The place of originality in academic writing 1

A few months ago, I got the criticism that my work is not original, and that most of what I have to say has already been said, and that my arguments are evident to the point of being tautological. When I got the criticism, I felt that there is a ring of truth to it, in a sense that there is practically no argument within my scheme of things that has not already been made by others. At one point, I even started questioning if there is any value to the work I did. Since it is a feeling that a lot of us go through as doctoral students, I thought of doing some loud thinking on this issue.

While I was immediately able to relate to the critique that other people have made my arguments before me, I found it difficult at the same time to identify any other work that exactly resembled mine. As far as I could see the differences between my work and other works were considerable; after all, this is what made my questions unfulfilled. This conflict within myself led me to realise that originality is not a straightforward concept…here are some reasons why:

I heard an experienced professor remark that you could do a whole life’s work and suddenly discover that there is an entire subfield in some other discipline that says exactly the same things. Our thoughts may have been original in the sense that we did not learn it from somebody else, and it was through our own labour that we got to came to a particular understanding. Is it original if it has already been written by someone else?

In critiquing the lack of originality in my work over all, my reviewer mentioned a certain aspect of my work to be an original contribution, but has a lot of scope to be developed. Interestingly that which he thought was my original contribution is widely known among the people that I interacted with in the villages during my fieldwork. Originality here really meant nothing but the transportation what is known in one place to a community where it is not previously recognised. Is it original or not?

Very often we come across works where the authors have used a well established theory to string together a number of well established historical facts. Could it be possible to string together an original story using a combination of well established theories and facts? As graduate students we do a combination of all these things: taking ideas into new spaces, reinventing some wheels without knowing that they already exist, and weaving new stories out of well established ideas. As result of this, the totality of our work is different from the totality of any other individual piece of work, even if there is little or nothing original if we break our work down into pieces.

The value of our work

I also realized in this process that my conflict was not so much about the originality of my work, as it was about my values; you perhaps noticed it when I said earlier that I started wondering if there is any value to my work. I feel that this arose from the preoccupation we have over the ownership of knowledge. The property right attached to knowledge today is based on the originality of a work, and thus even if the original component of our work is somewhat insignificant, that is what gets the priority. Outside the realm of property rights, the knowledge that we hold overall, even if it is highly dated, could be more socially relevant. But the incentive within the academic world to gain this knowledge is limited, especially under the academic regime of publish or perish.

Rigorous claims of originality are particularly hard in the social sciences. To claim that something is a common phenomenon in the society (to be called “social”), but that nobody else had thought of this before us can only be tenuous in a strict sense of the term “original”. The best of ideas within the social sciences is bound to have been thought by others. Jean Drèze reflected this beautifully in one of his articles, where he said:

“At times, I even felt embarrassingly ignorant compared with local people who had little formal education but a sharp understanding of the real world. Some of them were curious about my collaborative work with Amartya Sen (who had become a household name in India after winning the Nobel Prize for Economics), but when I tried to explain to them the main insights of this work, they were not exactly impressed. It is not that they disagreed, but they just thought that the basic message was fairly obvious” (Drèze 2002).

Sen and Drèze are among my favourite writers and academics. The value of their work is not so much that they say things that have never been said by anybody else before, but that their works, more than any other work, helps me understand the issue that they take up. This should be the primary yardstick in evaluating a work in the social sciences, and the value of our own work should mainly be how far it helped us understand the social world better.

One of my most joyful experiences in an interdisciplinary doctoral programme was to learn basic ideas from across disciplines that were lacking in my prior training. Even though these are well established ideas in a different domain, I feel that learning it is an important knowledge function. Hopefully it will help me write across disciplines and enrich understandings in the process; the value of the doctoral student as a truck transporting ideas to different social groups should not be underestimated.

Finally, in the social scheme of things, repeating ideas is important. In fact, knowledge lives in repetition: original knowledge that lies in dusty racks forever is not capable of action, and thus in repeating what is known, we perform a useful intellectual function. In other words, if we recognise the joy of knowledge or its usefulness to the society, the value of our work will be far more than its originality. Unfortunately a property-right based understanding of knowledge with its associated system of incentives such as tenures, publications, recognitions and awards push us constantly towards doing “original work”. Hopefully, the activist in us should realize that it is far more important to shape the system with our learning than to let the system shape our learning.

Drèze, Jean. 2002. On Research and Action. Economic and Political Weekly 37, no. 9 (March 2): 817-819.

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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