Key words – contribution


The dictionary definitions of contribution are:

  1. A gift or payment
  2. The part played by a person or thing in bringing about a result or helping something to advance and
  3. A piece of writing submitted for publication in a journal or book

When scholars talk about contribution it might be 3. A contribution might be a piece we have submitted to an edited collection, a text book, an anthology of cases or an encyclopaedia.

But the most usual scholarly formulation of contribution is as a “contribution to knowledge”.

Contribution to knowledge is an apparently simple idea, but in reality it’s pretty slippery. So here’s few thoughts about how to make sense of it, just to start with.

A contribution to knowledge is more like dictionary definition 2. Your research and/or writing helps to advance understandings about a topic.  People know a little or a lot more about a topic because they’ve engaged with your work, read what you’ve written. And you’ve been able to explain to readers that the work adds up to a contribution – it takes the field somewhere – through

  • a defensible and well-designed inquiry, investigation, exploration, interrogation, deconstruction, experimentation, testing out, bringing things together that were previously apart and so on
  • a thorough analysis which is explained and available for scrutiny
  • the development of a credible and clearly ordered argument that explains the results, which leads to
  • a conclusion about the specific place of the results within the existing research on the topic – and how it complements, contradicts, adds something new, challenges, questions, confirms, reframes etc what is already known.
  • pointers for further development in policy or practice or further research.

In English language/Western traditions of research your readers/examiners/reviewers expect you to spell the contribution out to them in detail. ( This is not always the case in other cultural traditions.)

Readers/examiners/reviewers always expect to see the particulars of where the research fits and sits in relation to published literatures. In some disciplines, there is also a strong expectation that you’ll make connections to policy and professional practice.

And, justifying and explaining your contribution in relation to the field and extant literatures may well be an integral part of your viva or defense.

That’s not all to contribution of course. Most university guidelines still refer to contribution as ‘original’. Original doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been done before; in some disciplines re-doing what has been done before is very important. And original in the context of contribution doesn’t mean that the researcher has made a ground-breaking discovery – although that is very occasionally the case. Nor does original mean that the research is all your own work, although that is always a requirement and, perhaps in the light of AI, this meaning of original will come to matter much more .

No, what is meant by original is very clearly definition 2. Your research has taken you somewhere new. At the end of your research you know much more about your topic than you did at the start. Even if some if it is what not to do or think.

But the research also takes the field somewhere, it sets a line of thinking or does more to an established line of thinking, it offers well argued and evidenced results which others can build on.

And this is of course how contribution relates to significance. The field won’t move forward and/or no one will bother with the research if it isn’t of some value. A contribution generally isn’t just something that wasn’t there before (ie it fills a gap)  but something that, like a contribution to a conversation, supports thinking and talking in the field to go somewhere.

In this sense, an original contribution is also definition 1. A gift. A gift to the scholarly community which colleagues can use to help build their own contribution.  A (re)payment for the work of others that you used to build your own. A down payment on the work of others you will use in the future.

Making a contribution to knowledge is the essence of what scholarship is about. Taking a field and its thinking forward, even if only a little.