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.