On Reconsidering Academia’s Novelty Fetish

But what’s novel about it?”

I’ve been asked in committee meetings, academic interviews, and even in the midst of my field research, what exactly was “novel” about certain research questions I posed and the findings and conclusions I presented. At times, it felt like my commitment to actionable research on climate policy, water security, and adaptation was justifiable only if it were “novel” for a select group of academic readers. This rarely, if ever, agreed with me. It’s not because I don’t value novel research. It’s because such an ask evokes the larger question of for whom the labour and commitment of participants and field staff is intended.

Novelty, or “originality” is the characteristic of research being new, interesting, or unusual, such that it advances scholarly knowledge about the world around us. To a large extent, novelty underpins the belief of what academic scholarship is supposed to achieve, that being pushing the boundaries of knowledge.

Much could be written on de-constructing and problematizing the concept of “novelty”, particularly on its resemblance to the colonial “doctrine of discovery.” In the academe, knowledge is often extracted, “certified” through peer-review, often credited, historically and actively, to white male authors, and used as the currency for accumulation (i.e., employment, professional recognition). The emphasis on citation indices and media representation only reinforces the need to be novel. Further, I’ve found the notion of novelty can be presumptive and static. What novelty constitutes, at least in interdisciplinary environmental social sciences, may be less a function of some objective baseline and more a question of one’s background, understandings, and situated experiences. Moreover, novelty is time-dependent. It’s not uncommon that academics re-read others’ papers, let alone their own, only to derive new and interesting insights that support a current research project. Despite the problematic construction of “novelty,” I, like many, value thought-provoking conceptual arguments, interesting findings, and a plurality of perspectives. These enable the state of the scholarly literature in a particular interdisciplinary domain or disciplinary field to be re-evaluated, and epistemological and ontological givens to be de-stabilized.

Even while my problem is not with novelty itself, I’ve come to dread the “novelty question” (or as I call it, the “novelty fetish”), precisely because of how the nature of academic scholarship is changing. Any sensible academic today will denounce the Ivory Tower, and many increasingly commit not only to policy-relevant research, but community-based research, where meaningful research questions are co-determined, results co-produced, and credit advanced collectively and in diverse research products useful for non-academics.

My problem is with the doctrine that “novelty” is a prerequisite for scholarly publication. This has encouraged a conflation between novelty and publication value, when in fact novelty should constitute one of several potential values of interdisciplinary, problem-focused, and policy-relevant scholarship that serves to re-imagine our communities and planet. I worry that novelty can be used to dismiss rigorous research with important interdisciplinary, policy, and community-oriented uses and values.

The risk of conflating novelty with value reifies several problems. First, we constrict and narrow the objectives of what academic scholarship is – who it is for, and who it is written by. This is not to create an artificial distinction between novel research and applied research. Certainly, they can co-exist. But, we ought to remember that novelty begins at conception: It shapes what we ask and is informed, almost strictly, by what academics have done before us. The gaze of novelty can even cause us to ask self-serving and “trendy” questions, which encourages a myopic research approach.  Second, by privileging novelty we knowingly demote replication and verification, cross-contextual studies that support consensus-building and generalizable knowledge claims, and well-researched studies that can serve as critical teaching aids. Most academics rely on journal article publications for much more than citations in our own work – but for helping our students learn, progressing large-scale grants and new research directions, and engaging in policy change. To me, it makes sense then that the scholarship we admit for publication has potential to reflect those values. Last, and perhaps most obviously, the obsession with novelty risks excluding many researchers who wish to contribute to scholarly knowledge but who may not have access to the unjustly high subscription fees of journals.

Thus, my perspective is that an excellent study – which will almost always boast multiple values and contributions for a diverse readership – should never be considered unpublishable in a peer-reviewed journal because it “lacks novelty.” At the bare minimum, I would at least suggest that novelty be judged in more generous and thoughtful ways, given the wide range of scholars, activists, policy-makers, and researchers that read journal articles.

As reviewers, we should remember that novelty is not objective, and we should avoid centering our own experiences in judging what may be considered “novel” or not. Further, we should consider the multiple values of a paper equally. To their credit, many journals have certain criteria that reviewers are expected to follow for which originality is one criterion. Unfortunately, it is sometimes the case that this single criterion is disproportionately weighed by reviewers themselves in their written evaluation, and perhaps by Editors in their decisions. If this research isn’t very “novel” per se – what other values does it have? For example, does this paper provide a different set of empirics, or have value in some other form in ways that reaches similar conclusions? Will this paper have a significant impact on current policy discussions that warrants serious consideration of its publication? Will this paper effectively support student learning, especially as academics shift away from textbooks and rely on articles to enrich learning experiences with diversity of perspectives? This is sensible to me given the diverse readership and the multiplicity of ways articles are used today. Ultimately, we can’t address the novelty question without discussing the purpose of academic scholarship. My contention is that scholarship as an idea (and as an ideal) is and has been changing, radically – and novelty alone must be reconsidered to meet the shifting objectives of research and the role of researchers within the academe. My hope is that we remember that novelty has value but that novelty is not interchangeable with value

Sameer Shah recently completed his Ph.D. from the Institute for Resources, Environment & Sustainability at The University of British Columbia. He is an incoming Postdoctoral Research Associate in Environmental Policy & Disaster Management at the University of Maryland’s (Baltimore County) School of Public Policy.