In the midst of designing her dissertation, Tara Karns thought she'd found her holy grail — a just-published article that would reinforce her literature review. But reading through it, she saw the article was more than just a valuable reference. It nearly duplicated her idea.
"I realized I'd have to go back to the drawing board," says Karns, a psychology doctoral candidate at West Virginia University. "The similarities to my dissertation were remarkable." Both examined the "framing effect" — how decision-making is affected by the way choices are portrayed, or framed. Both also looked at the phenomenon among young and older adults. "I was really upset, thinking that I was just a little too late with my idea," she says.
Karns's experience isn't uncommon, says Nicole Taylor, PhD, an associate professor of psychology and director of the Psychological Services Center at the University of Indianapolis. Two of her students recently found themselves in Karns's situation. "The initial reaction is kind of catastrophic, that they'll have to do this all over again," she says.
If you find your dissertation's doppelganger in the professional literature, the best course is to stay calm and refrain from making a rash decision to change direction. Sit down, talk it over with your advisor and sort through all the ways you might revise your idea to make it original, say Taylor and others. Understanding how to distinguish your work from someone else's can head off stress and maybe a sleepless night or two.
Assessing the situation
First ask yourself: Have you really been scooped? Psychology is a broad field with an array of research topics, so studies often overlap, says former APA President Robert J. Sternberg, PhD, president of the University of Wyoming. A paper that at first glance seems identical to yours could have subtle differences upon closer reading. "It's common that [students] think, mistakenly, that someone has published or is about to publish their dissertation idea," Sternberg says.
Taylor reminds her students that a dissertation should be an original research contribution to their field. "I ask them how similar [the other paper] is," she says. For example, has the other author studied exactly the same population that you plan to examine? Look for differences in age, sex, race, ethnicity or even middle school versus high school if you happen to be studying adolescents. "There are lots of different measures out there," she says.
While doing his own dissertation on analogical reasoning, Sternberg got word that another student was doing the same work and would finish first. He met with the other student while applying for an academic position and asked about it outright. "It turned out that what he was doing and what I was doing were totally different," Sternberg says.
Charles H. Hackney, PhD, associate professor and chair of psychology at Briercrest College and Seminary in Caronport, Saskatchewan, Canada, wasn't as fortunate.
As a graduate student at the State University of New York in Albany during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hackney decided to write an article about public reactions to the attacks from the perspective of terror management theory. As he prepared to submit the article to an academic journal, Hackney saw advertisements for a new book, "In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror," by Thomas A. Pyszczynski, PhD, Sheldon Solomon, PhD, and Jeff Greenberg, PhD — the three psychologists who developed terror management theory. When he picked up a copy of the book and started reading, Hackney's worst fears were confirmed. The breadth and depth of the authors' analysis hit him like a gut punch.
Hackney had written one paragraph about terrorists' shared cultural beliefs, which shielded them from fears of death and emboldened them to launch suicide attacks. Pyszczynski, Solomon and Greenberg, however, dedicated an entire chapter to the same theme. The book authors also wrote two chapters on using terror management theory to guide individual responses and foreign and domestic policy following the attacks. "I did none of that in my article," Hackney says.
"I was crushed," he adds. "There was no shred of my article that could be published." If there was a bright side, his dissertation examined terror management theory, but not 9/11, and he graduated on time.
Thankfully, experiences like Hackney's are rare. Most of the time, students can salvage their papers by rethinking and revising them, Taylor says. Carefully consider your research design and analysis, Sternberg adds.
For example, one of Taylor's students was planning a study on how body image affected women's perceptions of themselves. The student's literature search turned up an article that was nearly identical to hers in both subject and methodology. The solution? She narrowed her focus to lesbians, using the same methodology to see if the findings would hold with a subgroup of the female population. She'll propose her revised idea this spring or summer.
Another of Taylor's students spent a year researching autism when she came across an article that covered almost the same territory. Her student shifted direction without losing any data by studying a population in a type of treatment facility different from the one described in the article.
When Karns realized that her holy grail reference article was a potential dissertation buster, she was disappointed but not daunted. After talking it over with her advisor, she quickly realized that she could shift her direction a bit and cover new ground in her research. "Most advisors have your best interest at heart and will work with you to find a way to go forward," Taylor notes.
Make sure your work has enough features to still be publishable if someone else is pursuing a similar idea, or if some of your ideas don't pan out, says Sternberg. Karns added an extra dimension to her dissertation on decision-making by asking her study participants to make their decisions in specific ways, using facts and figures, gut feelings or previous experiences. "I just successfully proposed, so I think it worked out well," she says.
Karns had plenty of time to revise her proposal. However, some students may find their dissertation's twin just weeks before their defense date. Taylor advises her students to monitor new articles being published so they don't get a last-minute surprise. Even with due diligence, coincidences can occur. "When you're at the point of defense, we proceed," she notes. "It's a fluke of timing."
Students can play offense to reduce the risk of having an idea that is too similiar to another's, says Sternberg. First, try to develop your idea in an area that's a bit off the beaten path. It's also a good idea to attend conferences or even to read the programs if you can't attend to learn about new research. Read journals to keep up on the very latest work and who's doing it. Visit other labs to find out what they're working on, and keep in touch by email. Another valuable resource is posted lists of new grants funded by federal and private organizations.
If you've reworked your ideas, expanded your scope and monitored every new study coming out but still get scooped, Sternberg offers some reassurance: "If it happens, the world won't end," he says. "You still have your whole career in front of you."
Rebecca Voelker is a writer in Chicago.
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