Doctoral research, by definition, usually involves a contribution to knowledge. This requirement is often made explicit in the various university policies which define the nature of their doctoral degrees.
As an examiner of dissertations, this is one of the elements to which I am alert when examining a dissertation. Given that I have to make a judgement as to whether the dissertation has made a contribution to knowledge, I look for evidence. This evidence not only helps in my decision making, but by alerting research supervisors to the agenda of evidence that I use to establish that a dissertation has made a contribution to knowledge, this draws attention to what they might be looking for when they read their research student’s final draft dissertation before it is submitted to the examiners.
1. The argument that there is a contribution to knowledge.
When a research student reviews the literature related to their particular topic of investigation, they are undertaking this part of the research process to not only establish what counts as knowledge in that area of discourse, but to establish what is currently known, so that they can then argue that their study constitutes a contribution to knowledge. This has traditionally been undertaken as a literature review.
One of the dilemmas of the literature review is that with greater availability of published literature and tighter restrictions about how much time a research student is allowed to take to complete their dissertation, there is a possibility that a dissertation author has not read everything that is theoretically available on their topic. Some researchers resolve this dilemma by making explicit their process of checking literature by detailing their literature searching processes. This then lets them suggest ‘in the literature I reviewed I was unable to find anything’ rather than suggesting ‘there is nothing known’ about a particular topic related to their dissertation.
The greater volume of available literature also highlights another dilemma for researchers. Sometimes a researcher will go beyond the notion of formal literature and explore alternative publications, such as twitter or social networking sites, in the search for discussion about their particular topic. Such an investigative approach broadens the notion of literature review, to what could be described as a discourse review. In such a broadened concept, a research student could argue that while a topic is well represented in social media it has not as yet moved into more formal publications, such as journals, and hence their research study represents a way in which that topic would move into formal publication, and could thus be seen to be making a contribution to knowledge.
This sort of argument is often used in practice related research studies in which a researcher argues that while a concept may be well established in one practice field, it is not as evident in another practice field, and hence there has been a contribution to knowledge in the later practice field.
2. Development of models
When there is a considerable field of knowledge and a broad body of literature about a specific topic, one way to make a contribution to knowledge is to propose a framework for reviewing that knowledge. Sometimes such a framework will also highlight an area in which, despite an abundance of knowledge, there is a relatively small amount on that aspect of the topic.
In my own doctoral study I proposed a framework for reviewing the literature on higher degree research under three categories of ‘doing doctoral research’, ‘supervising doctoral research’ and ‘examining doctoral research’. In my post doctoral investigations I delved more into the field of research supervision and I investigate it – as the side bar suggests – as
- Research supervision as advancing knowledge.
- Research supervision as management.
- Research supervision as pedagogy.
- Research supervision as relationship
In writing under these four categories it alerted me to a lack of material written about research supervision as management and this resulted in blogs specifically written about that aspect of research supervision.
3. Publications by the research student are a third piece of evidence to substantiate a claim that a study has made a contribution to knowledge. If these publications have been exposed to a form of peer review before publication, such as in some of the journals, this further supports a claim that knowledge has been created and one’s peers have affirmed that.
As an examiner I often check the reference list of the dissertation to ascertain what publications a researcher has produced during their candidature and where these publications have been made.
4. Contributions to methodology
Some students, in designing their methodology, follow the prescriptions of other researchers to the letter and simply apply a previously published method to a new body of data. Other research students will devise a method for investigating a particular topic, and this method may not have been previously used, or may have been described but not applied in detail. Their contribution is to the knowledge about that methodology.
In my own doctoral investigation, although there was some reference in the literature to storytelling as inquiry, this was quite general and through my own development of a way of using practitioner stories as data, it could be said that my dissertation made a contribution to knowledge about the investigative approach of storytelling as inquiry.
In the practice related investigative methodologies, which are still emerging in the research field, new ways of investigating practice are continually being proposed by challenging dissertations. For example, Gray (1996, 3), considered to be the seminal work in defining practice-led research suggests that practice-led research is
“Firstly research which is initiated in practice, where questions, problems, challenges are identified and formed by the needs of the practice and practitioners; and secondly, that the research strategy is carried out through practice, using predominantly methodologies and specific methods familiar to us as practitioners”.
…but what does it mean to initiate research in practice. As different researchers address this challenge, they lay open potential methodologies within this descriptor of investigative practice. Their struggles to implement Gray’s (1996) mantra can be considered to be contributions to the knowledge of practice-led research.
In the course of writing this blog I posed the question regarding what constitutes a contribution to knowledge to people outside my particular discipline. Some of my Science and Maths colleagues suggested that contributions to knowledge can appear as new formulae as well as insights into problems with established formulae.
This later step in the writing of this blog raised the prospect for me that some readers of the blog would also have suggestions about what constitutes a contribution to knowledge in different research disciplines and I welcome comments that will allow me to add to and embellish this blog.
Gray, C (1996) No Guru. No method. UIAHHelsinki