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C2C Digital Magazine Spring-Summer 2022

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Evaluating: Am I ready to conduct novel research?

By Shalin Hai-Jew, Kansas State University

There is a heavy pressure in academic research to not repeat anyone else’s work [unless it’s to test their work for (non)reproducibility.  The question then is how to create something original research-wise.  

Off-ramps from the research practice

After years in higher education, I have noticed that many who have engaged in research have drifted away from this work.  Perhaps they rose up the career ladder and took administrative positions.  Or they lost the initial entrancement.  Or they did not keep up with the fast-moving research.  Indeed, there are many off-ramps from the research track.  

Within research, there seems to be various “sand traps”.  There is creating a model or framework or instrument and then spending years defending it.  Same with marking turf.  

It is easy enough to become disillusioned with the work, which is almost always challenging and often expensive to do (not even counting open-access publishing which can be highly expensive) and often poorly compensated.  Readers are few.  While many think of books as “permanent,” they tend to only attract some limited attention initially and then lapse into silence (with a rare occasional person who may come across the work).  There are headwinds of various types.  And there is sniping from the galley for those who achieve a certain level of success or renown.  

In reflecting on this space, I have also thought about how difficult it is to deal with the initial challenge of finding a unique research angle.  

What it takes to be unique

Figure 1.  Pattern in Square


My first point here will sound flippant, but I do not mean it to be.  As we all move through our studies and work, we are making ourselves into researchers and even “research instruments.”  All of those choices culminate, and we start to shape out as particular types of tools that can engage particular types of research.  It is possible, of course, to start with particular ideas and interests and use those to guide how we direct ourselves.  Perhaps how we evolve is a mix of both the bottom-up choices and then the purposeful macro-level-goal choices.  How we evolve will determine our uniqueness because our path will be fairly unique, and our skills are fairly unique.  Just “being” is a form of unique existence.  We bring our strengths and weaknesses to the research.  

Conceptualizing available novel topics

Then, it helps to read broadly in the target field(s) and discipline(s) of interest as well as peripheral ones.  In general, new research is built on the legacy of prior research.  Even for works that are totally out there, with few links to the main body of work, there are still often baseline understandings from the main body of work that informs the reading of the novel “isolate” work.  [There is value in wholly original work.  Whole new disciplines can spin off from highly original works.  New works can spark paradigm shifts.]  

As an aside, people can be slow to make changes.  One work that I published 13 years ago has only just now reached 669 results in a Google Search.  Back in the day, I had one citation of the term, back in 2009.  Even earlier, I created an instrument in 2005…which has been in published form for 17 years and only just now had the first person who has written to ask permission to use the instrument.  Certainly, these works may be smaller ones, but I am guessing that my experiences are common among most.  Only a few achieve high attention in the “power law” frequency curve that describes the research field.  Research renown might end up requiring a “long game” strategy.  A work has a lifetime value, and its value may change over time.  

Sometimes, the reading itself can spark ideas for research work.  There can be inspirations from consumption of content from other spaces, such as entertainment.  Ideas from one modality of communications may trigger ideas that are in other modalities.  Even casual conversations can spark ideas.  

The topic has to be interesting enough for one to lend our “headspace,” time, energy, resources, and reputation to.  This means that there has to be some meaning—professional and personal, in many cases—to the topic.  Something in the topic has to align with one’s lived values.  

The research questions have to be answerable, theoretically and practically, in terms of our access to the information sources, technologies, data collection, and other necessary pieces.   The researcher has to be sufficiently curious and hungry to do the work for it to work.  

Some ideas may start out decidedly un-novel.  The challenge then is to evolve that idea to something that is original and non-derivative.  Various ideas can spark off each other.

Cases, by definition, will be original but perhaps less generalizable because of their specificity.  Perhaps work that is specific will by necessity always be novel, too, because specificities tend towards originality (as opposed to generalities).  

Considering funding and other practical considerations

Many researchers require formal funding in order to conduct their research.  They may have labs and materials they need to buy. They may need to rent datasets.  They may need to travel.  In that case, their ambitions for research have to align with the requests for proposals (RFPs).  

Going with convenience topics

Some researchers may be inspired by something timely, like a popularized theme, even something faddish.  People can riff off of various concepts, especially if they’re positioned to take a fairly unique angle.  In some disciplines, there is a concerted effort to draw attention to work by going with more extreme and even hyperbolic phrases.  An inherently urgent topic is important in its own right.  Given the high level of competition for reader attention, topics have to be memorable.  Some researchers also tilt towards appeal via altmetrics, so some academic publication publicity takes on a social media tone.  

To me, there are benefits to doing research even if someone else has simultaneously addressed the research issue at the same time.  Some people are squeamish about trying to publish the moment they hear someone else got there ahead of them.  I do not agree.  I think it would be positive to have multiple voices around a topic.  And the research results will not be exactly the same, of course.  

Collaborating with others

Figure 2.  Distributed Collaborations


When working as part of a research team, decisions are often made by leadership and also via consensus, which affects what decisions can be made.  The strengths and weaknesses of the research team’s members also have an effect.  

A researcher’s necessary “ego”

It is often said that a writer has to have an “ego” or some hubris in order to write and to think others might have some interest in their work.  I would argue that a researcher has to have an ego as well. A researcher has to have drive to do the work and perhaps not find an audience now (and perhaps not even later).  The balance is to not let the ego dominate the work or mislead the researcher.  

Then again, many researchers are humble people open to learning.  I do not want to paint them all with one broad brush.  

Courting readership

A main justification for research work is what a work contributes to a field.  To achieve that, though, a work has to have some attention from necessary readers.  A powerful reader can “make” a work by citing it and discussing it.  Less powerful ones may not have that level of effect, but they can still bolster download and access numbers, for whatever that is worth.  

Online publishing sites, web-facing libraries, and social media offer various ways to try to drive traffic to the source article or book.  In many ways, though, it sometimes feels like readership is a hard sell, and motivations to read seem to be fast dissipating.  Once, a person wrote to me to access a copyrighted work (to which I no longer have any legal rights to share).  It turns out that she didn’t want to read it.  She wanted to cite a snippet that she’d read somewhere, and pointing her to Google Books (which had the snippet she wanted) was sufficient.  [For those who want to actually read the whole thing, I send people to Interlibrary Loan, which has been a godsend for me on various projects.]  

When in the work sequence to think about novelty?

So when does a researcher have to think about novelty in the research?  Is it something that has to be considered prior to the launch of a project?  During?  Post-research? Post-publication?  It seems to me that people think about novelty throughout but that it is most useful at the beginning before costs are sunk into the work.  That said, given the need for secrecy in various types of research, researchers will not broadly advertise what they’re doing unless their hand is forced, say, by grant funding agencies.  

By the time a formal research project has launched, and the various approvals have been acquired, it is not possible to change mid-stream.  In spaces where the funders are larger ones, they will back particular teams for particular work, and only in some cases will they fund competing teams with the same mandate…to see who can emerge with the optimal or most competitive product (and techniques and technologies).  [This is done for high-value decision-making that can affect whole industries.  There are other contexts in which such competition is used, but the throughline is when a decision is potentially high-risk as well.  If human lives are on the line, competitive funding occurs, such as for the development of vaccines and pharmaceuticals, such as for the development of defense products.]  At the periphery, for smaller funded projects or those not funded at all (self-funded by the researchers, or locally funded by the respective organizations or institutions of higher education), overlapping research is not uncommon because people may think up the same ideas at the same time.  One case in point involves just how many “COVID-19” research works were created across a variety of disciplines and fields.   


Publishing, from the outside, looks deceptively simple.  I am reminded of one of my professors (post-doc) who would point to particular theories and models and marvel how such simple ideas could gain such renown.  She encouraged her students that they, too, could think up ideas that might inform paradigms.  The last I checked, she had moved on from research work into administration—even though she had one of the most sparkling and impressive publication records of any contemporaneous researcher I’d known.   She hadn’t mapped out an idea that would change the world, in the intervening decade and a bit, but her research has defined an important part of the political science space.  

Finally, I know that even the most potent human-made ideas will age out over time.  A researcher may dominate in time, but their reputations recede into silence often in short order.  All to say, researchers can only do their best with what they have and what they can do, and what happens otherwise is well beyond the individual. 

About the Author

Shalin Hai-Jew works as an instructional designer at Kansas State University.  Her email is  
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