Ivory Tower Writing #12: What is a contribution?

This post discusses what a “contribution” means and why it’s often best to not overthink it.

In post #6 when I wrote about how to write a literature review, I mentioned that it should highlight a “contribution” that your research will make. Now, let’s talk about what this means and why you don’t always have to overthink this.

Ooh, shiny!

Researchers simply love shiny new things. They can’t help it when a new dataset comes out, when the CIA declassifies important documents that were previously unobtainable (and unciteable), or when the United States releases a new Defense Strategy. These things add to our understanding of the world. And this is precisely what “making a contribution” is about: presenting new knowledge of things previously unknown or rarely discussed, which may pave the way for future research or even, tangible action.

When a scientist conducts and publishes new research on the detrimental effects of blue light on our eyes, that scientist is said to have made a “contribution”. To what specifically? To our understanding of how blue light interacts with our eyes, which will probably be used as a basis for developing better blue light-filtering lenses or even government policy regulating LCDs. Put this way, the scientist has arguably contributed a lot not just for the development of science (maybe their method was unique), but also for the benefit of other people.

In the social sciences, a contribution, despite differences in research methods, does pretty much the same thing. Although sometimes, the scale of the contribution may be less flashy as the blue light example previously. For example, there used to be few datasets recording the number of wars. However, now we have the COW (Correlates of War) database, which has a lot of numbers and statistics related to war. This has helped many academics propose theories on the causes of war.

Another example is that there used to be a lack of systematic studies of Javanese culture. However, the late Benedict Anderson wrote an interesting study of the Javanese cultural view of political power in Language and Power. Personally, I found the book quite useful in understanding how power is communicated within a heavily Javanese political context. I’d also like to think that the book has helped many academics and students understand the cultural side of power in Indonesia. Therefore, we can say that Anderson contributed to the study of Javanese culture.

Does that mean I always have to present new stuff?

Ideally, the publication of any research ought to contribute in some way for the advancement of a study program, be it large or small. However, let’s be realistic. The expectations burdened on you vary depending on where you are on the academic ladder. If you’re an undergraduate student, nobody’s expecting you to find the cure for cancer or propose a new theory of quantum physics or even a new paradigm of international relations. Heck, you may not even be interested in publishing anyway.

In the social sciences, a “contribution” may be as small (but not insignificant!) as (1) writing an argument against a certain position, or (2) applying a particular theoretical framework in a particular context, or (3) providing a description of a particular condition. In case (1), maybe you disagree that ASEAN can be explained using Haas’ neofunctionalist framework and believe that it’s actually less like Haas and more like whatever framework you’d rather believe in. In case (2), maybe you’ve found a nifty theoretical framework and would want to see what would happen if it were applied in a different context. In case (3), maybe you’ve realized that there’s not a lot of literature on nose picking habits of Indonesians, so you want to make an ethnographic study. Probably you’d get a PhD for case (3).

Larger contributions often take time to manifest and are rarely the work of one person on their own. Take, for example, the development of neoclassical realism. Gideon Rose first coined the term in 1998, but what he actually did was a simple (not simplistic!) review of existing scholarship which he thought exhibited similar characteristics. Other academics took notice and started tinkering with Rose’s observations. The incremental and cumulative effort of these academics then gave way to a structured version of Neoclassical Realism, as seen in Lobell, Ripsmann, and Taliaferro’s Neoclassical Realist Theory of International Politics.

How do I know what to contribute?

That’s where the literature review comes in. Think of it as simply a log book of where you’ve been and what’ve you’ve read.

The actual process of science is seldom linear and straightforward; it’s often erratic. Discoveries have been made because of mistakes and accidents (like the discovery of penicillin). In the social sciences, you may often stumble upon new and interesting tidbits while reading and re-reading. When your brain goes “Hey, why has nobody ever written about this before?” or “What if I apply this theory to this case? What would happen then?” and you check your literature review (or thesis repository) to make sure nobody has done it, that’s when you know you’ve struck academic gold.

This may be the only fun thing that makes being an academic worthwhile.

But, my contribution isn’t that big!

Relax. People have gotten published in journals for far less.

I would have to admit that I often find the “contribution” part daunting. How am I supposed to contribute something worthwhile to the discussion? What if my contribution isn’t as original as I thought it would be? If more than two of my close academic friends think the same, that’s usually my cue to scrap or revise a paper.

As I said earlier, expectations are closely related to your position in the hierarchy. If you’re an undergrad student, you’d usually be expected to simply apply theoretical frameworks in a scenario of your choice and see if it works or not. If you’re like me, a depressed and overworked faculty member, the stakes are a bit higher. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I always have to crank out “amazing” discoveries; it could be as small as going through forty years of Indonesian foreign policy and proposing a new definition of a certain time period with certain characteristics.

That withstanding, a “small” contribution is not necessarily insignificant! So, my only advice would be to just try things out and see what works. I say this considering the highly diverse and curious nature of academia. A seemingly small contribution today may actually be a big thing ten years from now!


I hope that helps you understand what a “contribution” is. I was tempted to use King, Keohane, and Verba’s definition, but I found their definition a bit too pedantic for this post. Hopefully, you can now refine your research and better position it within the literature.

If anything, the point of a contribution is to basically help out other academics understand and develop the field better. I personally think that’s good enough. Anyway, if you have any comments, feel free to write them in the comment section and thanks for reading!

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