On Not Reinventing the Wheel, Or, It’s Okay to Use the Road More-Traveled By

Last week I was researching exhibition sponsors for the museum I just started working at. I had no idea where to begin so I decided to work backwards by researching other museums in the area, and checking their websites to find what organizations had sponsored their exhibitions. That tactic might sound very unoriginal, after all, wouldn’t it be better to do it yourself?

Part of the joy and excitement of research derives also from the idea that we’re uncovering something new, learning things and making connections between ideas that are completely unique. You start to think that the information you found and the new ideas you develop are life-changing, earth-shattering stuff.  When you research you get the feeling that you’re a pioneer, that you’re particularly clever and brilliant for doing what we’re doing.

Well, you’re not.

Sorry to be so blunt. But no matter what you’re investigating, you’re work is connected to and building upon the work of many others.

In 1675, Sir Isaac Newton, (physicist, astronomer, mathematician, laws of gravity guy, etc. etc.) wrote in a letter to scientist Robert Hooke:

“If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

Some speculate that Newton was making a subtle dig at Hooke’s height, but what’s interesting about Newton’s statement is that he probably modified/borrowed the phrase from thinkers from the Middle Ages.

The point Newton was trying to make however was that our work is never done in isolation, our discoveries in the research process are not independent of what came before us, and that’s okay. Especially in the earlier stages of research I need to remind myself that I don’t need to reinvent the wheel, it’s okay to walk a path someone else forged for the time being. Follow the research/work of someone else more advanced because not only will you learn a lot, but you can avoid a lot of pitfalls.

What’s more, getting familiar with the major researchers and their research/ideas/debates of the field you’re studying can help you distinguish your own work from their work. I’ve fallen into the trap of thinking I’ve come up with something insightful and new but I’m later disappointed to find that it’s already been discovered or thought of. It’s humbling, and sometimes comforting to realize that your ideas are not as original as you thought. You’re not alone in your conclusions, which means that you can look to those “giants” in your field to develop your own unique project. After all, how can I create something original if I have no idea of the work done before me?

In the academic world, it’s essential to be aware of the debates and ideas that preceded your work (often called a literature review). When you’re trying to find information or learn something, it helps to look at the research and sources someone else used for their work; check their citations. The whole point of citations is for readers to check those other sources.

When you come across a great resource, read the articles, books, etc. that the author refers to in their work. I guarantee that brilliant thinker didn’t come up with their conclusions and theories in a vacuum.

On Sir Isaac Newton:

http://www.aerospaceweb.org/question/history/q0162b.shtml

http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/movingwords/shortlist/newton.shtml

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