I'm asking for approaches to include interesting, but not perfectly fitting results in a dissertation or a paper.

During my PhD project I have made an accidental discovery, which is what I believe you call serendipity. The finding is related to the overall topic of my dissertation and certainly interesting, but it interrupts the "leitmotif" of my argumentation, as this discovery is really just the result of a stupid mistake. So my question here is: How do you eloquently include stupid mistakes (aka accidental findings) in a dissertation or a paper without sounding stupid or breaking the flow of arguments apart? Is there even a generalizing answer to this question?

  • 7
    If it's good research, publish it. If it's not good research, don't.
    – JeffE
    Feb 11, 2013 at 16:38
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    When I was in grad school, a labmate of mine worked for five years to get no results on his main project (bioreactors), but ended up making a significant advancement in the field of electrochemistry. He published this work and ended up following this line of research for a few years. Moral of the story: definitely write it up as a section, and if it's important, publish.
    – eykanal
    Feb 11, 2013 at 17:37
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    Have you heard the saying that great discoveries aren't marked by a cry of "Eureka", but by "oh. that's interesting. I wasn't expecting that" (credit probably Feynman, but I forget who)
    – 410 gone
    Feb 11, 2013 at 20:13
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    @EnergyNumbers it's Asimov, I've added it to my answer :)
    – F'x
    Feb 11, 2013 at 21:07
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    Does it matter how you discovered your results? Will you also write "These results were obtained while thinking in the shower. These were obtained bashing my head against the desk. These were obtained by divine inspiration." Feb 12, 2013 at 9:04

4 Answers 4


“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but rather, 'hmm... that's funny...” (Isaac Asimov, thanks to EnergyNumbers for reminding me of it)

If you're worried that it will distract the flow of your thesis, why not put it in a “special” part of your thesis (e.g., an appendix) and refer to that from the main text, at the point that would be most logical.

[Following the description of your experiment.] In the next few sections, I describe the results obtained from operating the Pocket Helium Flux Positron Annihilator on a variety of samples: metals (section II.B), graphene (section II.C) and heavy water (section II.D). You will also find in Appendix A a description of the observations made following an accidental operation of PHFPA without a helium flux [you may not want to be specific and say: some moron forgot to replace the bottle] which allowed to check what happens when electroneutrality is violated on the µm scale.

An appendix is a good place, or maybe a small section as the end of the relevant chapter.

  • I used an appendix for a similar ancillary finding during my research as well. By having it there I supported my discussion/evaluation, reinforced my methods and rigor, and it also helped to support the premise of 'a valuable contribution to [my] area of science'. Your mileage may vary, but I found it useful. (Full disclosure, I'm still working on it but so far, so good :)
    – grauwulf
    Feb 11, 2013 at 20:11
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    "you may not want to be specific and say: some moron forgot to replace the bottle" - perhaps a "secret appendix" is in order for such things. If nothing else I can see it being a useful way to relieve thesis-induced stress. :-P
    – David Z
    Feb 11, 2013 at 21:20
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    You can always thank the moron in your acknowledgements for an unspecified but significant contribution or so ;)
    – gerrit
    Feb 11, 2013 at 23:04
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    Also, as this answer and others suggest, there is no grand law of research that suggests you must present your work in the order that it happened. Usually we choose to imply a more logical structure to the work.
    – Ben Norris
    Feb 12, 2013 at 2:10

Thesis is a good place to place things not yet developed enough to make a full paper.

If it is at least tangentially related to you thesis topic, just add a relevant (sub)section (e.g. in further discussion, or near to the place where it is the most related).

BTW: Many groundbreaking discoveries were accidental. So I don't see a reason to value them less than ones planned in advance.

Again, if "accidental" means than some values were set such as a mistake - again, mentioning such is related to motivation/story, not the value of results.


The traditional ways people introducing important or interesting peripheral information without breaking the flow or core thrust of a manuscript is with footnotes/endnotes or with an appendix as F'X has suggested.

If it's a short aside, consider making it a long footnote. If it's longer, put in in an appendix and reference it either in the footnote or in the text. Long — even paper-length — appendixes are not abnormal in dissertations.


In the social sciences, there is traditionally a section in the concluding chapter that discusses limitations of the present study and scope for future research.

You can include your 'discovery' in this section. In this way, you are presenting your 'discovery' and suggesting some ways in which it can be researched - two-in-one, I suppose!

The other section in which you can include your 'discovery' is where you highlight what contribution your research is making to the body of knowledge in your field. This is traditionally another section in the concluding chapter of a social science dissertation. You can 'wrap' your 'discovery' as an accidental but important contribution to knowledge.

In my case, I talked to a number of people in my field as part of my stakeholder consultation. I soon discovered that they were telling me far more than what was needed for my topic. I summarised this information in my concluding chapter and said that it represented an important contribution to knowledge because it would lost if not captured in writing (the stakeholders were mostly from the older generation).

So, there are many ways to include it in your dissertation.

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