"News" as Previously Unpublished Insights Discovered by Your Research

      Any good academic paper must rise above merely summarizing well-known facts in order to deliver some "news" to its readers.  Journalism instructors often use the same ancient examples to explain to new reporters what constitutes news: "Dog bites man?  That's not news.  Man bites dog?  That's news."  The term "news" was originally a plural when London's first newspaper was founded in the early 1600s, and each of its articles reported something "new" to its readers, or at least, new happenings involving familiar persons, places, or things.  An academic paper's news for its readers will involve primary source evidence that almost certainly has previously been studied by other scholars, but the paper reports some new evidence or a new pattern in the old evidence that makes it "news" again.  Realizing this will help keep you from jumping to a well-worn conclusion about the topic and trying to turn it into news.  Only careful study can find something genuinely new, and that careful study is the basis of research, literally "searching again" through evidence others have seen to discover patterns that others have missed.

       How often have you heard other students say that they are conducting research "to find sources that back up my thesis"?  That would be a recipe for failure in college unless their thesis, before research, just happened to be correct!  The old high-school model of research may still be guiding the speaker's behavior: s/he is simply summarizing and reporting the obvious primary source evidence (e.g., plot summary in fiction or films), or stacking up other people's original research results and passing off that stack, perhaps with a summary introduction or conclusion, as the author's "thesis."  Or, worse yet, the author may be selectively picking quotes and mis-paraphrasing from the sources to warp the research into the appearance of supporting a "hunch" or hypothesis that the author brought to the research but was unwilling to test for its truthfulness.  (Grice's First Maxim: "Tell the truth.")

        True college-level research is a means of arriving at a thesis, beginning with close observation of some primary source evidence to look for a pattern in the evidence, and applying data and reasoning from secondary sources to help us understand the pattern you have detected.  Think of the pattern as a problem that can be understood from a number of different disciplinary perspectives.  A mature research process might look for sources about the abstract issues the problem raises:

        Above all, unless specifically instructed to do so by your teacher, do not simply look for a scholar who has found an interesting pattern of evidence and report the scholar's conclusions.  Unless the paper delivers some original insight about the pattern of evidence that adds to or corrects that original publication, the writer has merely reprinted someone else's story.  That is not news.  Creative use of primary and secondary source evidence to arrive at new knowledge is difficult, easily as hard as writing a novel or a long poem.  For this reason, the supposed distinction between "creative writing" and "academic writing" is meaningless, or meaningful only in that the fiction witers and poets have a license to lie to their readers in the service of a higher truth.  How much more "creative" is it to tell a new truth about a subject about which your best readers already thought they knew everything worth knowing?  In the course of pursuing original discoveries, undergraduate researchers sometimes discover, after they have made their own case for discovering an original insight, that some scholar has previously published the insight.  If this happens to you, after you have done all the primary and secondary research necessary to prove the insight on your own, tell your instructor that someone else has published it first and you probably will be congratulated.  It's the most clear proof possible that your idea was not only news but publishable news.  If you carefully examine your evidence and reasoning, it is also probable that you have contributed something new to how we know it, or why it is important to know.  That, though diminished, is still news.

        In some cases, student researchers discover that nobody has ever published about the pattern of evidence they have discovered and demonstrated.  Does that mean the pattern is meaningless?  On the contrary, that result is what every graduate student and professional scholar hopes for--previously undiscovered "news" about the topic!  It means, if it's true on closer inspection, that the author has a publishable insight.  Then the researcher goes back to the search engines and databases and tries to figure out how to introduce her/his insight into the ongoing critical discussion about the topic.  In this case, "no results" is exactly what we want to find.