What makes a significant and original contribution to knowledge?

Topic Progress:

Your research must have depth and be scholarly. Your proposed PhD (and to a slightly lesser extent, your research Master’s degree) must show significance and originality. The rationale should emphasise these two qualities. 


How is your proposed research significant? How is it original? Write some dot points for each. When you’ve read the following sections, revisit these lists. Are there other elements you can add?

It’s tempting to say your research is significant and original by just pointing to the gap in scholarly knowledge that it fills. However, to justify your research, this ‘gap’ needs to be unpacked, and there may be other ways of showing your research to be significant and original that you’ve overlooked. Apart from generally extending what we already know, our proposed research can also show the contribution it makes to the literature by refining what we know or showing a new application for policy, theory or practice.

Petrie and Rugg (2010, p. 14) provide a useful list of how we can show originality and significance:

  • “Re-contextualization of an existing technique, theory or model (i.e. applying a technique in a new context; testing a theory in a new setting; showing the applicability of a model to a new situation) 
  • Confirmation and expansion of an existing model (i.e. evaluating the effects of a change in condition; providing an experimental assessment of a specific aspect of a model)
  • Contradicting an existing model or a specific aspect of a model
  • Combining two or more ideas and showing that the arrangement reveals something new and useful
  • Demonstrating a concept – showing that something is feasible and useful; or that something is infeasible and explaining why it fails
  • Implementing a theoretical principle – showing how it can be applied in practice; making ideas tangible; how something works in practice; and what its limitations are
  • Providing a new solution to a known problem and demonstrating the solution’s efficacy.”

So, the ‘gap’ in the literature is not the only way we can show significance.
We can often also show significance by:

  • showing the importance of the research questions through a well-developed problem statement
  • showing the likely impact of your research to policy, theory or practice
  • pointing to important implications
  • identifying the stakeholders and showing how they’re likely to benefit.

Remember, though, that whatever you identify as significant and original in your proposed research, check to see if all possible How? Why? What? and Who? questions are answered. For example, if your research involves a new application for something, say how this advances the scholarship in this area, why it needs to be done, who will benefit and how they’ll benefit.

Discussion Forum

Don’t forget to post questions, ideas or reflections on writing your rationale. Here are some starter questions:
• What are some of the issues you're facing in justifying your proposed research?
• What key relevant literature will you need to use to justify the importance of your research?
• What suggestions can you make regarding identifying stakeholders and the benefits to them?

Workspace Forum

Fresh eyes on our writing can often pick up on things we don’t notice because we’re too close to it. Get some valuable feedback on your 'why' section here.
Choose ONE of the following and write two or three paragraphs:
• How will your proposed research contribute to the existing literature?
• Explain why you have chosen to do theory-driven research or practice/project-driven research (as is common in the Art or Design fields). What implications does this have for your selection of key relevant literature?