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Novelty effect: How to ensure your research ideas are original and new

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.

— Ecclesiastes

Novelty can be described as the quality of being new, original or unusual. Novelty in scientific publishing is crucial, because journal editors and peer reviewers greatly prize novel research over and above confirmatory papers or research with negative results. After all, why give precious and limited journal space to something previously reported when authors submit novel, unreported discoveries?

How do you know what constitutes as novel? How can you as an academic author enhance the novelty effect with your research submissions? Below we explore ideas that will help you maximise the novelty effect in your submissions.

a. New discovery

This comprises research on and reports of completely new discoveries. These can be new chemical elements, planets or other astrological phenomena, new species of flora or fauna, previously undiagnosed diseases, viruses etc. These are things never seen or reported before. Often such new discoveries serve as a seedbed for multiple reports or even completely new avenues of research. Journals prize submissions on new discoveries and often tout them in media reports.

b. The exceptionally rare

Not quite as exciting as new discoveries are reports on things not new, but seen or encountered exceptionally rarely, or not for a long time. An example is the sighting of the rare pink handfish, recently spotted in Australia for the first time in decades. In biomedical publishing, rare case reports of a near-unique condition (such as the separation of conjoined twins) are occasionally published and make the nightly news.

c. New theories

Typically, these papers provide substantial data which supports the novel thesis. Reports of new theories must have rigorous logic and need to stand on clear and well-documented foundations. They can’t be simple flights of theoretical fancy. As with new discoveries, new theories can spawn whole new branches of scientific inquiry.

d. New or significantly improved diagnostic/laboratory techniques

Reports on novel techniques don’t usually receive coverage from the mass media, but can often garner huge numbers of references if the new technique is adopted by the scientific community. Publication-worthy techniques include those which are more efficient, less time-consuming or more reliable than currently existing techniques or diagnostic procedures. Anything that is truly new or improves significantly on an established technique is potentially worthy of publication. In medicine, new surgical techniques are very important, but here’s a tip: try to provide a large prospective case series with long-term follow-up instead of a just a single case report.

e. Existing data combined into new knowledge

There is a profound novelty effect when researchers combine existing data/knowledge into something new. Ideas from disparate, previously unrelated fields of research can lead to completely novel discoveries with untold potential applications. Translational or applied research (particularly in the biomedical sciences) has borne abundant fruit over the last many decades. Translational applications of chemistry and physics to medicine have seen enormous advances in the diagnosis and treatment of numerous diseases.

f. Incremental additions to the literature

Not all research or publications will report on truly novel discoveries; in fact, very few will. But that doesn’t necessarily diminish the novelty effect of your work. The vast majority of published research adds incrementally to what is already known, nudging scientific knowledge forward. The accumulation of incremental discovery leads, over time, to large gains in understanding and knowledge.

How to ensure and verify the novelty effect

Whether your research reports something completely new or furthers an existing field in a new way, you need to make sure the contribution is indeed new.

  • Do your homework: Pore through the literature (in as many languages as possible) to make sure your idea is indeed new, or significantly different enough to be considered new.
  • To the degree possible, provide the ‘idea genealogy’ for your concept: Reference the major sources of those who have come before you. Through references and by describing your thought processes, describe clearly how you came up with the new idea or combination of ideas.
  • Disclose your sources of inspiration and new application: Doing so constitutes academic honesty, gives credit to those upon whose shoulders your research rests and provides intellectual fertiliser for other scientists who may, in turn, be able to build upon your own ideas.

All the best for your (novel) submission!


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