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I am nearly at the end of my master thesis and, according to my research, the last part of it deals with something that has not been treated before in any paper/book I have found.

To make things more clear: in my thesis I am applying a method well known in literature, which has been applied many times on simple structural elements built on purpose to validate the method. In my thesis I have started applying the method on simple structures too, to be sure I have implemented it correctly. Then, in the last part, I apply it on a real-world structure using real measurements (not numerical generated ones).

The problem is that I am not sure if I should underline this fact as a novelty in the method application. According to my literature research, this approach has not been tried yet, but I can speak only 2 languages, therefore I looked for books/papers written in those 2 languages only.

What if this thing has been already done by someone else on a paper written in another language? Then my results will not be a novelty anymore, so I should not mention it in my thesis and this will also affect the 'goodness' of my work too (because my thesis will not actually add any useful information to the already existing literature).

How can I deal with this situation?

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    Can you not just explain that the method is novel in those two languages? – dbmag9 Mar 15 '15 at 14:50
  • Yes, but I still have the problem that if it is not a real novelty than my thesis ends up being just a replication of results already obtained – Rhei Mar 15 '15 at 14:51
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    I got scooped half way through mine by a paper in Nature. Still, I passed with flying colours. – Davidmh Mar 15 '15 at 19:36
  • @Rhei: Does your university, or your task description, impose any requirement for your thesis to be new? – O. R. Mapper Mar 15 '15 at 20:12
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    Are the extra points granted for the value of the original research or for the effort involved in doing original research without having prior work to fall back on? For a master thesis I would guess it's the latter and in that case it'd be reasonable to assume that you'd still get full credit even if prior research turns up in another language. Such research wouldn't diminish the effort you put in your thesis since you wouldn't have been able to use it to make your work easier. – Lilienthal Mar 16 '15 at 10:56
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A general guideline for writing papers (which also extends to theses) is: Never claim that something is new/novel, and at least some journals or publishers reflect this in their guidelines, e.g., here. If you publish something, it is always implied that this is new according to your knowledge or, if it isn’t, that you properly cited whoever did it before you.

The very most I have seen people claim is something along the lines of:

To our knowledge, X has not been attempted before.

which would be the truth in your case. I would however even refrain from such a sentence, as it should be implicit when you do not cite. However, in some disciplines (like yours) this may be common or acceptable, respectively.

What if this thing has been already done by someone else on a paper written in another language? Then […] this will also affect the 'goodness' of my work too (because my thesis will not actually add any useful information to the already existing literature).

Master theses are (or at least should be) evaluated differently than papers and the main goal is not to produce something useful but to perform a proper scientific investigation (or similar). Of course, if you were assigned a proper topic, the two things are usually somewhat equivalent. But if, e.g., somebody publishes a paper doing the same things as your thesis one month before your defense, this does not diminish the quality of the investigation you performed¹. Something similar holds, if it turns out that somebody already published something similar in another language or under totally different keywords in another field (rendering it very difficult to find).

Moreover, the duty of deciding whether something is actually novel lies at least to some extent on your supervisor: If somebody already investigated the topic of your thesis, you should not have been assigned this topic in the first place. You cannot be expected to know whether your topic hasn’t already been investigated before starting your thesis, because you probably do not even know where to search.


¹ It may even underline the importance of what you have been investigating and that your work is on a publishable level.

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This is a common situation, since it really isn't possible to be absolutely certain that nobody has done this work before. What I find people usually do is:

  1. Do the best literature search you can. As for references in other languages, in many fields it's common that papers written in, say, French, will have an abstract in English, so you'd have a chance of finding them even if you can't read French. But if you find a French paper whose abstract suggests that it may contain similar results to yours, then it is your duty to find a way to read it (look for a translation, ask a colleague to translate, learn some French yourself if necessary) and make sure.

  2. Once you are satisfied you have done a diligent search, write something like "this result appears to be new" or "as far as we know, this result has not been obtained previously".

  3. If it later turns out that your result was already known, be prepared to acknowledge that the other author had priority, and to be able to show that although you did a reasonably diligent search, you did not find the prior paper, and that your result was truly obtained independently (not plagiarized).

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