which it is sometimes a mistake. It’s acceptable in journalism, and of course in less formal writing you have much more flexibility to do things the way you want.
You might occasionally see personal titles in the works of eminent scholars (especially those writing a century ago or more), but they might have particular reasons for doing this that don’t apply to your work or that you don’t want to accidentally appear to be using. For instance, because it is rare, the use of personal titles in an academic work might deliver a tone of intimate familiarity or, at the other extreme, sarcasatic condescension.
Review of Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis (1998), by Joan Bolker
Although the title suggests a quick-fix miracle plan for producing instant PhDs, author Joan Bolker, a writing instructor and EdD who has taught at several elite Boston-area universities, admits to using it as an attention-grabbing tactic (xvii). Because it grabs attention doesn’t suggest she doesn’t genuinely mean it, however. The fifteen minutes are at the core of the book’s two main messages: start small and remain consistent.
I would have found this book helpful when I was writing my dissertation—if I could have been convinced to set aside time in my tight procrastination schedule to read it.
There are ironies in the dissertation-writing process that affected me throughout my work, that I see affecting some of the clients I work with now, and that this book seeks to curtail before the writer succumbs to them. I did many things wrong that Bolker would have alerted me to, such as setting overly ambitious goals too early, isolating myself from my peers in the belief that it would help me focus, and remaining too long with a first advisor who was not a good match with me. The irony is that we make choices we think will help but that paralyze us because we cannot turn into writing machines overnight; we’ll always be human, and Bolker’s book is for the human writer.
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.