I'm writing my Master's thesis in a field where there exists a common misconception regarding the properties of a material, stemming from some papers published in the 80's and 90's and disproved in a more thorough study published in the 00's. While most of the serious publications in this field cite this newer paper, the misconception still thrives and is sometimes even used in the papers citing the article that disproved it. The properties of this material are of great importance for the field.

The only reasonable thing is of course to use the new data in my thesis, which I will do, but since the misconception is so common I wonder if I should mention it in the report. I can think of three different ways to handle this:

  1. Don't mention the misconception at all.
  2. Mention it, but in a general way and not providing sources. For example "A common misconception is ... "
  3. Mention it, and provide sources. "A common misconception, seen for example in [references]... "

Usually, it is a bad habit to make statements without backing them up with facts, which makes me doubt option 2. But on the other hand, option 3 seems a bit too aggressive.

(This is my first post on StackExchange, I hope I didn't mess things up to much.)

  • 8
    Option 3 is very much standard in mathematics, where a master thesis often cleans up a mess left by an author of a well-known paper (it's a good way to get into research). That said, of course, mathematics makes this particularly easy to do for a student, whereas in non-mathematical research you might be better off asking around whether the misconception actually is one (as opposed to, e.g., a common abuse of notation well-understood to mean something different from what it literally says), but I expect standards to be the same. Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 16:29
  • 1
    Does the more thorough study address the topic of the "misconception"? If it was that long ago it doesn't seem necessary to call it out in your current work. I'd vote for using the new data and citing the thorough study as the source --- since it sounds like these properties are central to some aspect of your thesis, it's probably best to be very explicit that the source of this data is important and leave it at that. Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 23:38

2 Answers 2


I agree that option 2. is not good. If you want to mention the misconception but avoid shaming anybody, you can write something like

"While the belief in the 1980s and 1990 was … it was proven in […] that in fact…"

That way, no one is blamed. If, however, you feel that you need to explicitly mention that still some people follow the old belief, you should back this up by citations and I don't see a way around option 3.

  • 14
    This is a particularly good solution if the newer study that debunked the incorrect result happens to have explicitly noted that it was a popular misconception at the time, and cited notable earlier studies that assumed it, thereby providing you with an explicit reference both for the claim that the misconception is false, and for the claim that it used to be widely held. Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 19:25
  • I agree that it's a good idea to use the past tense for such statements. That way you avoid saying, even implicitly, that your colleagues are ignorant, while still subtly reminding them that if they still hold that belief, they should reconsider. Commented Nov 11, 2016 at 12:52
  • I agree completely with this way of phrasing and with delegating the listing of the outdated references to the new source. It also gets the credit it deserves. I would just add, if more references are needed for whatever reason, either to support the claim further or to provide a background backed more solidly than on one work, an acceptable alternative to "pointing a finger" may be spreading the blame by listing a larger number (say, more than 5 or even 10) of such papers and making it clear it's not meant to be a complete enumeration.
    – The Vee
    Commented Nov 11, 2016 at 18:05

If at all, I would add the reference to the now anachronistic misconception in a footnote. In my opinion, you should not introduce any obsolete information in the main body of your thesis as long as the actual misconception is not a scope of your work. Plainly use the correct data with source information. You do not need to keep old misconceptions alive.

However, if you think you need to mention the misconception, I would add a footnote where you discuss the material properties. In the footnote, you can discuss the evolution of the material data in any level detail you think appropriate and back this even up with references to the now faulty sources. Thus, your thesis remains focused on your actual work but still does include the additional information for the suspicious reader.

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