Frequent freakouts (1): when somebody has already published what you’ve been working on

A selfie from one of my most recent research days

If you are already writing in an academic context, at whatever level, from fledgling undergraduate to emeritus professor, you will be familiar with a range of unwanted surprises that can shatter your confidence in your work. One particularly vicious little one has something like the magnitude of a neutron bomb going off unexpectedly in your cornflakes. That is the fearful moment when you discover that some horrible snake in the grass, somewhere, has already published a book or article which focuses on the object of your enquiry, from the same perspective, using the same critical tools, and reaching the same conclusions, scuppering a project that you’ve devoted much of your recent effort to. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to help students deal with this particular problem, and while nothing can really prevent the first eye-popping, palm-moistening moment of abject terror, there are a few generally reliable strategies that more or less ensure that, by the end of the day, things don’t seem so bad. In fact, it’s even possible to feel quite good.

As the first in a (possible) occasional series on frequent academic freakouts, I thought that it might be useful to share here a brief note of some of the coping strategies I tend to suggest to students in these cases. It’s all obvious advice, really, but it is just difficult to think of in the moment when this particular kind of shock comes – particularly so on the first occasion, and it’s newcomers to this peculiar torment that I especially have in mind in this post. Feel free to add further strategies in the comments, or to suggest possible future freakouts to address.

What do I do? My entire project is ruined!

First: breathe! Second, reflect. This kind of thing is always a horrible moment for everyone, even people who have been publishing for forty years, and it can feel like the end of the world, but it’s normally resolved quite easily. It’s possible that, as you probably feel, 100% of the observations you’ve made about the object you’re studying, and 100% of the arguments you make, and 100% of the conclusions you draw, have been pre-empted by this previously published article or book. But it’s probably more likely that there’s just a very unsettling overlap between your reading and the reading it advances, and that your initial shock is making you over-rate the extent of the overlap. Try to step back and assess the extent of the damage. Is it really more like 50% overlap? Or 20%?

It’s actually showing that you’re doing OK

Look at it a different way: there seems to be some agreement with a published scholar. Even if it’s 100% overlap, which is extremely unlikely, that’s still a good thing: it shows your reading is plausible, and has presumably been approved by the peer review process. So the question is effectively quite simple. How can you incorporate this earlier piece into your writing? How can you eat it so that it makes you stronger?

Three elementary, and usually reliable, strategies
  1. In most cases, published work that seems to have entirely stolen your thunder can simply be used to bolster your position. So cite it, and let it do part of the work of arguing for you. This will save you space in your word count at the same time that it lends authority to your argument. It might be frightening to delete words that you’ve painstakingly drafted, but it’s normally the case that writers spend a lot of their time worrying about what they can cut to hit their word limit. Now something is helping you do that.
  2. You might quickly see how you can supplement the existing publication, by adding observations about your object of study that it has missed. These might be remarks you weren’t sure you’d have space to make, or that you had thought would make your argument too complicated. But now, since you’ve been handed the gift of being able to summarize a fully worked-out argument in a published piece, you’ve got more space to include them.
  3. Once you’ve exhausted steps 1 and 2, think about how you can criticize the existing publication, and maybe even strongly read against the grain of it. Play devil’s advocate. Your tutor or supervisor has probably already told you there are all kinds of problems with your developing argument, or else a little doubting voice in your head has been telling you that your case just isn’t holding together. Before now you’ve almost certainly been concentrating your efforts on defending your interpretation against real or imagined criticisms. Now you can switch sides: test the possibilities, first perhaps mechanically, then with growing assurance, for showing the published findings to be unsatisfactory, and generate a counter-argument. Ask your tutor for suggestions. Most academics have been through this process so many times themselves that they’re old hands at picking holes in even the most unobjectionable argument. Use their contrariness to your benefit, and develop a contrarian streak in yourself. (Just hide it from your friends…)

If there’s somewhere between a partial and total overlap between that piece and your work, some combination of those strategies will  generally help you out of your hole. If the overlap really is completely total, then you’ve still got at least one more shot. Take a deep breath, and remind yourself that you have never had to fall silent before just because someone has said something clever. You can think round it, even if you feel they’ve taken the words out of your mouth, and begin to find a new perspective.

You already have an unassailable advantage: you are guaranteed to win

You’ve got the advantage here over that published piece: it is ‘dead’, it’s not speaking any more, and you’ve got time – weeks, months, maybe even years – to keep speaking and to say things it can’t answer. It may have given you a shock today, but that’s the last shock it’s ever going to give you. By the time you’re finished with it, this nasty little monstrosity will be utterly tamed. You still might flinch at the memory of that first grotesque discovery, but you’ll have folded this apparent negation of your work, the extinction of your academic dreams, into your new work as a vital strength of it. Far from stealing your thunder, it’ll turn out in the end that this nasty little beast has actually done you a world of good.

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