How do you know that your work hasn't been done by anyone?


======= Date Modified 06 Jul 2012 19:30:55 =======
This is my constant worry at the moment; I'm still in my first year and my work is a research project that I proposed, and at the moment, I can't find papers that have done my work, other than overlapping works, which I think the latter is ok.

How do you guys manage this? How do you know that your work hasn't been done? I'm worried that all of the sudden, during my 3rd year, someone else has actually done it and I'd be utterly gutted : (


It's always a risk, and not something that will go away once your PhD is over. The chances are that over the course of anyone's research career there will be at least one occasion on which one is 'scooped'. The prospect is more daunting for us early career researchers though.

For anyone, it's a source of frustration, but the consequences may vary by field. For example, I work in population health and although I'd love to be the first to demonstrate a particular phenomenon, if someone else gets there first, I can adapt my work to demonstrate that the relationship holds true in a different population group. In fact, this kind of consolidation is considered a good thing!

As a point of reassurance - when I started my PhD, we were told that our project had to be novel work on the basis of what the state of play was at the start of our PhD. So if, two years after starting, someone else publishes work similar to yours, the PhD is not invalidated, though it makes publication more difficult.

All you can really do is keep abreast of your field, anticipate where others may take their research, and not put all your eggs in one intellectual basket, so that if you do get scooped, you can adapt and evolve your work accordingly.


A very thorough review of the literature and searching will help to identify whether anybody hasn't done it already, but the real issue is other people doing the same thing at the same time.

However, it's not necessarily a bad thing and won't necessarily affect your PhD - as long as you can show your work is independent then it's fine. Yes, okay it's annoying and gutting but this is life unfortunately!

And it doesn't always turn out badly - what I was researching in my first year, I suddenly found a paper that had been looking at the same problem. Whilst their method was very slightly different to what I was doing, the conclusion of the problem was ultimately the same and wouldn't have been a novel enough difference in approach. It was nice to know that my idea and results were showing what someone presitigious in my area had found, but gutting too. However, it meant I gave up looking at that problem, chose a different one which I really enjoyed and did some novel work in and got my PhD.


It's a good question Tt_Dan, and one I asked my supervisor within the first few months of starting my PhD, as I had just visited a conference where a very revered and reputable professor had been talking about the very area which I had launched my own project upon, to my dismay as I sunk in my seat.

But my supervisor said it was a positive sign, one that showed the area which I had sought to develop my field's theories was both attractive and longing to be explored, and as long as I monitored the professors own work and ensured my methodology and perspective was not going to infringe, then it could only add to my own results.

And that has proved to be true. This professor has knocked out a couple of articles which I have been able to draw on for my own work in which the black-hole of previous research has led me to fumble around in the dark a bit. I have picked up on some of the themes this professor had explored and used them to help shape my own ideas, while remaining away from the main theme they were following.

So don't worry! We can't all be completely original - but it doesn't mean we can't be part of a pioneering movement!

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It's a question I've faced too - when I started my PhD my area was very under-researched, and I could only find one small study published anywhere internationally that was close to my area of interest. Now I'm in my third year and there are two high-profile research projects with masses of funding led by eminent researchers looking at exactly my question - but I've met the researchers at conferences, and we're busy preparing to cite each other, and our approaches are different enough that we complement each other rather than scoop each other. One of the high-profile researchers wants to set up a special issue of journal looking at the topic and has invited me to submit to it, so it's given me some great opportunities.

In fact, I'm really pleased about the development, because it means that what at the start of my PhD was an area nobody really cared about is now a mainstream area of research where I'll (hopefully!) be one of the first to publish results. And I don't have that nagging fear of people saying 'so what?' either!

But the main thing is to keep on top of the published literature, and to also keep an eye out for conference presentations too, so you know whose work to look out for and what approaches other people are taking.


"Originality" is the biggest red herring in the world of academia. There is no such thing as originality.

There is such a thing, however, of an original voice - and that is what the Phd is: three years to develop your original voice.