Originality in research: lost and found?

This post is based on a talk and round-table I held at Swinburne University of Technology – dealing with the question: has originality become lost in research?

I have been inspired and intrigued by this question for a while, based on the terrific series of articles written by Mats Alvesson and Jörgen Sandberg. In their work, they explored and critiqued the path taken in organisational and management research in different ways, driven by a similar set of questions to that above.

One of their conclusions was that research (in this case, management scholarship) tends to follow a rather linear path of ‘incremental’ contributions to knowledge and ‘gap-spotting’ research approaches. To be clear – there is nothing wrong with gap-spotting approaches.

However, if a large proportion of research takes the same approach, we are, as they argued, less likely to propose ‘interesting theory’ that challenges assumptions of seeing social, technical, environmental problems etc. We might be missing out on more original contributions if we restrict ourselves thus. They suggest different ways of tackling this issue.

For the purpose of my talk, it was delivered to and discussed with other highly-experienced researchers across several disciplines. There was a lot of debate about not only what constitutes originality, but:

  • To whom does originality matter?
  • What are the benefits of originality?
  • What are the blockages to developing original research?

Of course, this covers a lot of ground and applies beyond the concerns of academic researchers. So I split my talk into three broad areas:

  1. What is originality and why is it lost?
  2. Where did we lose it? Or is it simply misplaced?
  3. Assuming it is lost – how do we find it again?

1. The first part drew from Alvesson and Sandberg, and we discussed different types of originality in research: from path-breaking mega-discoveries, to more incremental (but powerful) work. I think it is fair to say that what constitutes originality is highly context dependent!

But has originality been lost? From an academic view, maybe it is becoming harder to see it, rather than being lost entirely. As others have noted – the pressure on academics to ‘publish or perish’ means more work is being nuanced to fit the needs of incrementalism in journal publishing efforts. While this is extremely difficult (i.e. blind peer review), does it encourage the kind of conceptual or practical risk taking associated with major, paradigm-shifting, research?

2. The second part is interesting to me from at least two perspectives. Firstly, as a scholar, I’m interested in the debate surrounding originality as well reflexively considering the merits of my own research efforts. Navel-gazing this might be, but necessary if academics are to develop their research strategically, with a view of deeper contributions to shaping the ideas surrounding our times. Evidently, business-as-usual won’t cut it.

Secondly, as the course director of the PhD by Practice-based Research, I try to consider originality from the view my students would take – as senior practitioners in an array of industries, sectors and fields. What constitutes novelty for practitioners is very different to the scholar, and we (scholars) are often guilty of neglecting the many different voices out there seeking to contribute to and create, original, practical research.

3. The third part closed the discussion, and we focused on the role of originality in research training as a major route to re-finding originality. One of the key aspects of a great, and impactful, PhD thesis is the ‘originality’ of its contributions. Being able to demonstrate these contributions in a compelling way develops over the course of  the PhD, and is one of the great moments in the PhD journey.

That said, our creation of PhD opportunities also tends to fit the topic interests of potential supervisors, as topic experts, as much as the individual interests of research students. Scholarship opportunities are often framed as such, as are funded research places arising from grant-funded research. We might also consider the quality of training we offer research students, whether we are equipping emerging researchers with the critical and analytical skills they’ll need to pursue original research programmes of their own devising – beyond the research degree and impactful into society.

I invite your own reflections on this piece, either in general or specifically to your own approach(es) to research. Thanks for reading.

1 Comment

  1. I am reminded of the old quote ‘Cursed be he who thought my original thought before me!’ I think you have identified a tension here between the pressure to publish as per academia and ‘ordinary ‘ research, and the more practical basis to the PBR where publishing is not the aim but making a practical difference based on an identified issue, knowing the ‘audience ‘ for your research are never going to read academic or even industry journals. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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