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?