In the midst of designing her
she’d found her
holy grail — a
it, she saw the
article was more
than just a valuable
reference. It nearly
duplicated her idea.
“I realized I’d have
to go back to the drawing
board,” says Karns, a
psychology doctoral candidate
at West Virginia University. “The
similarities to my dissertation were
remarkable.” Both examined the “framing
effect” — how decision-making is affected by the way choices
are portrayed, or framed. Both also looked at the phenomenon
among young and older adults. “I was really upset, thinking that I
was just a little too late with my idea,” she says.
Karns’s experience isn’t uncommon, says Nicole Taylor,
PhD, an associate professor of psychology and director of the
Psychological Services Center at the University of Indianapolis.
Two of her students recently found themselves in Karns’s
situation. “The initial reaction is kind of catastrophic, that they’ll
have to do this all over again,” she says.
If you find your dissertation’s doppelganger in the professional
literature, the best course is to stay calm and refrain from making
a rash decision to change direction. Sit down, talk it over with
your advisor and sort through all the ways you might revise your
idea to make it original, say Taylor and others. Understanding
how to distinguish your work from someone else’s can head off
stress and maybe a sleepless night or two.
Assessing the situation
First ask yourself: Have you really been scooped? Psychology is
a broad field with an array of research topics, so studies often
overlap, says former APA President Robert J. Sternberg, PhD,
president of the University of Wyoming. A paper that at first
glance seems identical to yours could have subtle differences upon
closer reading. “It’s common that [students] think, mistakenly,
that someone has published or is about to publish their
dissertation idea,” Sternberg says.
Taylor reminds her students that a dissertation should be an
original research contribution to their field. “I ask them how
similar [the other paper] is,” she says. For example, has the other
author studied exactly the same population that you plan to
examine? Look for differences in age, sex, race, ethnicity or even
middle school versus high school if you happen to be studying
adolescents. “There are lots of different measures out there,” she
While doing his own dissertation on analogical reasoning,
Sternberg got word that another student was doing the same
work and would finish first. He met with the other student while
applying for an academic position and asked about it outright.
“It turned out that what he was doing and what I was doing were
totally different,” Sternberg says.
Charles H. Hackney, PhD, associate professor and chair of
psychology at Briercrest College and Seminary in Caronport,
Saskatchewan, Canada, wasn’t as fortunate.
As a graduate student at the State University of New York
in Albany during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hackney decided
to write an article about public reactions to the attacks from
the perspective of terror management theory. As he prepared
Students can reduce
the risk of having an also-
ran idea by developing
a concept that’s off the