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I attended a master's dissertation defense and I was wondering what one might do in a situation like this.

Juror: What do you mean by the phrase “previous work” in your thesis text? Is it your previous work or work from the literature?

Candidate: I meant previous work of others, from the literature.

Juror: Then you should say “in the literature”, because “previous work” refers to your previous work.

Upon looking online now, it is not uncommon to use “previous work” to refer to others’ work in this space.

What is the appropriate way to handle a situation like this? I was only a guest, but I do have a dissertation defense coming and was wondering how would I handle this had it been me.

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2 Answers 2

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Blame yourself for the misunderstanding, then fix it

I am assuming here that you are the student who is the writer of the dissertation. If not, my advice applies to the student working on the dissertation.

You should treat this situation the same way you would treat an analogous situation when referees in peer review misunderstand some aspect of your work (see this related answer). That is, whenever you receive academic feedback involving a "misunderstanding" of your work, you should blame yourself for failing to make things clear, and then revise accordingly.

The issue here isn't really whether or not "previous work" refers to your previous work or the literature in general. Personally, I would interpret this term in the same way you did, so I would agree here with your interpretation. That really doesn't matter. What matters is that a reviewer misunderstood what you were trying to say because what you wrote wasn't clear to them. Take this as a shortcoming of your work and revise accordingly --- i.e., revise your discussion to make it crystal clear that you are referring to the literature in general and not just your own previous work.

As a secondary matter, it is useful to distinguish between issues that matter and minor issues that have little impact on your work. This appears to fall into the latter camp. Even if you think the other person is completely wrong, assess the importance (or lack thereof) of the issue and pick your battles.

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    I apologize for not making the question clear enough. What the jury meant was that this phrase cannot be used to refer to previous work by other people. Although the general advice is really good and never heard it put in words. Thanks! Commented Jun 28 at 22:58
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    @Ait-GacemNabil it really doesn't matter. For something this minor, you just take the hit, even if the juror is completely wrong, this isn't the time to argue. Accepting such a minor "error" will not affect your chances of graduating, but stopping in the middle of your defense to focus on trivialities certainly might. As an aside, a lot depends on context. There are contexts where previous work clearly implies your own work and contexts where it doesn't. We would need to see the full sentence to know.
    – terdon
    Commented Jun 29 at 11:07
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    Generally true, but only up to a limit. I once had a reviewer that did not understand a standard term of the subject (which you teach to undergrads). Adding clarification or explaining the term would probably been annoying or irritating to the reader. Commented Jun 30 at 12:30
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    @JFabianMeier That said, no one will read a master's thesis after it's submitted so it's rather harmless. Commented Jun 30 at 22:00
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    Agreed, @JFabianMeier. I have occasionally pushed back against reviewer comments when submitting manuscript revisions to a journal. That puts it in the editor's court, and so far, it has never been problematic for me. (I guess I have chosen well when not to do that.) But a thesis defense is a bit different: there is no editor to appeal to. If you want to push back in that case then you need to persuade the same committee that objected. Commented Jul 1 at 14:42
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The dialog should go like this:

Opponent/Juror: Then you should say “in the literature”, because “previous work” refers to your previous work.

Candidate: Thank you for this suggestion. I will alter the phrasing to clarify that the relevant previous work is indeed from the literature rather than my own.

and do that.

Your opponent nitpicked, which is their prerogative. You graciously accept the criticism and oblige, no harm no foul. It was not a personal attack and you are not losing face or admitting wrongdoing.


Note: You may need to adjust the level of formality of your speech to what's customary for thesis defenses in your university.

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