Managing Sources That Overlap Your Research Intentions
It is usually pleasant for a scholar to discover academic or scientific sources that present information associated with his or her research interests and areas of expertise. It is not quite so pleasant when a postgraduate student encounters a previously published study that covers the same ground he or she intends to explore in a thesis or dissertation, especially if the author of the study used methods and achieved results much like those anticipated for that new work. If this happens when you are consulting sources, it is essential neither to panic nor to despair of your research, but it is also vital not to ignore what could potentially be a problem.
Overlap is a normal aspect of academic and scientific research and writing, and replication can be important and productive as well as necessary. However, it is highly unusual for individual scholars in different settings to produce the exact same results and arrive at identical conclusions, so it is the job of the scholar who encounters overlapping work to determine precisely how his or her own research and writing will differ from a strikingly similar study. Any studies that significantly overlap your own research and the thesis or dissertation you envision should therefore be read with extreme care and a sharply focussed critical eye. In many cases, an already completed book, article, thesis, dissertation or report will seem a good deal more like what you are planning for your research when you read only its title and abstract. Once you have digested the text as a whole, the differences will be manifest. A single reading of the source may not be enough, especially if the text is long or complex, so do take the time for a second reading as well as some thoughtful reflection. Your time will be well invested.
Once you have determined exactly how the source you have discovered overlaps your own research, you will be able to make constructive use of it in your writing. The similarities should be acknowledged and the differences explained clearly and precisely at a relevant point in your thesis or dissertation. If you are writing a literature review, that is a good place to include such information; if not, the information should ideally appear when the source concerned is first cited or quoted.
Careful explanation may be enough for some sources, but in other cases adjustments to your own methods and approaches will be necessary, and it is best to know about the need for such alterations sooner rather than later. Your thesis supervisor or dissertation mentor will no doubt already have encountered scholarly overlaps of this kind and thus have helpful suggestions, so do discuss with him or her any studies or publications that concern you, particularly if you cannot decide how best to find your own original focus in relation to overlapping sources.
Work that so decidedly overlaps your own may not be what you had hoped to find as you consulted sources, but it can nonetheless help you define your research with greater precision and refine your thesis or dissertation in a variety of ways, so it can be beneficial rather than detrimental to your ultimate success. Remember that your comprehension and careful use of such sources in your own study may be exactly what is needed to produce truly innovative results and revise or disprove long-established theories.
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