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I am an undergraduate and I have no experience in research papers. I have come up with an idea to write a simple research paper on "Emerging fiber optic networks in Africa." To my utter astonishment, I have seen a few papers already published in IEEE forum: one titled "Developing a fiber optic backbone for Africa" and another one I can't remember...

How can I deal with such a thing? Should I go and do my own research on the topic and see what happens? Or should I come up with another idea?

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    and see what happens - what do you think will happen? What's your goal here? – ff524 Jun 30 '14 at 4:58
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Papers have been written on nearly every topic you can possibly think of. I would be shocked if someone HADN'T written a paper on your potential research area by now. The trick to good research is to position your research in the space alongside other papers. What did 'Emerging fiber optic networks in Africa' conclude? What was their methodology, sample size, literature review or most importantly their conclusion? Each one of these areas can be used as a jumping point for your research to confirm, critique, dispute, refute or supplement theirs. It's good that others have come before you to beat down the path so that you can potentially tread a little further off the beaten trail. To answer your question, I personally think you should continue to pursue your research area, there is always scope to perform more research, especially in your field of interest.

  • I don't believe that is true that someone has written on every possible research topic or idea. In any given field, there are well-trodden areas and ideas, there are less explored areas, and there are vast spaces of ideas and possibilities that haven't been explored or even hinted at. – MrMeritology Jul 1 '14 at 0:12
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    @MrMeritology: That depends on the field and, perhaps more critically, on what one means by a "research area". In this case, the OP was surprised that someone else has written on Emerging fiber optic networks in Africa. But (with no expertise here whatsoever) I'm not: are you? I also note that you mention ideas, as you should. The OP seems to use "idea" to mean "I would like to write a paper on Topic X". Doesn't the question of whether the OP actually has a new idea on Topic X lie at the heart of the matter? – Pete L. Clark Jul 1 '14 at 1:43
  • @PeteL.Clark: If we are limiting our discussion to academic papers, conferences, and journals, then the most important issue is not whether OP has a new idea. The issue is whether OP has anything useful/important to say about his idea; especially whether it adds to "the literature" (i.e. the body of published research) on that topic. Is OP's idea unique to Africa? Unique to fiber optic networks? Is it (merely) a clever commercial invention rather than academic research? Where is it situated in theory and previous empirical research? – MrMeritology Jul 1 '14 at 2:03
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    @MrM: When I say "new idea", I mean it to be synonymous with "something new and useful/important to say". I don't mean an unsupported idea or something purely speculative, if that's what you're getting at. (In my field, mathematics, I think most people mean "new idea" in this way: it is one of the best things to say about a paper, and its lack is a bad thing to say. I would be interested to hear if it is different in other fields.) – Pete L. Clark Jul 1 '14 at 2:07
  • @PeteL.Clark: I understand you, but I'm not sure that OP has this same meaning for "an idea". My reading of his question led me to believe that his "idea" was "new to the World, something no one had ever considered, proposed, or investigated". My point is that novelty of the idea, alone, is of little significance. What matters: Why is this idea important? – MrMeritology Jul 1 '14 at 2:12
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There's a subtle shift in the meaning of research as you transition from high school and lower-level undergraduate work to graduate school.

Early on, a teacher may ask for you to do research, and it means: Look up everything you can find on this matter, and report what you have found. You are essentially writing a "research report," summarizing what is already known about a certain topic.

As you get into more formal academic research, however, research means: Come up with a problem that hasn't been satisfactorily solved, form a hypothesis on how to solve it, then test your hypothesis with a series of carefully crafted scientific experiments, and finally report your results. You are essentially expanding the scope of knowledge in a certain field, and doing so using the scientific method.

It's also worth noting that the first section of most research papers summarize the already-established knowledge in the problem area. So, in a research paper about fiber optic networks in Africa, the author(s) would probably have some novel idea about how best to, say, install or maintain such a network, and they would likely begin by summarizing what has already been done so far, before explaining why their idea would potentially improve the start-of-the-art. Therefore, it's very normal to find other related papers when you start doing your research. In fact, that should be your first step: read and study every one of them you can find.

If you are doing a "research report," that's pretty much the end of the line. But if you are doing graduate-level research, that's merely the beginning. Incidentally, it can easily take a year or more to do the rest (even longer if you are doing doctoral research).

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    The point that the OP may not properly understand that an academic research paper is (usually!) qualitatively different from a glorified book report (or "literature review", to use the older kids' terminology) is well-taken. However, your third paragraph contains a description of scientific research. This is of course an important part of academic research, but of course it is only a part. – Pete L. Clark Jul 1 '14 at 1:46
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If someone else has done research on the very same theme or idea that you have, then you should rejoice. You are part of a research community, and what counts to society is what the community produces, not just what each individual researcher produces.

Even more significant: if someone else has published research on your idea, then it is evidence that you aren't crazy. It's a good sign, not a bad sign. I'm serious about this. Really great ideas are not the creation of solo researchers operating in isolation. They arise in a community through social interaction, engagement, and rivalry. If there is existing research then it connects you to the community of researchers who are working along similar lines. These are your most valuable allies, even if you vehemently disagree with them on specifics.

Don't be too attached to this one idea. Explore it as far as it goes. But you should pay attention to what ideas might follow, or at least how this develops your intellectual curiosity.

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