What Does it Mean to Make an “Original Contribution”?

Editor’s note: this article, published in 2016, makes reference to a previous edition of the AUT Postgraduate Handbook that is now out of date. The most recent edition can be downloaded here (student login required).

There’s this pesky phrase that is almost always attached to postgraduate (and particularly doctoral) programmes: “original contribution.”

At AUT, that phrase is encoded in the policies around doctoral degrees. A doctoral thesis must “show clear evidence of the candidate’s original contribution” (AUT Postgraduate Handbook p.113), and a Masters thesis must contain “an independent scholarly argument involving original research” (AUT Postgraduate Handbook p.10).

This concept of originality has always scared me: largely because there has been so much written on every conceivable topic, that I’ve never known how originality could possibly exist. As Abraham Lincoln said, “books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren’t very new after all.” And as Marie Antoinette said before him, “there is nothing new except what has been forgotten.” And as the Bible said before that, “there is nothing new under the sun.” See: even quotes about the impossibility of being original aren’t original. How can postgraduate students possibly hope to be?

original contributionNope, see, none of that stuff under the sun is new.

I asked my supervisor about this when I first started my research. His take on the issue was reassuringly simple: originality correlates with specificity. The more specific my research questions, and the narrower my field of enquiry, the better my odds of coming up with something original to say. A narrow focus also means that you can really get to grips with the existing literature on your topic, which means that you’ll know how to assess the originality of your own contribution.

Another comforting thought my supervisor shared is that making an “original contribution” isn’t the same as making groundbreaking new discoveries. You might find an original niche by performing an existing test on a particular subject that hasn’t been tested that way before; or you might apply a well-worn research methodology to a new population; or you might analyse an old text through a new lens. Original research isn’t necessarily earth-shattering, and it doesn’t necessarily employ only brand new ideas. It just needs to do something slightly different to what has been done before.

Frankly, so it should. The attraction of doing research, for me at least, is to add to the bank of human knowledge. My additions might be limited, but they are new additions. And that makes me feel really good about what I do.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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