by Daniel Adamson |

‘Originality does not consist in saying what no one has ever said before, but in saying exactly what you think yourself.’

James Stephens (1880-1950), Irish novelist and poet.

Originality is, perhaps, the holy grail of the PhD process. It is not uncommon to find research proposals that promise to change the world. Even after this illusion is rapidly dissolved, many doctoral projects are predicated on the expectation of making a significant new contribution to respective academic fields. There is certainly a case for disabusing PhD students of the impression that their research must venture where none before have tread.

On the contrary, isn’t it time to acknowledge that there is arguably as much merit in research that substantiates existing work than in studies which can claim total novelty?

The paradox of unoriginality

At the heart of this issue is the pervasive equation of unoriginality with direct plagiarism. The distinction should be made between the copying of others’ ideas, and the less pernicious confirmation of others’ ideas.

There is somewhat of a paradox at play. Even if PhD research ‘unoriginally’ reaffirms the findings of previous work, this is itself an original contribution. Simply, it has taken the form of an act of confirmation, rather than one of innovation.

In fact, given the breadth of the academic world, it is highly unlikely that any PhD topic has never been considered before in at least some form. If this were the case, it could be argued that the need for citations at any point would be redundant. Acceptance that your PhD research can be truly original to a limited extent is an important first step. It can even be viewed as a positive. It offers the opportunity to collaborate with other like-minded researchers, and to build upon existing theory for the greater advancement of your chosen field of study.

Even if the thrust of doctoral research might differ little to that of previous authors, the lens through which it is viewed is almost certainly unique. Results of research can stay constant throughout time: how they are interpreted is subject to change.

Shifting the framework of originality

Unoriginality can also be separated from the more nefarious practice of plagiarism. Replication of existing research models or lines of investigation need not be taken at face value as idle imitation. Rather, in most cases, it represents an acknowledgment of effective practice amongst precedent researchers. It is a tribute, not an insult. Drawing direct inspiration from previous work is itself a gateway to further academic development.

In fact, academia might benefit from a shift away from the negative casting of ‘non-results’. The failure to obtain a result is still, in its own right, a result. As such, it should not be an automatic source of disappointment for doctoral students.

Revision of previous research is also far from a futile task. Academia is a living organism, and is undergoing constant evolution. Re-evaluation of past work – and the validity of accepted arguments – is a powerful safeguard against complacency and entrenchment. Engagement with existing research should not necessarily be interpreted as a challenge, but merely an opportunity for the affirmation of previous hard work.

In this sense, the concept of originality can be shifted from the present to the future. ‘Unoriginal’ research can make an original contribution by suggesting future avenues of exploration. A single PhD project is one point on a wider arc of academic development. A suggestion of where research might go is something to be considered. At some point, known material must be applied to a new, original context.

To conclude, in 1675 Sir Isaac Newton remarked ‘If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants’. Given the constraints in time and resources of a PhD project, doctoral research is therefore more akin to a piggyback upon said ‘giants’. It is almost inevitable that a PhD project will be required, to some extent, to ride upon the crests of existing waves of research.

Nonetheless, this should neither be a cause of shame nor criticism. It is misleading to view the act of finding a new angle on known materials as a soft option. PhD students might best be judged on what they do with existing research, rather than whether or not they themselves instigated such findings.

Above all, the individuality of the human voice should not be underestimated. Even if the information you offer has been presented before, it will not have been expressed in your own unique way.


Daniel Adamson is a first-year PhD student in the History Department of Durham University. His PhD project considers educational portrayals of the relationship between Britain and the Holocaust (Twitter: @DEAdamson9). 


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