A key criterion for awarding the PhD is that the work is ‘original’. But what exactly does this mean? Presumably your TRP (or other process confirming that your project is suitable for the degree) included an assessment of whether your project was likely to meet the examination criteria. For many HDRs, though, this is never really spelt out explicitly. Your literature review, too, will have revealed that no one else appears to have published on your exact project previously.
We’ve all heard horror stories of people nearing the end of their PhD who find that someone else has just published a paper reporting on exactly the idea that they have spent the last few years working on. It doesn’t happen very often, and it is not a total disaster. There is usually a way to rescue the project by shifting the focus or gathering some extra data to ensure that the work is sufficiently different from what others have published.
However, I think this is a good reason to:
- publish your findings as you go via a thesis by compilation – it means you can claim the territory;
- keep reading throughout candidature so that you know what other researchers in your field are working on;
- attend conferences in your field in person or online so that you are up to date with current projects and work in progress (that is, before formal articles are published); and
- get that thesis submitted on time, before someone else catches up with you!
What is ‘originality’?
Understanding what constitutes originality can help you make this clear to your readers (by that I mean examiners). For many this is demonstrated by revealing a gap in knowledge related to a specific topic and then filling that gap. For others, a blunt but useful instrument to measure originality is that a piece of research is ‘publishable’ or ‘worthy of dissemination’. The implication is that other scholars in the field would be interested in the work and learn something from reading it.
A study by Clarke & Lunt (2014) shows how ‘originality’ is variously defined in doctoral education as creativity, as generating new knowledge, as offering fresh insights, and as providing solutions to existing problems. They categorise different kinds of originality (p808):
- discovery of new knowledge or new facts (which might even go so far as to change views of previous research outcomes). This might be generated by experiments or creation of artworks in the case of creative practice projects.
- development of a new theory
- application of existing knowledge in new situations
- application of a different approach or methodology to an existing situation or body of knowledge (e.g., reinterpretation of a literary text through a specific theoretical lens).
This can look different in different disciplines. In STEM areas, PhD candidates often work as a team member undertaking part of a larger research project; they need to explain what their specific contribution is to the overall project and their precise role in any published work. Humanities and Arts candidates (and sometimes those in Maths) might be ‘studying previously unpublished or newly discovered material, or undertaking a fresh analysis of existing knowledge’; or their work might involve ‘the presentation, exploration and evidence-based defence of new, novel (innovative) concept(s)/argument(s) which extend/challenge the current knowledge base’ (Clarke & Lunt 2014).
It’s important to work out what is original about your own work, and then tell the reader how your thesis meets this examination criterion.
Types of contribution
Petre & Rugg (2010), in their encouragingly titled book, The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research, list the following types of contribution that PhD research might make:
- Re-contextualizing an existing technique, theory or model
- Confirming and expanding an existing model
- Contradicting an existing model or a specific aspect of a model
- Combining two or more ideas and showing that the arrangement reveals something new and useful
- Demonstrating a concept
- Implementing a theoretical principle
- Providing a new solution to a known problem and demonstrating the solution’s efficacy
Can you identify the type of contribution from this list that your research makes to your discipline? If not, is there another way of describing your contribution? My main aim in this is to offer some language about how to demonstrate originality and contribution in your thesis.
ACTIVITY: Go back to the Library website where you can find ANU theses. Do the thesis examples you’ve looked at this week include an explicit statement of their contribution to the field? Can you easily see what new, original knowledge the research offers the discipline? What vocabulary or phrases do they use to signpost this for the reader so that the statement is unmissable?
Not everyone includes their contribution as a direct statement, as Trafford, Leshem & Bitzer (2014) reveal. Importantly, it appears that this is not a deal breaker, since the theses they read were in fact awarded the degree. Nevertheless, I believe that the easier you make it for the examiner to see what you’ve done, the smoother your examination process will be. I strongly encourage you to be explicit about what you are contributing to knowledge in your field.
ACTIVITY: In one sentence, tell us what you contribute to your field – what do we know now that we didn’t know before your project was conducted? If it’s early days, you might think about this as your hypothesis – what you hope to be able to demonstrate, or what you think is the most likely outcome from your research.
You can use this sentence in your abstract, your Introduction and your Conclusion. Signpost it to make it easy for an examiner to understand exactly what you have learnt during your project that is new: ‘The main contribution of this thesis is….’ or ‘This thesis presents a novel interpretation of…’
Tomorrow is our final day to think about how you ensure that your thesis is good enough to send out for examination. We’ll focus on Introductions and Conclusions that bracket all that good research you are presenting.
Gillian Clarke & Ingrid Lunt (2014) The concept of ‘originality’ in the Ph.D.: how is it interpreted by examiners?, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 39:7, 803-820, DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2013.870970
Marian Petre & Gordon Rugg (2010) The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research: Open UP Study Skills. Berkshire: OUP.
Trafford, V., Leshem, S., & Bitzer, E. (2014). Conclusion chapters in doctoral theses: some international findings. Higher Education Review, 46(3).