Dr Steve Joy
Today's post is in response to a phrase that has always been ubiquitous but seems to have crossed my path much too frequently in recent months. You will no doubt recognise it yourselves. "This project will be the first book-length study on [insert your topic here]." Seriously, this won't do.
Why not, you ask? Surely, what anyone who has successfully completed a PhD learnt from that process is that research projects need to make an original contribution to scholarship. In other words, here is a gap (as proven by the fact that no book has been written on this precise topic before), and this project will fill it. Sorted.
But here's my question. Does it even matter than no previous scholarship exists on this precise topic? It might well do, but you must say how & why. What are other academics unable to do because of this gap? What has this lack of understanding been leading us to get wrong hitherto? What will we be able to do differently once your project has filled this void with fresh insights? If you want to be successful in pitching your research ideas - to interview panels, research sponsors, peers, future collaborators - then you need to be articulating why your work must be done.
Please mind the gap, because it is not the same thing as a need.
A corollary to this argument can be found in the process of getting your work published. Most academic presses give in their proposal guidelines a clear direction to authors that it’s not helpful to claim there are no competing titles. It's almost
never true, commissioning editors don't believe it anyway, and it gives the impression that the author just hasn't had a good look at the
market. What publishers are looking for is the ways in which your work critiques, complements, develops - that is, how it sits relative to the work of others in your field & perhaps in adjacent fields. You owe it to your research to present its importance in a more sophisticated & analytical discourse than maintaining that your work simply plugs a gap where no other scholar has gone before.
So, think in terms of originality by all means, but link it to a clearly stated scholarly need. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but the academy does not. Not until you can show that the presence of said vacuum is a problem which needs to be addressed.