How can you tell when there has been a contribution to knowledge (in a doctoral research study)?

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.

5. Formulae

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

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About the (research) supervisor's friend

I work at a university helping university academics who are supervising research students. I am a research supervisor myself and also work as a research coach for people undertaking their research I was originally in a Management Faculty and when I completed my doctoral studies on 'doing a doctorate' I started working with research supervisors to help them improve their practice.
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44 Responses to How can you tell when there has been a contribution to knowledge (in a doctoral research study)?

  1. Vicky says:

    Thanks for this post, very helpful. I’m in the process of completing my psychology doctorate and my background and research are very applied. I came across your blog because I was looking for how my research might be seen as making a contribution to knowledge, as well as practice, so this was great. Thanks!

  2. Stephen Fletcher says:

    Thanks very much for this very useful post. Today 20 June 2012, I’m about to strat my final chapter of my thesis on, my contribution to knowledge. Your article is definitely timely. As a matter of interest, my area of research is on how stakeholders influence the performance of business organsation, using the case study – practical – approach.
    Thanks very much for this article.

  3. Walid says:

    Thank you Dr for the post. I have read your post with interests. However, the question still remains ” what is considered as a contribution in Engineering, for example, I read in IEEE that they will come the following:
    “Theoretical contributions (including new techniques, concepts, and analyses) and practical contributions (including system experiments, prototypes, and new applications) ”
    Source : http://ieee-wcl.skku.edu/english/viewforum.php?f=7

    Can I consider that this as the ultimate answer for the question : What is a contribution in Engineering?
    When I started my PhD, I was lost and I felt in a middle of the desert. When I was read the papers, I felt so small, and I need years and years to reach these levels. After three years, I figure out that the methods were simple, but they need to make it such as complex to show that they got a contribution. I’m not talking about all publications in engineering, I’m just saying about the one I read related to my topic. I know an author ( no need to mention names) who published the same idea more than 10 times in journals (Indexed in Scopus and some in Web of sciences), by playing with the way of interpreting the results. Each time calming it is a contribution although the idea had been published several times. I wonder how they consider it as a contribution.

  4. Munanura Arthur says:

    this sorts me out, thanks

  5. oscar rubio says:

    I got a clearer idea, but still I cannot touch ground yet. Thank you.

  6. stevealbury says:

    Very helpful thanks – one problem I have found is feeling that there is a good chance that what I have done is pointless but presume that’s fairly normal when you get to the end of such an exhausting task.

    • HI Steve,
      This is such a pertinent question because it speaks both the notion that a PhD is going to make a contribution to knowledge and it also speaks to the emotional journey that it is often filled with feelings of self doubt.
      To the first I believe that as you position your study with an awareness of what has already been done, this helps to affirm for you that your topic is a viable one. This can be quite complex, as it is now accepted that when a topic is unfamiliar in one discipline its introduction to that discipline is considered a contribution to that discipline, even though there may be a track record in other disciplines. This is often the case with educational inquiry when an idea from outside the education field is implemented and makes a difference in the way educators operate.
      To the second it is always better to be armed with awareness and begin to see the signs of disenchantment as signs of healthy self doubt – although they don’t feel that way when you are experiencing them. What you have described appears in the literature as ‘imposter syndrome’ and if you google that topic you will find comments about that. One of the blogs in this series is also about impostorhood. The more opportunities you find to share your topic the more opportunities there are to both build the emotional defense of self value and learn whether your topic is already out there.

  7. Adel says:

    Thanks for this..This is a very helpful topic that i read when i completed writing my discussion chapter and start to think about final conclusion chapter which should present contribution to knowledge
    kind regards
    Adel

  8. Muhammad Usman Mazhar says:

    Excellent post. It has clarified my doubts regarding the contribution to the knowledge. Thank you very much. Regards, Muhammad

  9. Stella says:

    Thank you so much for this post. Im only at the interview to start Phd at this stage, and this have given me a clear idea of how to talk about my research proposal, when the panel asks THAT question….. ‘whats your contribution to knowledge..?’

    Wish me luck!

  10. Erick says:

    I am conducting a study on Accomodation of people with disabilities with Transnet’s workforce in KwaZulu-Natal. definatley the study will contribute to knowledge but i am not sure about other contributions that study could make.

    • Dear Erick,
      Thank you for this posting. It is a good example of a starting point when undertaking an investigation. From reading your post it would appear that this study is firmly entrenched in a social justice framework, and as such, like you it is easy to see that the contribution that the study will make is a practical one. Would it that all research was so focussed on practical applications.
      Without knowing the details of your study here are some ideas that come out of my brainstorming around your topic:
      1. It could be that you come up with an approach to providing accommodation for people with disabilities that no-one has used before. While your study provides a practical contribution there is also the additional contribution of the knowledge of the ‘how to solve this sort of problem?’
      2. It could be that what your study brings to the discourse on providing accommodation for people with disabilities is insights into the assumptions people have made previously about the people with disabilities and what sorts of accommodation they want or need. Such a study might be labelled as critical reflection in that it is getting to the heart of assumptions. If you come up with a different set of assumptions or beliefs then your study could be described as paradigm shifting and thus making a contribution to knowledge by way of challenging the long held beliefs (hegemony) of this particular practice.
      3. It could be that the methodology you use is new methodology. You may have come up with different ways for eliciting data about the needs and wants of the people in your study set and thus your contribution is a methodological one.
      In order to make these claims of a contribution to knowledge you need to establish what is currently known which means either reading the literature or speaking to people who have read the literature and get a sense of how the talk about this issue (discourse) frames the issue and the possible problems to address it.
      Good luck!
      Geof

  11. Really very helpful! I interrupted my study and just started to goggling to explore how contribution to knowledge is thought in the research community. I found my self in the right track after I read this good piece. Thanks!

  12. Deogratias Mugisha says:

    Deogratias Mugisha (baryomugisha@gmail.com)
    This has been a timely advice.I have completed all the chapters of my thesis to the satisfaction but this small section has been giving me sleepless nights. With this advice, i am comfortably able to handle this section.Thanks alot.

  13. Deogratias Mugisha says:

    Deogratias Mugisha (baryomugisha@gmail.com)
    This has been a timely advice.I have completed all the chapters of my thesis to the satisfaction of internal examiners but this small section has been giving me sleepless nights. With this advice, i am comfortably able to handle this section now.Thanks alot.
    Reply

  14. Rubuye Dawson says:

    Thank you all, it was a challenge to me, because my supervisor asked me to include this section in my Master thesis. Now I think it is over.

  15. Shamsudeen Kabir says:

    I was ask to write an article based on “Why the contribution of research is an important section in a thesis?” Please i need your help because i did not understand the topic clearly.
    thanks

  16. Thank you sir for this insightful post.

  17. thanks for your post. I stumbled on it while meditating on my contribution to knowledge in my on going research. am writing on e-banking adoption in Nigeria and combing all the characteristics of the 3 models currently in use on adoption viz TPB,TAM and TAB in a single frame work. my survey of literature showed only 1 model being applied in most cases and rarely 2 together. please give your counsel.

  18. Hi Fajembola,
    Thank you for your post.
    Without knowing the details of your topic my response can only be very general and in providing it it, has opened up some important issues with regard to contributions to knowledge.
    The idea of introducing e-banking to Nigeria may itself be a contribution to knowledge. Not that this idea is not already well established in the wider world, but each individual implementation brings with it certain cultural anomalies and these can add to both the understanding of the specific introduction of e-banking as well as the broader ideas of technological innovations.
    As you suggested, some of the literature that speaks about this issue may only be referring to one or two models, and as such, your contribution of applying 3 models in unison may constitute a contribution to both an understanding of this issue as well as advancement in the methodological basis for the study.
    Depending on the language you use on writing about this there may be another avenue for exploring contribution, becasue while this topic may have been discussed widely in english language journals, there may be some new thoughts that emerge when the idea is expressed in a different language. Metaphors and language structure linked to the english language may have a strong influence in the way in which this topic is introduced, as well as some of the inherent values of english speaking countries that are evident in the arguments for this innovation’s worth. Some of these embedded ideas may need tro be explored in examining the worth of the contribution for a different culture.
    All the best with your PhD.

  19. Jude says:

    Thank you for this post.
    Please my research topic is on Public Private Partnership (PPP) Failure on transport infrastructure in Nigeria. My research question is why has the adoption of PPP model failed in transport infrastructure development. I used three methods(Desk base; Delphi and case study) in my investigation. The outcome revealed three factors : absence of long-term funding, risk mis-allocation and managerial opportunism ad the chief cause of failures.

    Please could you suggest how I can frame my contribution to study. Your response would be very helpful.

    • Dear Jude,
      Thank you for your comment. From face value on your brief it would appear that the potential for a contribution can be made in the area of business. You would need to establish from the literature what was already known about Public Private Partnership generally and specifically to Nigeria. As a reader of your thesis I would expect to learn as much about what criteria signalled success in public private partnership and what indicators signalled failure. You could then compare your three identified causes for failure to ascertain whether any of these represented something new in the field of causes for partnership failures.
      If you are a person employed in this area then your research could potentially contribute in the area of practice-led inquiry, particularly if your case study begins with your own illumination of your practices.

  20. Onwu iNYA says:

    Hi, if I understand the discussion so far, it would appear that contribution to knowledge could be in one or all of these areas: theoretical, practical and methodological. Can using an already existing method to examine similar data from from a different country be considered contribution to knowledge?

    • Hi Onwu,
      Thank you for your question.
      Yes indeed, even though you may be using similar data and a similar method to what has been used before, because each country has different composition it would follow that your particular research is providing new knowledge. From the little you have described I would guess that the new knowledge stands in
      1. Cultural knowledge about the specific country in which you are undertaking the inquiry.
      2. Methodological knowledge about the duplicability of the method across different cohorts.
      3. You may even find that there is theoretical knowledge because of the uniqueness of your particualr data that feeds into a general understanding of this issue and ways to investigate it.
      Cheers
      Geof

  21. Ashnee says:

    Thank you for your post, very insightful.
    With regards to theoretical contribution to the scientific community, how best can I put my contribution forward, relating to the relationship between employee wellness and employee engagement? Will it be acceptable to state that the environment in which the study is carried out will provide greater insight and understanding of the above constructs, within a specific organisation?

    • Dear Ashneek,
      Thank you for your question about contributions to knowledge through your doctoral research.
      Articulating your contribution is based on what the literature around your topic (wellness and employee engagement) is already saying. This is one of the reasons a researcher undertakes a literature review, so that they can identify the theoretical gap into which their research will make a contribution. If you are specifically seeing that the particular context or environment in which you have undertaken the inquiry is an area in which it would appear from your reading of the literature there is a lack of contribution, then you can argue that the situatedness of your study and its specific demongraphic elements is where your contribution lies.
      Regards
      Geof

  22. Mgonda says:

    Many thanks for the post. It has simply cleared my doubts.

    Mgonda

  23. Sindisiwe says:

    My research topic is on factors causing challenges in he implementation of Capital Projects in my organisation. The contribution to the study is summarised as follows “In terms of expected contribution, this dissertation may contribute to the growing discourse on the topic, particularly the area of project management and challenges in implementation of infrastructure projects within transnet”.

    Please advise if this is sufficient or advise on how I should elaborate further on this.

    Your response will be greatly appreciated

    • Dear Sindiwemwandla,
      Thank you for your inquiry about making a contribution to knowledge.
      It is hard to answer the question ‘is this sufficient’ without a context. I am assuming that the context is that this claim is made in the final chapters of your dissertation and so you are looking for some response to a single line.
      Any claim in a research document, including a dissertation, should be backed up with evidence. In the case of a claim about contributions to knowledge, the related evidence lies in your literature review where you have summarised what is currently known about your topic and this when you make the claim as you appear to be doing at the conclusion of your dissertation then you are cross referencing back to where you established what is known. Presumably in the case of your literature you were able to identify what was currently known about challenges of implementation of infrastructure projects and so what you have concluded from your research adds to that body of knowledge.

  24. Adade, Baa Famous says:

    Thank you very much for the insight provided so far on the contribution of research dissertation to knowledge. I was not too sure of what could be the answer to such a question until I read your blog. Now, I am at the last stage of my doctoral work on ” Effect of oil palm out grower scheme on farmers’ poverty status”. From available literature, empirical works on out grower scheme exist for other crops except oil palm in my country. Also, the effects are either positive or negative; therefore each out grower’s performance may have to be evaluated on a stand a alone basis. Methods of evaluating the effect have been varied, ranging from mere mean per capita income comparison between participants and non-participants to more rigorous econometric approaches involving propensity score matching methods. The measures of poverty involved the use of poverty head counts based on income, purchasing power parity, or wealth indices derived from principal component analysis(PCA). My study established that out grower scheme in oil palm in my country has positive effect on income and poverty, using propensity score matching methods. Poverty status of the farmers was measured using both monetary and non-monetary approaches found to have been applied by some researchers in other crops but not oil palm in other countries.
    May I know,sir , from the foregoing, what would constitute contribution to knowledge in my present research endeavor ?

    • Thank you for your post. It is hard in my position to comment on the contribution to knowledge because it is not an area with which I am familiar. When you review the literature you will be able to ascertain what is already known about the oil palm grower scheme and if any one else has written about the connection to poverty. A simple google scholar search using the terms ‘oil palm grower’ and ‘poverty’ would be a good starting point for you. Anyone who is identifying ways in which people can come out of poverty stands to make some contribution to the knowledge about people in poverty, and your particular strategy would probably sit among the many micro companies that have been investigated around the world to empower people through gainful employment.

      • Adade Baa Famous says:

        Thank you, sir for your reply to my question . God bless you real good. May you continue to be a blessing to researchers and humanity in general in Jesus name.

  25. Sam says:

    Dear Sir,
    Thanks for the contribution. I was once asked, “Is yours an affirmation or extension of knowledge?
    Secondly, I’m introducing a mediator to an existing model. Can that be my contribution to knowledge? e.g the study provides empirical data to support the fact culture mediates the realtionship bewteen X and Y?
    Sam.

    • Dear Sam,
      The whole issue of what counts as a contribution to knowledge is a volatile discourse. Using your own terminology you could ask yourself ‘Does the addition of a mediator extend the knoweldge that is available through this model?’ as you address this question you also help yourself to understand whether your dissertation is likely to make a contribution to knowledge.
      Is it a contribution to knowledge to affirm something that is already known? This is a tricky question as you could argue that if something is better understood, even if it is already known, doesn’t the improvement in understanding make a contribution.
      This is what should appear in the final chapter of your dissertation as you help your reader to accept your argument that the research has made a contribution to knowledge. Theoretically, if it hasn’t it is only worth of an M Phil rather than a PhD!

  26. Thank you for highlighting on possible areas of contribution to knowledge of a research. Many scholars think that contribution to knowledge is only if the researcher has come up with a theory. Is this correct? Can a researcher use a conceptual framework of his/ her research to claim for contribution to knowledge?

  27. Borrowing from the example given that:
    Research supervision as advancing knowledge.
    Research supervision as management.
    Research supervision as pedagogy.
    Research supervision as relationship
    Suppose one adds: Research supervision as negotiation, would this be regarded as contribution to knowledge?

    • Hi Jacob,
      Thank you for the question.
      Just adding a new category to an already established set of categories does not itself evidence a contribution to knowledge. You would have to establish that firstly this is a category in its own right and not a sub set of another category (such as supervision as a relationship or supervision as management). You would also have to elaborate on what you mean by supervision as negotiation and show how this creates a new area that was not addressed in the model that you have identified. Both of these arguments woudl be advanced in the chapter in which you discuss the contributions that your study has made and make reference to how you have established what is already known through your literature review.

  28. Ibrahim Yahaya WUni says:

    I am very impressed with the way you addressed the concerns of the people who commented on your post. Your post have been very helpful to me. I am about taking up a PhD Studentship at the University of Hong Kong and my research focus is on examining the interface between law, real estate investment and economic development in developing countries. I will like know in which direction can this research contributes to knowledge

    • HI Ibrahim,
      There is no single answer to your question as it all depends on the way in which you frame the interface between these three fields. If they have not been brought together this way before then that combination is itself a contribution to knowledge. As my focus is on practice I can see a potential that the marriage between law and real estate in developing countries might provide insights into ways in which development can be enhanced and ways in which it can be hindered.

  29. azwan bakri says:

    A very good description on”creating or adding new knowledge” for research students. Additionally, attempts in proving and enhance others thoeries should also considers as new contribution.

    • Thank you for your comment Azwan,
      Enhancing other theories is a sound way in which some investigators make contributions to knowledge. In recent years with the ‘so what’ question being asked about all research – meaning ‘how has this research added value – in addition to enhancing a theory I would expect an investigator to demonstrate how this enhancement helps someone. There is a risk with theory that it just complicates something and is added to demonstrate more complexity without any additional value to practitioners.

  30. Jackson Aluede says:

    I must confess that your blog on contributions to knowledge is indeed veryful for Ph.D. student like me, having difficulty with my contribution to knowledge. My thesis research examines the impact of Nigeria’s foreign policy on trans-border crime in the Nigeria-Benin border. The thrust of my contributions to knowledge is that trans-border crime flourished during periods of open borders than periods of closed borders, and that the illicit enterprise has remained due to the liberal and low tariff economic and trade policy of Benin Republic, unlikes that of Nigeria which is restrictive. My supervisors and some people that have read my work are having issue my contributions to knowledge. Please, I would be thankful if i can get insight from you on this issue.

  31. farah be says:

    please help me! i’m writing a monograph on the Guilt and Redemption in The Kite Runner, and last night My supervisor asked me what’s the academic contribution of your monograph? i didn’t know what to say and he asked me to prepare an answer for this question. i don’t know what to do can you please help me?

    • Dear Simon,
      Thank you for your question. Your dissertation appears to be a literature one and as such you would potentially be making a contribution to knowledge surrounding either the Kite Runner as a text or more generally to the issue of Guilt and Redemption in Novels. I have read the Kite Runner and can see how an analysis of the book could contribute to discourse surrounding Guilt and Redemption. This is where your literature review comes in handy as it would indicate to you who else had already made contributions to knowledge about the Kite Runner and who else had already made contributions to knowledge about Guilt and redemption. Once you have identified the potential contributions it is then important to ask the ‘so what’ question. How does this knowledge improve people’s/the world’s understanding of a. The Kite Runner and b. Guilt and Redemption in Literature.
      I hope that these ideas have been helpful.
      Cheers
      Geof

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