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How to recognise and develop originality in research

For research to be of PhD standard, all institutional regulations require it be 'original' and significant. In practice, though, research projects at all levels should be original; just the duration shorter and the significance less - much less for undergraduate projects. (Advice on limiting the scope and significance of a project at the outset is on the page about choosing a research topic; advice on limiting scope towards the end when seemingly submerged in too much data is on the page about a fall-back position.)

Students often worry about how to recognise and claim originality in their work. This page should help, but remember that originality without some sort of significance is worthless.

Ways of thinking about originality

A useful way to appreciate the scope of originality is through an analogy, where the research programme can be likened to an exploration into a wilderness at a time in history when the world was still largely unexplored and when explorers still had considerable personal autonomy. In the analogy, the explorer may have certain visions in mind concerning what he or she hopes the expedition will achieve, but appreciates that these may not materialise, so is open to alternatives. To avoid cumbersome repetition, the explorer and student will be taken as having different sexes, arbitrarily male and female respectively.

Originality in tools, techniques and procedures

In the analogy the explorer uses all the information he can to firm up on why he wants to explore the wilderness and how he might do so within the resources at his command and within any constraints that may exist. He uses this information to plan and organise what background knowledge, procedures, tools, equipment and personnel he will need, tailored to the available resources and constraints. Some procedures may have to be specially designed, some tools and equipment may have to be specially made and some personnel may have to be specially trained or brought in.

Sections from The Research Student's Guide to Success in the chapter on the research proposal

The need for originality in research

Originality in tools, techniques and procedures

Originality in exploring the unknown/unexplored

Originality in exploring the unanticipated

Originality in data

Originality in transfer of mode or place of use

Originality in by-products

Originality in the experience

Originality as ‘potentially publishable’

The variety of interpretations and configurations of originality

The balance between originality and conformity

Protecting the ownership of original work

Putting originality into perspective

Similarly, the student studies the literature, talks to experts and attends relevant training to get background knowledge and to develop an appropriate research methodology. This must include decisions about the procedures, tools and techniques, and possibly also the people to be involved. These may be fairly standard in the field of study, but if she uses them in new and untested ways, this would justify a claim for originality. Or if she develops new procedures, tools and techniques for a specific purpose, this, too would justify a claim for originality. If neither is the case, her claim for originality must lie in later stages of the work, as suggested in the next few sections.

Originality in exploring the unknown/unexplored

In the analogy the expedition begins along the pre-planned route. If this is previously unexplored, the mere exploration is original work.

Similarly, if the student is conducting a major investigation on something which has never been investigated before, such as a recently discovered insect, star, poem, etc, the work will necessarily be original.

Such originality is built into the research topic and is straightforward to justify.

In many fields of study, however, originality is not built-in. So read on.

Originality in exploring the unanticipated

In the analogy the main route may already have been broadly ex­plored. However, the explorer will, from time to time, come across unexpected and unexplored sidetracks. He may not notice them and he may continue on the planned route anyway, in which case nothing original is involved. If, however, he does notice the sidetracks, he has to make decisions about whether to explore any of them, and if so, which ones. These decisions may be difficult, because he cannot know whether anything of interest will turn out to lie along them without at least partially exploring them, and doing so will use resources of time and equipment which will delay the expedition on its main route. Yet, one or more of the sidetracks could contain something of such great interest and significance that it would be worth abandoning the expedition as first planned and putting all the resources into exploring the sidetrack.

Similarly, in fairly mundane research, one phase of the work can open up alternative ways forward which have never previously been researched. These ways forward are necessarily original, and they can also turn out to be highly significant. They can, on the other hand, equally turn out to be dead-ends which consume time and effort fruitlessly. Researchers cannot know without devoting some time to looking, and even if nothing worthwhile results, a student can at least claim to have searched for something original and significant.

Originality in data

In the analogy the explorer may make interesting notes of observations along the way. Where he is unable to give them the time they deserve while on the expedition, he may pack them up for carrying back home to work through properly.

Similarly, the student may find herself collecting data, a great deal which she does not process at the time. She just hopes that it may provide something original and useful later when processed or analysed. This is a perfectly possible way of incorporating originality into work, but it is not at all safe because the data may turn out to have minimal significance. To follow such a route successfully, students need either good hunches about how the data might be used to advantage or considerable creative abilities.

Originality in transfer of mode or place of use

More information

The explorer may collect all manner of goodies along the way, ranging from what he hoped for when planning the expedition to the entirely unanticipated. These goodies may have an obvious uniqueness, beauty or value, like gold or precious stones. More likely, though, they are commonplace where they were found, but unknown back home, like the potato which Sir Walter Raleigh brought to England from America.

Similarly, originality in research need not be new in absolute terms. It can merely be new to the research situation or the discipline. Even well-known and already published data can lead to 'originality' if tested in new situations. It is both feasible and acceptable for researchers to make something original and significant with secondary data, i.e. data that they did not gather themselves. This route to originality is often overlooked by research students.

Originality in by-products

Things may go so badly wrong on the expedition that it has to be abandoned with seemingly nothing achieved. Yet, the illnesses of the team could be used to testify to the diseases that are rampant in the area. Or the torrential storms that washed away the collections of specimens could be monitored for interpretation in terms of what is already known about storms in that type of terrain. Neither of these would have been the purpose of the expedition, but they would be none the less valuable and count as original and significant outcomes.

Similarly, the student may be able to capitalise on things that seem to go wrong. Important equipment may not work; crucial resources may not be available; people may not agree to be interviewed; funding may be withdrawn; or there may be other serious and unforeseen obstacles. Just as in the analogy, a little creative thinking can rescue the situation, which is the primary reason for the third role in which students need to operate. There are almost always by-products during any research, perhaps the development of a certain piece of equipment or some interesting secondary findings in the literature. These can be moved into the mainstream, focused on or developed further. When the thesis or dissertation is written, the research problem, theme or focus merely needs to be reformulated to reflect the new nature of the work. There is nothing at all dishonest about this.

Originality in the experience

Whatever happens on the expedition, the explorer should, provided that he did not give up and return home early, have some interesting stories to tell.

Similarly students who stay the course with their research should be able to tease out something worthwhile from an academic or scholarly standpoint. Creative thinking techniques should help.

Originality as 'potentially publishable'

Departing from the analogy, another useful way to stimulate thinking about originality is through the concept of 'potentially publishable' in a peer-reviewed journal. This is increasingly being equated to 'significant originality' for students' research. The work does not necessarily have to be published, only to be worthy of publication, in principle, if suitably written up at a later stage. 'Potentially publishable' is a useful notion, because most research, particularly at PhD level, ought to be able to generate at least one, and probably several, journal articles. If, by the time of the examination, the work has already been accepted for publication in a peer reviewed journal, that is a considerable plus.

The variety of interpretations and configurations of originality

It is not very difficult to develop new and original twists to research, and Box 21.1 in the book gives some examples of how real students have done so. You should be able to do it too.

© Pat Cryer


* 'Supervisor' is a shorthand for 'research degree supervisor', 'advisor' or 'tutor', and applies to varying extents for all research degrees: PhD, DPhil. MPhil, Prof Doc and even undergraduate and masters' projects. In some countries, notably the USA, a 'supervisor' is known as an 'advisor'.