I am currently a second-year undergraduate double-majoring in math and computer science. I am currently doing a joint research paper with one of the faculty in my university.

My advisor gave me research problem A. I thought about the problem for one week and managed to break problem A to sub-problems A₁, A₂, ..., An. Next, I started researching on A₁. After reading several papers, I found that an author had already solved problem A₁. I repeated this for A₂, ..., An and they have all been solved previously. Now I take the solutions for all of them, with proper citations of course, and piece them into a solution to my original problem. I write a paper and get it published.

Now here is my problem: I feel like a fraud. I have not personally solved any of the Ai. Heck, the only work I’ve done is to break down the problem, searched for solutions to the subproblems, and to combine other people’s solutions. Is this really what research is about? I really feel disheartened and want to know other people’s opinions. I feel like anybody can really do what I did.

  • 8
    You may look up the term "impostor syndrome" here. You may not have solved any "A_i", but you have solved A. Why does that not count? Do you think that the people who solved the A_i have done so by producing their method / algorithm / whatever out of thin air?
    – xLeitix
    Feb 9, 2017 at 8:41
  • 7
    Sometimes, the research really is just finding that combining previous results yields a new result. If the new result is interesting and nobody else has published it, then that means it was probably not as trivial to figure out as it ended up feeling to you after you had spent so much time on it (I mean, I have a paper which did this with just two previous results). Feb 9, 2017 at 8:51
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    Browse through top conferences and look at what people 'contribute' to your area. It can be what you did, new proof techniques, applying a totally new tool to problem X, shed new light on X, etc. Basically, you are extending the current body of knowledge. If you can claim there is a gap and you filled said gap or that your work extends the state-of-the-art, then that's research. In a nutshell, you found new knowledge. Feb 9, 2017 at 8:57
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    Splitting A into {A_i} is, in general, not a trivial feat. Don't underestimate that.
    – Davidmh
    Feb 10, 2017 at 6:44
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    If anything your professor, an expert in the field, didn't know you could solve A this way. If this wasn't known and published before now any other researcher like him know is possible . Well done, you contributed to your field!
    – Three Diag
    Feb 10, 2017 at 8:23

4 Answers 4


Research is not just about inventing things. Finding out the best options to solve the sub-problems is also part of research and is also a major part of why people publish — to have their work used for a purpose.

Research can simply be anything that makes a contribution to science/knowledge/understanding (see here) which can be any of the following.

  • Finding novel approaches to existing problems
  • Formulating new problems and solutions to them
  • Doing an in-depth study on an established field
  • Making meaningful connections between the unrelated
  • Extending on top of existing developments
  • Combining the best practices to solve subproblems of a bigger problem
  • ...

The list can go on. The main point here is as long as you have cited the existing solutions A₁, A₂, ..., An and that such a combination has not been published before, then you have no need to feel guilty of the work you did. You have done real work to search for the best solutions to each subproblem and went through the trouble of combing them to get a meaningful result — you have achieved an advancement in research.

Summarizing the comments:

  • A subproblem Ai may as well be ensembles/extensions of previous work.
  • If no-one else has published the work before, then it is not as trivial as you think it is.
  • The imposter syndrome; it is common for many in their research career. Overcome it.
  • You shed light on how problem A can be solved which might be overlooked before.

It is not at all inappropriate unless you claim that you have done more than what you have really done. Any small advance over existing knowledge is research. A large, completely original advance is great- but doesn't always happen right at the outset of your working on the problem!


It would help the discussion a bit if you can tell us the value of n, to put your feelings that you are a fraud into context. In any case, it's clear that you are not a fraud, however neither should your achievement of publishing a paper be touted as something more than it is. You have simply discovered something that all experienced researchers know, which is that not all research that gets published is highly difficult, original or exciting. The feeling that you are a fraud comes from cognitive dissonance - you had a preconception that research papers that get published contain highly original new ideas and are only written by really really smart people who have to work really really hard, and now that you've published one yourself without working very hard or (necessarily) having to be very smart or original, you are having a hard time reconciling that with your prior beliefs, and conclude that you must be a fraud. But the correct resolution of this contradiction is not that you are a fraud, but that your prior beliefs about published papers were incorrect.

With that said, only some research papers are as easy to produce and (supposedly) uninteresting or unoriginal as you perceive your paper to be. There are many, many excellent papers that get written every year and contain profound, original, and exciting ideas. Most successful professors have written at least a few such papers in their career, and some lucky ones wrote many. And most of us got started by writing papers that solve relatively easy problems and are not necessarily very exciting or interesting. That is precisely as it should be - one has to learn to walk before running. Stick with it, and hopefully someday in the not too distant future you'll come up with something truly original and exciting that you will feel really proud of. And in the meantime, you should still be proud of making a genuine contribution to your area, however modest it may be.


The technical term for what you did is called secondary research. Basically you collated/synthesized existing literature to address objectives/question you had in your own research. Your contribution was in combining what has already beem said in a somewhat unique way.

  • 4
    Nope. The technical term for what OP's done is research.
    – JeffE
    Feb 11, 2017 at 14:49

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