In this post I will begin with an account of a real, and really quite unpleasant experience I had during my doctoral studies. I will then suggest a very simple tactic for avoiding this, and will explain a number of reasons why this tactic is actually a very sensible and valuable one to adopt.
To be clear, in this post I am not talking about plagiarism (though that kind of doctoral theft is real and something everyone should be alert to and manage carefully). I am talking about that moment when you suddenly realise someone has already done research that is uncomfortably close to your own. She or he has ‘stolen’ your original contribution before you even made it! She is your PhD thief.
The title of my doctoral thesis was “Pupils’ conceptions of school geography: a classroom based investigation”. About 12 months before I was due to submit, I went down to the Institute of Education in London, to check out a number of theses in their library. They had quite a big program in geography education, and I knew there were likely to be a few masters projects that I could cite. My supervisor had also suggested I check out some work by Paul Dowgill.
I remember the moment quite clearly. The librarian came over with a big pile of dark blue hard-bound theses. The thick one was a PhD thesis, with Dowgill’s name on the side. I opened it, and to my horror saw this title: “Pupils’ conceptions of learning geography under the National Curriculum”. To you, this might seem obviously different enough from my title. But to me, it seemed like the world had imploded. Geography education in the UK is a pretty small field, and therefore can feel crowded pretty easily. My study was embedded firmly within the National Curriculum framework (although the curriculum had changed a bit since Dowgill did his work). I imagined I was the person doing stuff on pupils’ conceptions.
As I read on, things just got worse. Not only was Dowgill’s thesis about the same topic, heaps of other elements were the same too. This was not just an emotional experience. It was physical. Like having butterflies in your stomach, but change the butterflies for wasps with big stingy things and boxing gloves. How dare he? Who does he think he is? Stealing my doctorate.
Breathe, Nick. Long, slow exhales. World stops spinning. Stomach reverts to normal state (which for me is usually a continuum between hungry and ravenous).
It turned out not so bad in the long run. Analytically, Dowgill did something very different to what I was doing. Methodologically I still had something novel on my hands. And, he’d found a heap of other references that I’d missed, so I had a nice targeted ‘to-read’ list by the end of the day.
How to avoid the horrible feeling that someone has already done your PhD
What happened to me is almost certain to happen to you at some point. It might not be in a different library. It might be at your desk when something comes up on google. Or maybe when you’re checking your email and a journal contents alert comes through and the title of the first article looks horribly familiar.
The facts are:
- Other people will almost certainly have done work that is quite similar to yours in many respects.
- A few of these will remain invisible despite you having done thorough searches early on, and despite you subscribing to all the right journal alert.
- When you eventually find these people and their work, it won’t be a tremendously happy moment.
- It is definitely not your supervisor’s job to know who your thesis thieves are. They might suggest some good places to start reading, but don’t expect more than that.
So: Try your utmost to find your PhD thief/thieves and their work at the earliest opportunity. Go out looking for the person who’s stolen your PhD. When you think you’ve found them, try again. Look for the person who got really close.
Why searching for your thesis thief makes a lot of sense
First, much better, emotionally speaking, to find the person who has stolen your PhD when you are actually looking for them. Head on. Deliberately. The one who sneaks up behind you is much more fearful. When you make it an active strategy, it is a success when you find them, not the world collapsing under your feet.
Second, finding your personal thesis thief requires you to think hard about your work and what makes it distinctive. This is good intellectual hygiene. It is one thing to plug words into search engines and see what comes up. It is another to think: how would I find the person who has got closest to my work? And it is another thing again to use search tools and other access to knowledge effectively in this quest. This is not about mapping a field looking for a spread of results.
Third, doing so early gives you time to rethink if you need to. By the time I trundled down to London it was too late to change my design or fieldwork. If someone really has had a very similar idea (and chances are, if it’s a good idea, this may well be the case), better to find them sooner rather than later.
Fourth, your thief has probably done lots of useful searching and reading herself. Indulge the lazy academic and let the thief do the work for you. The person who’s work is closest to yours has probably read lots of relevant stuff. Some of it you don’t know (in which case, a nice way of planning your next chunk of reading); some of it you have read before (in which case, is she making sense of it in the same way?).
Fifth, if your thief is still alive, maybe she could be one of your examiners? Maybe you could arrange to meet her at a conference? Maybe she has written more stuff, more recently: wouldn’t that be good to know about?!
Sixth, all this can help with common problems like structuring a literature review and building an argument. Finding your thesis thief means you have to learn what ‘closeness’ means in your research. Maybe there’s a few people treading on your toes in different ways: what these ways are might become themes or structuring devices in your writing. How did your thief justify her work? Maybe some of the arguments apply to your work too?
Seven, finding a thief proves you’re not the only person pursuing a particular idea. While extremely crowded research spaces can be tricky in terms of occupying a distinctive niche, it’s much worse to be in an intellectual desert. You thief is your best advocate, in a way. “Look! I’m not crazy, this other, brilliant scholar, thinks very similarly, and produced these very valuable outcomes”. By this logic, multiple thieves isn’t a problem: it’s evidence of a conversation.
So steady your nerves, put your sharpest thinking hat on, and go looking for the thief who stole your PhD before you even finished. It can only do you good.