Developing originality

What is the 'significant contribution' of your writing to your field of study? This guide explores the concept of originality at different levels of university study, and provides techniques to help you open your mind to new ideas.

What is originality at university?

Many definitions of originality exist. The term is occasionally associated with other terms such as creativity and innovation but is most often tied to the process of an evaluation of worth by a critical judge.  At university, the word is usually applied to work that is novel and valuable at the same time. It is also strongly linked to assessment. At the level of Graduate Research, originality is one criteria for the award of a doctoral thesis. However, to some extent original thinking which leads to an original ‘product’ is valued and rewarded at each level of university study.

How originality could apply at different levels of academic study

Some believe that they must develop a ‘whole new way’ of considering a topic before their work can be considered original. This is not necessarily true as highly original thought is extremely unusual. Often an incremental step is sufficient for knowledge to move forward and your ‘small’ contribution will be significant.

To some extent, the extent of originality will be determined by the level of your degree. For example, if you are undertaking a Graduate Diploma, the requirement for originality or a significant contribution is much less than for a Doctorate. The table below provides an overview of what originality may be required at various levels.

Degree level Possible approachAcademic goals
Undergraduate Reproductive Correctness of information presented (with an element of analysis)
Masters or Graduate Diploma Analytical ‘Simple’ originality which may include reshaping material or considering information in other ways
Doctorate Speculative ‘Creative’ originality, new approaches / new knowledge

Why does the idea of originality make students anxious?

In some ways, tension underlines the concept of originality as it exists in the academic context of the university. While universities may require some form of originality in graduate work, students must also conform to the norms of their discipline. Some students may feel this balancing act may work as a constraint on their originality. The novelty aspect of ‘originality’ also worries students who feel they have ‘nothing new to say’ and / or that ‘it all has been said before’ in their topic area. To avoid these anxious moments, it may be useful to read the work and / or liaise with others in your field of study to assess any gaps in knowledge and discuss your research widely – particularly with supervisors or subject matter experts.

What are some practical ways I can incorporate original ideas in my (written) work?

Phillips and Pugh (1994) have devised some useful criteria to assess whether your work contains elements of originality. We suggest you review your work for the presence of these elements below but if you still cannot locate the presence of ‘originality’ within your work – and it is one of the key assessment goals ­– discuss how you might be able to incorporate it with your teacher or supervisor.

Criteria which may merit ‘originality’

  • Presenting a major piece of new information in writing for the first time
  • Extending, qualifying or elaborating on an existing piece of work
  • Undertaking an original piece of work designed by someone else
  • Developing a new product or improving an existing one
  • Reinterpreting an existing theory, maybe in a different context
  • Demonstrating originality by testing someone else’s idea
  • Carrying out empirical work that has not been completed before
  • Using a different methodological approach to address a problem
  • Synthesising information in a new or different way
  • Providing a new interpretation using existing / known information
  • Repeating research in other contexts, for example, in a different country
  • Applying existing ideas to new areas of study
  • Taking a particular technique and applying it in a new area
  • Developing a new research tool or technique
  • Taking a different approach, for example a cross-disciplinary perspective
  • Developing a portfolio of work based on research
  • Adding to knowledge in a way that has not previously been done before
  • Conducting a study on a previously un-researched or under-researched area or topic

Adapted from Philips & Pugh, 1994 (pp. 61-62)

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