oh no, someone did the research before me…

I very frequently meet doctoral researchers who are worried about not being original enough. They are afraid that what they are doing has been ‘done before’ and they won’t therefore be making an ‘original contribution’ to knowledge. They also are terrified that just as they are finishing, they will find the definitive article which says everything they have to say, perhaps better and more convincingly.

Now in the arts and social sciences this really isn’t a big problem. The doctorate is not seen as the place for enormous breakthroughs. It is more a case that the PhD is intended to demonstrate that the researcher can think their way through a problem, design a defensible and interesting research project, carry it out thoroughly, and write it into a coherent form. Even if the topic is one which is widely studied, the researcher brings their own particular readings of the literatures – and if they are doing empirical work they also bring the particular site, sample and method – to the study. These are what makes another look at a very well trodden area ‘the contribution’.

But even if the magic says-it-all article does appear it is still possible to incorporate it into the thesis, with a note to say that it wasn’t available at the time the research was designed. Sometimes this even appears as a post script. PhD examiners understand that this happens, and they are really not expecting to see the equivalent of a Nobel prize winning piece of work.

In reality there are very few of us who don’t work in fields where there are lots of other people slogging away just like we are, and the chances of someone else doing something pretty similar are relatively high. Very few of us find the unknown manuscript, or develop the killer app. Rather than see this as a problem, finding someone in or around the same question ought to be an opportunity for pleasure – there is someone we don’t know who we can potentially talk to, maybe even work up a collaboration.

The problem of someone else doing the same work changes for post doctorate researchers. While arts and social science scholars do not generally wake up in a cold sweat thinking that someone else has found the key to the universe or the cure for cancer before we have, there are still a couple of potentially nightmarish issues.

Doing the same work as someone else is an issue when it comes to publication. I recently encountered someone who was just about to write an article about a neglected form of poetry. But when she got the contents list of a newly released book in her field she saw there was a chapter addressing the very set of literatures she was also working on. What’s more the chapter appeared to be arguing the same thing she had intended – that this was an interesting set of texts which offered new insights into understandings of the period. Catastrophe!

Now this really was depressing – but not for long, as it turned out. The researcher was able to take this chapter as already written and it became a building block to which she could add. Despite her initial alarm, she was quite quickly able to find another angle on the texts. This allowed her to write a different article to the one she had first intended – but it was one which did make a further contribution to the emergent area.

Not everyone is so lucky as to find a new way to write about the shared topic, of course. People who are working in densely populated scholarly areas often have to work pretty hard to get something new to say. It can be quite tricky to turn a perfectly acceptable research project, which ends up coming to a fairly standard conclusion, into something interesting. Such projects could have a real impact on policy and/or practice, but require more imaginative work to get taken up by a journal.

The other being-in-the-same-place nighttime terror comes from the funding game. Some research councils believe that having different approaches to the same topic is potentially useful. Others however do not like funding more than one project on the same topic. It is a dreadful experience to spend ages on a bid for funding to then discover that someone down the road has put in something terribly similar on the same topic. The research council probably won’t fund both and will make a decision based on some kind of fine discriminator.

It is always important for those engaged in the bidding game to search through funded project archives to see what has already been done and reported, and what is underway, so at least avoiding the been-there-done-that funder response. It also helps to find out from someone in the know the council’s ‘hidden’ rules about double-funding. And of course it’s crucial to be well networked enough to know who is planning to do what – joint proposals are always possible.

Do you have any more angles on the researching–what’s-already-been-done issue? Do you agree that it’s not necessarily a problem, particularly at doctoral level? Got any stories to share?

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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11 Responses to oh no, someone did the research before me…

  1. SheriO says:

    Thanks for clarifying this issue Pat..I know that some israeli (?) doctoral students at one point created a registry for Ph.D. students to submit abstracts. The idea was to find like-minded others and to, I presume, avoid duplication.
    Darwin apparently rushed the publication of “On the Origin of Species” because he got wind of others who had come to the same conclusion and he wanted to be credited for it. How opportune and competitive for now Darwinian and evolution are synonyms.
    The fascinating question here is how is it that the same ideas often emerge from different people at the same time. Is it Zeitgiest?
    Speaking of originality my blog looks at the other side of the coin; the plight of the daring researcher who must abandon the work for want of a way forward or a way out. Such a problem occurs all the time in academia. I wonder if even failed research has value. Maybe publishing failed research could lead others to try or result in suggestions that might make a difference.


  2. Thank you for this interesting and very useful post, Pat. I have also come across expressions of these anxieties, that as SheriO comments they are also related to anxieties about attribution. I have discussed elsewhere the role of attribution as key currency in scholarship, and of the challenges and opportunities that digital methods and platforms add to the equation. In my experience, things haven’t changed much from the times in which Darwin as working (it was Wallace’s letter to Darwin sharing his research findings what rushed the publication of Darwin’s paper); at least not in the way many researchers (even very young and early career researchers) still choose to behave.

    I have always been a very open and active advocate of research blogging and of the need to recognise such outputs as reseach (i.e., the need to cite it and attribute it as well when it’s used by others), but I have also witnessed how ideas I have presented in conferences, on blog posts and as tweets, get reused without attribution in published peer-reviewed papers. Academia still largely refuses to cite ‘grey literature’ or so-called ‘informal’ outputs, but many are very happy to use them as the basis of their research, and then get credit and recognition for them by publishing them in platforms that lack the same licensing terms as the platforms in which those ideas were originally shared.

    This means that many researchers have been put off blogging or even presenting key findings in conferences, especially when they are still at the early stages of their careers (like myself). The problem of the unwillingness to properly cite and attribute ideas presented in platforms alternative to the published paper or book is more behavioral/psychological/ethical than infrastructural or even cultural. Often ECR and students simply assume non-peer reviewed or non-traditional publications cannot and should not be cited (but strangely enough, are happy to use the ideas presented in them, and then claim credit for them).

    Since academia is inherently a social space, the situation can get tricky, because hierarchical structures are still the norm and junior academics are terrified of upsetting their supervisors or senior academics, in constant fear of never getting a job, and in many cases resigned to a (for me false) idea that the only way to succeed in academia is by doing things in the same old ways in which it had “always” been done.


  3. There is actually some published research on this question of originality which is focused on the social sciences and humanities: http://scholar.harvard.edu/lamont/publications/what-originality-social-sciences-and-humanities

    In general, I think people overestimate what counts as “original”. As you point out, it can be simply a different angle on a topic or a different methodology. The idea is to make a contribution to debates in your field. (Or, sometimes some other kind of contribution.) When you are doing the literature review this is partly what you are figuring out — what is the conversation about and how can you add to it in a meaningful way.


    • hkhalil1983 says:

      Perhaps academic communities who are relativist are more accepting than realists? For the relativist, every thesis should be viewed as ‘original’ – respective to the candidates constructed worldview. A realist with their claims on the ‘one reality’; perhaps a little bit more difficult making something more original. You could then extend the debate more fully into postpositivism with an objectivist view that utilises a hypothetico-deductive method – theory is never new, only an extension of what has previously been ‘discovered’. Rather, for constructivist communities, the creation of a new theory is far more acceptable, and perhaps argued as ‘original’ every time given that the theory is co-constructed and relative to a specific context – social, cultural, historical – that the thesis was situated from……

      ….sorry for the philosophical rant….I’m writing my methodology chapter at the moment for my thesis!



    • Oh, I completey agree ‘originality’ is overrated, at least in most humanities research. I never said anything I had said was ‘original’ in the literal sense of the word. Twitter, of all places, is a great place to confirm that what many think are original ideas are really shared by lots of people all over the world who don’t know or have even heard of each other.

      I’d like to clarify I didn’t mean to say either that my ideas had been ‘stolen’. Most of my work is shared as CC-BY, explicitly or implicitly (one cannot add a license to each individual tweet, which would be frankly ridiculous). It is attribution, not ‘originality’, what I am concerned about. It is easy to trace the genealogy of topics, ideas, subject matters, approaches, whatever you want to call them, when you participate in reduced circles of scholars interested in similar things.

      I am particulary concerned with a lack of reciprocity in which knowledge is circulated, as expressed by the lack of attribution and citation of ‘informal’ online scholarly outputs in published literature. It seems to me unfair that some researchers make the effort to share ideas and work openly online, under CC licenses, only for someone else to ‘borrow’ this idea (the idea might not *belong* to anyone in particular– it flows in the ether, in the popular academic unconscious, in the network itself where ideas are collectively generated and put to test) and, without at least mentioning where a certain idea/topic/problem/source etc. was first encountered by the author to use it in a published paper for which this latter author gets formal academic recognition.

      In my view this is a real situation which is discouraging many from investing the time and energy in sharing significant outputs openly online before they have been published ‘formally’ in peer-reviewed journals. What makes the problem even worse, in my opinion, is the fact that many of these formal outputs are a) not open access and b) published a significant time after some of the initial ideas were first/previously discussed, for example, in online networks or conferences.

      My call is for a recognition and attribution of the work being done openly online in non-traditional or non-formal (call them what you like) platforms. Many professional associations, like the Modern Language Association, already recognise the need to cite Web sources. There is a plethora of interesting ideas first published online outside the traditional peer-reviewed journals, but often those taking credit for them (“credit” in the sense of benefitting from them by getting formal academic recognition) are those using them, often without mentioning their sources, on published paywalled papers that often are circulated within very different scholarly networks.


    • SheriO says:

      Thanks for the link. In the west, we portray the true ‘original’ as a hero, who suffers and is shunned for their ideas. Contributing to the discourse through understanding its debates represents a kind of incrementalism, whereas new paradigms and climates radically rupture prevailing orthodoxies. Originality scales.


  4. Sheri Ober says:

    Proper attribuition and citations truly develop the context for associations to thinkers or schools ofthought, yet like Darwin’s story and many others show, independent researchers may arrive at the same point, yet the first to publish, gets all the credit. Ownership of ideas in this instance hardly seems fair, calling Into question, the levels of scrupulousness with which ideas must be cited. Why the competition? It shouldn’t be a race. With some disrespect to Darwin, if your work truly is original, no one else will be able to produce it.


  5. SheriO says:

    In Darwin’s time, getting to print publication first, made all the difference (but that’s another subject). Today, it’s old news. New processes for digital scholarship may even question attribution. The rapid exchange of ideas in networks through tweets and blogs contribute to and stimulate a ‘collective unconsciousness’ such that attribution to one solitary individual may beg the question, Where does the network end and the individual begin?


  6. sherranclarence says:

    Thank you for this post. Lately all your posts about PhD writing seem to be addressed right to me and where I am in my own doctoral ‘journey’. I found this really helpful, and also eased some of my own anxiety about whether someone will be interested in reading what I have written, and whether I will be deemed to have made a sufficient contribution to my field. I am not saying something totally new – who really can do that these days? – but I am saying something important that will extend a necessary conversation about teaching in higher ed, and that is worth holding onto and continuing to work on. Thanks, Pat.


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