The institute I am studying at has added the following requirement recently:

A PhD scholar must publish two papers in his/her corresponding field in SCI journals.

This means that a student cannot get PhD without two SCI rated papers. To the best of my knowledge, novelty is a mandate for such journals; hence, novelty has became mandatory for a student to get PhD in my institute.

In this context, I have the following query: Why is novelty mandatory for a PhD degree?

Consider a scenario in which a student is ambitious and wants to do research on an open problem or famous unsolved problem in his/her field. The student cannot attempt to research such a topic since research may be locally saturated, and he/she cannot come up with a novel idea. Does the rule not restrict the research on such problems? I can see the alternatives like tutorial papers, survey papers, etc., but some of these require only highly experienced geeks.

Note: Assume that neither the PhD student nor the PhD supervisor is an extraordinary person in that particular field.

  • 53
    Before the requirement about two papers in SCI journals, did your institute award Ph.D.degrees without any requirement of novelty? In my opinion, that would be very strange and not consistent with what a Ph.D. should mean. Commented Dec 2, 2018 at 4:55
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    I don’t understand the last paragraph of your question. Why should a requirement for novelty be a problem for ambitious students?
    – Thomas
    Commented Dec 2, 2018 at 5:59
  • 33
    No sane advisor would allow a student to base his thesis 100% on proving the Riemann hypothesis. If the student insists and somehow manages to convince the advisor to do so, then he should consider the option that nothing will come out of it – this was his own choice to start with, so he should accept the consequences. If the rules state that two papers with novel results are a requirement, one needs to have results. Negative results are also results, and often very important, but "I've done research for 4 years but absolutely nothing worked; give me a PhD" is not enough.
    – user68958
    Commented Dec 2, 2018 at 8:25
  • 17
    One of the first lessons of PhD studies is that you’re likely not as smart as you think and that you’re likely to fail if working on famous unsolved problems. Commented Dec 2, 2018 at 13:56
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    @O.R.Mapper Even the most ambitious student has zero influence on whether there still is anything novel to discover. — This is true, but vacuously so. There is always more to discover!
    – JeffE
    Commented Dec 2, 2018 at 20:12

4 Answers 4


Novelty is a basic requirement in research because without novel results, the work is of at best limited usefulness. It's not useless - review papers are useful - but it's less interesting to the people at the frontier. In the case of a PhD, it is supposed to signify a student is now capable of doing research. Research (as opposed to literature review) necessarily involves new and novel results. Therefore novelty is a requirement.

If I understand your last paragraph right, you're wondering about open problems which might be too complex to solve in one go. But in that case, you still get new and novel results - they might be partial results, but they're still results. The same goes for research using new methods that turn out not to work: knowing where not to look is not as useful as knowing where to look, but by narrowing the parameter space, it's still useful.

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    @hanugm certainly not, most PhD students get such results. How else did your predecessors at your institution get awarded PhDs? They discovered enough new things to publish two SCI-indexed papers. See also corey979's comment.
    – Allure
    Commented Dec 2, 2018 at 10:34
  • 53
    @hanugm at my institution every single PhD student has new and novel results. The importance of the results vary, with some having papers at Nature/Science and others publishing at very insignificant local journals, but they always have results. That's what you do in your PhD. You do stuff no one did before. Whether someone cares about it is another thing, but it's still new.
    – Gimelist
    Commented Dec 2, 2018 at 11:36
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    @hanugm That may be true, but the single most important criterion for awarding a PhD is whether the student was able to obtain (publishable) original results. The importance of these results will be the largest factor in determining the grade of the PhD. Writing an excellent review of the literature is usually not enough for a PhD, although it is a popular format for Master's theses.
    – Earthliŋ
    Commented Dec 2, 2018 at 11:56
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    Also note that there are doctoral degrees that do not require original research, or at least not anything close to the levels of originality and substantiality required for a PhD. Examples include the DA (Doctor of Arts) degree, as well as many professional degrees such as MD, JD, PharmD, and DDS. A PhD is a research doctorate. Commented Dec 3, 2018 at 2:58
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    To improve this answer: "novelty" suggests it has to be a new concept. It might be better phrased as "new information". An essential part of science is reproducing and testing concepts from other teams. This is not creating a novel idea yourself; but documenting whether the new concept also works for you or not, and the ways your results differ from the original team's, is essential for good science. And that's absolutely PhD paper material because it's new information, even if it isn't novel.
    – Graham
    Commented Dec 3, 2018 at 9:40

This answer will be a bit different and not limited to the sciences as the other current answers seem to be. It will also apply to many similar degrees not designated PhD. I'll use the term "doctorate" as an abbreviation for "research doctorate" to distinguish it from other degrees such as those that are clinically focused, for example.

Study for a doctorate (PhD and similar degrees) in a field is intended to teach you how to carry out scholarship in that field, whatever it is. Scholarship is always intended to be the extension of knowledge. A successful scholar extends what is known in the field of interest. In literature, for example, you can study Dr. Faustus by Goethe and give a perspective never considered before. This would be, as are many (most?) studies, very narrow. But it can also be very deep. If someone says that your thoughts aren't actually novel, but a simple extension of things written a few (or a lot of) years ago, then those thoughts don't really extend knowledge. So, if all you can accomplish are derivative works, without novelty, then you haven't reached the point of being able to extend knowledge in your field.

The actual accomplishment need not be earth shattering in its implications. Most are not - even in mathematics and the sciences. But you have to be able to say something that is interesting to other scholars, preferably something that will permit them to extend their own work in new ways not yet considered.

There are a lot of ways to demonstrate that you are, indeed, able to extend knowledge in your field. A requirement of publication in a good journal is just one way and it is easy for the faculty to judge, since the reviewers and editors of the journal help them in their judgement task. Not so many years ago, in mathematics, there was no requirement to publish before obtaining the doctorate and your "proof of ability" was measured only in your dissertation as evaluated by the local faculty, perhaps with some supplementing.

Research in any field is directed at extending the "known world". You need to demonstrate the ability to do that to earn a doctorate and to be known as a "doctor" of the field. Only "novelty" will do.

  • 2
    The notion of scholarship is really enlightening. Thank you!
    – ebosi
    Commented Dec 2, 2018 at 17:30

A PhD thesis demonstrates the candidate's ability to perform research. Research, by definition, adds something novel to the body of knowledge.

Research: The systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions (Oxford English Dictionary)



My answer derive from following definition of the PhD and its thesis.

The purpose of a PhD is to train a research student as an autonomous scientist and a good researcher — i.e., as someone deserving the grade of Doctor.

The objective of a PhD thesis is hence to demonstrate to one’s peers that its author can be considered in this way by reporting the successful* completion of a high-quality piece of research.

Depending on one's field, the monograph-style thesis can be replaced by a set of published peer-reviewed paper. The objective remains the same.


The question is then "What is an autonomous scientist and a good researcher?"

Being a good researcher means first to do science well, second to do good science, and third to do a lot of science.

Doing science well means following its ethical rules, being thorough, honestly and appropriately reporting one’s results, crediting one’s peers for their work and acknowledging one’s work limitations, using the adequate tools and methods to solve a problem, and doing research that is reproducible.

Doing good science means addressing a relevant scientific gap, an issue that is influential, a research problem that matters for science, the society, and the industry.

Doing a lot of science means to tackle a large-scale problem, to address subsequent research gaps, to contribute to multiple issues of a coherent sub-field.

One must, however, note that these criteria are conditional to one another. Doing a lot of science serves no purpose if one does not do good science. And more importantly, doing good science serves no purpose if one does not do science well.

To this, I would add that (it is my opinion, and one may disagree) the job of a researcher is to do science.
And doing science means reporting new knowledge that is as truthful as possible.
This is achievable using the scientific method that is commonly acknowledged as the best method for creating/unveiling (depending on your ontological positioning) reliable new knowledge.


So, to pragmatically answer your question:

  • the purpose a a PhD is to train you as a scientist,
  • producing new (and highly reliable) knowledge is quintessentially the role of a scientist.

Hence, you cannot be recognized by your peers as a scientist (i.e., being awarded the _Doctor_ title) if you don't prove that you can produce new reliable knowledge by yourself.

The confusion might come from the fact that — as it has been highlighted in comments — scientists do literature review, and literature review are useful and valuable. However, they are not the core of what is a scientist.


It it worth highlighting again the last quoted paragraph:

These criteria are conditional to one another. Doing a lot of science serves no purpose if one does not do good science. And more importantly, doing good science serves no purpose if one does not do science well.

Thus, I think that, when doing a PhD, one should mainly focus of the quality of one's contribution, rather than breadth or scale.

In other words: what matters is not that much what you have proven, but how you have proven it.

Of course I had the dream of a breakthrough thesis.
Yet I think that, during a PhD, it is more important to produce only a few robust, well designed experiment and well reported results on a minor "research gap"; rather than aiming to tackle a large scale issue without being able to produce robust results or reliable conclusions.

It's only once you'll have proven that you are a good researcher and autonomous scientist, that you'll be able to secure a job as a scientist/researcher.

And then you'll have time (and money, and support, and experience, …) to shoot for the stars.
Yet this is not the objective of a PhD. Everything in its own time.

Citations are excerpt of… the preface of my PhD thesis.

* Note that "successful" is to be understood as "We have completed each step of the scientific method". I.e., it does not consider whether results are positive or negative.

  • 2
    This answer has some excellent points — e.g. the core answer that a PhD thesis must demonstrate the candidate’s capability as a scientist, and that’s why it needs novelty — mixed in with some very tendentious and field-dependent claims, like the idea ‘“successful” is to be understood as “We have been able to demonstrate with certainty that” rather than “there is a correlation/impact/link between A and B”.’ — there are whole fields of science where this is a complete category error as to the nature of research. It would benefit from focusing more on the uncontroversial key points.
    – PLL
    Commented Dec 2, 2018 at 14:12
  • @PLL PS: Out of curiosity/interest, could you please elaborate on your point ("there are whole fields of science where this is a complete category error as to the nature of research.") — e.g., with some examples?
    – ebosi
    Commented Dec 2, 2018 at 14:32
  • Also interestingly enough is doesn't provide insight to the behind the scenes workings of the publication and review process which are machines which need much maintenance akin to the legal systems in some sense of the terms.
    – Jay
    Commented Dec 2, 2018 at 16:33
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    "...you cannot be recognized by your peers as a scientist if you don't prove that you can produce new reliable knowledge by yourself." That might be an example of jumping to conclusions. I could recognize someone as a scientist even without that proof, for example by having enough trust that anyone could be a scientist in principle. Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 10:01

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