what is an “original contribution”?

Many doctoral researchers worry about what ‘original’ in original contribution to knowledge means. They worry  whether their research will be seen as original enough. They worry which of the multiple ways in which original might be interpreted will be applied to their thesis.  

The notion of original seems to carry with it the idea of singularity – I’ve done something fresh and unique– combined with the notion of originary – I’ve started something new here – combined with the notion of authenticity – this is all my own work, I haven’t copied it from anywhere else. Now each of these terms, applied as assessment criteria, is actually pretty unhelpful when it comes to academic work. These categories of originality might make sense for thinking about painting the Mona Lisa, or even inventing Facebook, but they don’t get very far in relation to scholarship. Let me explain.

Singularity? Something unique? Not always the case in research …  there are often teams of researchers working separately and apart on exactly the same problem. And some of these teams even come up with theories or results that are pretty similar. There is also a firm place in some disciplines for replication studies and testing out existing results.

A solo PhD most often offers small variations in research in a field that is relatively well trodden. Nick Hopwood has recently reported his own PhD experience where, coming to the end of his research, he found a published thesis which addressed almost the same question as his own – right down to the wording! Every doctoral researcher’s nightmare. However, the context, sample and approach were different. Nick argues, and I agree, that even in the unlikely and unlucky situation where the doctoral researcher’s  question is the same as someone else’s, and both doctoral researchers draw on the same literatures, the end results are highly likely to be different. But even if they were completely identical, that wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, if the two studies had been carried out completely independently (see all my own work).

Originary? Well no. Probably not. Very few people get to work on the undiscovered manuscript, a new invention, a new part of the universe. Many  people do get to look at things that no one has yet investigated, but these are generally still related to a broader concern – so for example an examination of national identity in one country’s television news programmes sits within broader fields of inquiry about television and national identity, about media and national identity and about national identity per se. The object of study might be different, but the contribution will be to a broader field.

But, even if not originary, PhD researchers do of course come up with some of their own interpretations and categorisations. These arise from their particular question, sample, methods and analytic/theoretical approach. It is in the thinking-for-myself process that their originality lies.

Authenticity – Well yes, and no. The PhD is all the doctoral researcher’s own work. It mustn’t be plagiarized. But almost every piece of research draws on other research – it uses other people’s work as building blocks, it is situated in and converses with its field as a challenge, a complementary addition, a re-framing. 

As a frequent PhD thesis examiner I of course look for authenticity – I am concerned to ensure that a thesis isn’t copied, and that it acknowledges other people’s work. And I look to see what it builds on, and what the text adds to an existing conversation. However, I’m generally looking for something much less daunting than a singular and originary contribution. 

I rather like David Lodge’s notion of originality. Lodge, writing about the novel, argues that originality is about making known things strange and unfamiliar.

What do we mean – it is a common term of praise – when we say that a book is “original”? Not, usually that the writer has invented something without precedent, but that she has made us ‘perceive’ what we already, in a conceptual sense, ‘know’, by deviating from the conventional, habituated ways of representing reality. Defamiliarisation, in short, is another word for “originality”. ( Lodge, 1992/2011, P 55)

Lodge suggests that originality means giving the reader interesting and different insights into something – an event, a social phenomenon, a text – that they might otherwise take for granted or see in a common sense way or interpret and/or explain using largely agreed language and ideas. This kind of defamiliarisation is something I expect to see in a thesis I’m examining. 

You see I’ve been asked to examine a PhD because I already have expertise in the field in which the PhD is based. I know the literatures. I know the debates. I’m already part of the scholarly conversation and community. That’s why I’m in the viva. So there is nothing more pleasurable for me, as an examiner, than to be presented with a thesis that makes something about the field unfamiliar – that is, the doctoral researcher offers some insightful analysis, some alternative ideas, brings some new literatures or methods and/or presents a cogent problematisation. I thought I knew the field, but here is some thinking and some research which is not simply more of the same. I’m prompted to rethink some of the things that I take for granted and/or add something interesting to what I already suspect or ‘know’.

As David Lodge argues, originality is taking the reader, and I’m suggesting the thesis reader/examiner too, somewhere which is simultaneously familiar and not. Original thinking and writing defamiliarises and in doing so, recovers a newness about the topic no matter how well trodden it is. An original contribution to knowledge offers the reader a chance to re-view and re-think the event/text/phenomena in question. That’s the kind of original contribution I’m interested in. 

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in David Lodge, defamiliarisation, Nick Hopwood, originality and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to what is an “original contribution”?

  1. Reblogged this on The Academic Triangle and commented:
    This for me has come just at the right time. I have just started my contribution to knowledge and there are some really good points here. Thanks ever so much Pat!

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  2. Haitham Al-Sheeshany says:

    I am in my data analysis phase momentarily and this “make the familiar/common unfamiliar & uncommon” is just brilliant lens to use! Many, many thanks Pat.

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  3. Biblioteca Carlos Albizu Miranda says:
  4. I read this blog post just before I left for my viva. Having a mindset of my examiners hoping to find something unfamiliar was a wonderful boost when defending the thesis.

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  5. Mehdi Riazi says:

    “An original contribution to knowledge offers the reader a chance to re-view and re-think the event/text/phenomena in question. That’s the kind of original contribution I’m interested in.”

    I think you’ve boiled down the vague concept of “originality” in research and thesis outcomes very well, Pat.
    I can then elaborate on your position and say that this is a matter of “intersubjectivity” in the sense that more experienced members of a particular discipline should see how the work presented contributes to the current body of the knowledge of the field. The assumption, as you explained, is that the more experienced (expert) members of a particular academic discipline are familiar with the current specialised knowledge, the research methodologies, and the potential questions pertaining to the area, and in short the current discourse of their field. Using their expertise, these experts acting as readers/reviewers or examiners can judge about the original contribution of the study being reviewed. Interestingly, in some universities the word “original” has been replaced with “substantive” and “significant” most probably because with the current information and knowledge explosion it might be hard to think of “original” as we could do before.

    In any case, I think an implication of your posting would be for the selection of appropriate examiners. If, for any reason, examiners are not chosen properly then their judgement of the piece might be problematic.

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  6. gabywolferink says:

    Thanks for posting this! Found it on twitter, just after staring to the post-it note on the side of my screen asking me to think about “my contribution to knowledge is…..” all the time. I still don’t have an answer, but with this post I’m a bit closer to finding out, I guess!

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  7. Zander says:

    This is an interesting blogpost! Thank you.

    “But even if they were completely identical, that wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, if the two studies had been carried out completely independently”

    I am in a similar field, and I disagree here. For instance, if the studies are carried out independently because the researchers have disregarded their literature reviews and academic networking, I do think that it is a problem. Especially if you work within a paradigm where replication is not an ideal. But the question is somewhat hypotethical. It is quite seldom that two phds would do empirical work in exactly the same empirical domain without knowing each other. Perhaps it is conceivable with some survey research, or non-case studies. But if that becomes the case, I would recommend them to differentiate themselves from each other – or make a JOINT study. Of course we would agree at some level, depending on how broadly you conceive the “object of study”.

    I think that what is important is that the phd student makes an EFFORT in finding what the contribution is with regards to the larger research community. That is what the ‘originality’ criterion should encourage. And just repeating what was previously said, or try saying what a lot of people will be saying in one or two years through your phd project (i.e. mindlessly jumping on some academic hype), well that is not IMO the way to build an academic community.

    The “defamilarization” conceptualisation is interesting. Can one think of non-original defamilarisations, or is that an oxymoron?

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    • pat thomson says:

      Let’s assume people do their research properly, read the literatures an so on, but haven’t yet published. They are in different institutions and don’t see each other at conferences. How are they to know they are working on the same question?

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      • Zander says:

        Well, in that case nobody will know it, not even the examiners. And the people cannot cite it – so of course it is not a problem. I do not think that is what we are discussing? I was primarily referring to studies where one took place before the other.

        I think that perhaps we are in different fields after all (I am in educational technology). We encourage phd students to seek out people working in similar fields. Being unaware of researchers doing similar things is not unforgivable, but is a weakness, IMO.

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      • pat thomson says:

        I am thinking of Nick Hopkins post, linked in my post, but also of situations like the simultaneous development of similar projects in multiple locations. This happens a lot. I think of TESOL for example where multiple people work on similar questions about language teaching. Ditto Maths teaching or teaching for social justice… It’s not at all unusual. PhD ers just need to be more relaxed about it. I think the ed tech field is a bit different because it’s fast moving. But I do know of several studies conducted about young people’s use of social media which are remarkably similar, which didn’t find each other yet which are all good pieces of research and were all successful at the defence stage.

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