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How to do your PhD when another researcher has published similar results

Imagine the horror of sitting in a conference and seeing another researcher present a paper that sounds almost exactly like your PhD research. Or, you pick up a journal article only to discover that it discusses very similar results to yours and has tested a hypothesis and asked research questions that sound exceptionally familiar...

What would you do? Is it worth continuing with your PhD if there is already such similar research being conducted and published elsewhere?

While your first thought might be to give up altogether, in most cases this is not at all necessary. We’ll discuss why this scenario does not have to mark the end of your research, and how you can turn it around to your benefit.

Identify overlaps and differences

The first and most important point to understand is that you can still create and contribute original knowledge in your field even if your results are similar to those of previous research and studies.

For starters, you can build on and expand existing work. Examine the results within your data and consider how your unique data set and results can extend the current research and debates in the field. There may be elements within your data that say something new or that could add more to what has already been said.

Additionally, there are a number of ways to work with your data and results to identify what may be significantly different in your research from previous work.

Reconsider whether there is any part of your data collection method(s) or methodological approaches that differs from earlier research. Even a slight difference in method/methodology can produce some significant findings. You could demonstrate how a different or updated method yields similar results; or you could explain how alternative methods lead to very different findings that either extend or even contradict existing thought.

Take alternative directions

Even if your results are fairly similar to previous research, do not immediately assume that all your research is identical to that work. Unless you have replicated the entire research design, data collection and analysis exactly as it was previously done, there should still be many elements within your own research that can offer different, alternative or new findings and insights into the subject.

For example, employing a different theoretical framework, methodological approach or epistemological basis as you collect and analyse your data can render very different results and conclusions, even if the data are similar to that of other studies.

Or, while your type of data might typically have been used to investigate certain theories, research questions or hypotheses, you could consider how your data set might be used or analysed in alternative, novel ways to address altogether different issues and debates.

Alternatively, if there are even some slight anomalies in your data sets and results, these discrepancies can open new investigations or research questions. Make these slight differences and anomalies work in your favour by digging deeper into them and seeing what else they can tell you about the issue under study. In those cracks, you may just discover something huge, new and significant that previous studies may have dismissed or overlooked.

Seek advice

Although this may now seem overstated, it would be really helpful to discuss your concerns with your supervisor. They might be aware of this other similar work in the field and be able to offer further detail about what exactly is being done, and how your work differs or complements those studies.

Your supervisor will probably also be familiar enough with research culture to understand that these overlaps in research projects are not uncommon. They should then be able to offer you advice about how your specific project can avoid reproducing similar research and help you to identify the parts of your work that are unique and original.

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