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Originality, Part One – What does it mean?

June 18, 2012

Introduction

What does originality mean? How do we recognise it?

I’ll concentrate on originality in thoughts and ideas expressed mainly in speech or writing, because I don’t know enough about originality in, for example, visual arts. Some of the ideas here may also work for visual arts.

Why does originality matter? Because we say that we value originality, in the work of students and of academics. It will be easier to enact this belief if we are clear what we mean by originality.

This post is not about plagiarism. I shan’t mention Turnitin beyond this once. I am exploring originality and its development and judgement in academic settings.

There will be a few posts on this. For this one I’ll focus on some meanings of originality.

Versions of originality

I can see local and global versions of originality. (Local and global are end zones of a spectrum.)

In the local version of originality, original means original to the producer of the thought or idea, as in “I had never seen or heard that thought until I expressed it.” The cautious would add “… as far as I know”. We can sometimes forget the sources of some of our ‘original’ ideas. Or maybe that only happens to me.

Local originality may still engender and deserve strong positive feelings and respect, in the minds of author and readers alike. And deservedly so, given the intellectual effort, the reading and study and thought and critical analysis and synthesis that may have gone into creating and then enjoying the idea.

In the universal version, original may mean “That thought has never before been thought in the history of the universe.” Perhaps we should stick to ‘global’ rather than ‘universal’, for now at least, not to be over-ambitious.

This global account of originality may still be unreasonably global. ‘Global originality’ might require only that the idea had not previously been published in a form and location which was reasonably accessible to the current author of the thought.

What about the quality of the idea? This may include the elegance, acceptability, power, or other valued characteristics of the idea. I mention this only to exclude it from further discussion here. It is very important, but not my current focus. Maybe another time.

Originality in claim and response

There’s a distinction here that I need to make explicit. As an author, when I offer a paper for presentation or publication, I surely make a claim for the originality of some ideas in the paper, ‘original’ based on what I already know. And as a reader or reviewer, I respond to, judge, a claim for originality, again based on what I already know, on my level of expertise. (I’ll probably return to ’expert’ and ‘expertise‘ in later posts on originality.) In practice, originality, whether as a claim or as a response to a claim, seems to be knowledge-dependent, to be relative. Which surprises me.

Next I’ll probably look at the development and expression of originality, and at being original. But I’ll welcome your comments so far.

Acknowledgement

Thank you to participants in the Edinburgh Napier University writing retreat at St Andrews in June for the discussion about originality in academic work, by students and by staff, that prompted this blog post and the ones that will follow on the subject. You really made me think, about originality and also about writing. There’s nothing like teaching something to show you what you do and don’t know about it.

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