Aug 19, 2011

Beginners' nightmare in research

If you're a student who has just started becoming a researcher you probably have good knowledge on the fundamentals of the subject, but not much on the research that has been going on for many many years on the subject. In junior and high schools, much time is spent on teaching the fundamentals. They are not to be blamed since teaching all advancements would be a tough load on them. So naturally, at the end of the course the student has a list of conceived ideas and problems relating to the subject, a part of which he would attempt to solve using his own ideas after starting his research career. The interest in the subject as well as the knowledge on the tools he'd learned would drive him to approach a conceived or existing problem without much reading on the existing literature. Believe me, it is a natural inclination especially after a solution to some problem has been so successful for him. After solving the problem creatively the student either directly submits the solution for publication in a journal or conference dealing with that particular subject or digs the internet for materials to include in the literature review section of the paper. This is the point where he may get a shocking sting. And that is when he finds his very same solution to have already been given by some other author decades ago. "Holy.... What the..." It feels really bad to be in such a situation. The entire work done for validating the solution goes waste.

There can be two situations. The functional architecture of the brain is the same for every person and hence the approach of several persons to solving some problem may be very similar and close to each other. This kind of approach is what would have been used by ancient people to solve seemingly direct, simple problems. For instance, the universal solution found by man to climb to a higher platform is the stair. The ladder is the portable version of the stair. Now, if they had had a patenting system then, it would have resulted in conflicts. Sometimes, this kind of a situation arises after solving something without referring the literature. The other kind of situation is when there has already been a patent or publication of a highly creative solution. It happens.

Sometimes it is quite not possible to look at the entire research previously done on a particular topic and most of the time an idea strikes instantly which urges for immediate validation that people don't feel like searching for instances of the same idea in the literature. The process of research becomes familiar with time. We will change our methodology by making extensive reading on the problem before attempting to solve it. But, it is not wrong or 'wasted' to attempt to solve something without knowing its history or reading the previous solutions. If such an attempt results in a novel solution it is great, but even if the solution is found to already exist there is nothing to worry about for such an experience will be beneficent in some ways. When you find your solution to have already been discovered by someone earlier and has been recognized, then it means you're normal and you have the ability to come up with something on your own that had once been considered novel. This gives confidence in yourself that you can bring out novel solutions to new problems if you try. The next thing is, you will get a chance to find out what you're supposed to add to such a solution that you've found, to present as an entry for publication or patenting. The residue will tell you what subtle or critical aspects you generally miss in your solution or the presentation.

So, it's not too bad to find yourself in such situations, though it will not be very easy to take the sting. Just look at the bright side and move on. If you're not in agreement with the ladder part of the story, that is, if you don't believe that such simple repetitions are made in practical situations, I will post some of my own experiences in the posts to come.

All the above should matter only to a student starting a research career. Professional researchers concentrate on much converged areas and they always try to bring out something very new for which they update themselves with the current research.