The Law of Diminishing Returns

I have a quite extensive Endnote database of books and articles that might well be relevant to my research. Every time I get the chance to visit a different theological/studies in religion library, I take along a list of items that I haven’t already found. Obviously, every time I draft a new list, it’s shorter than the previous one, but also every time I visit a library, the proportion of items I am able to find reduces. Looking at what I don’t have in the way of articles after this visit, I think it’s down to the old and the obscure. For example, just how many libraries outside the Netherlands am I likely to find that have holdings of Nederlands Theologisch Tijdschift?

And, indeed, how much more do I really need to read, anyway? My literature review is already huge and all that I need to be able to do is to demonstrate that I am aware of the discussion and opinions in the literature, not that I have read everything ever written on the Gospel of Thomas! The law of diminishing returns must surely mean that there is a point beyond which there is no value in reading anything more that isn’t obviously new.

That’s the logical voice in my brain speaking. And then there’s the other voice, the one that says that the person who marks my thesis may have read (or even written) that article in the Nederlands Theologisch Tijdschift and may accuse me of plagiarising an idea that I genuinely thought was my own but was expressed very beautifully on the third page of the article I didn’t hunt hard enough for.

People have had their PhDs rescinded and lost their high-flying positions 25 years on because of plagiarism (well, one person that I know of has). My own university is currently investigating a plethora of plagiarism cases in one particular course. Our plagiarism policy says that unintentional plagiarism is still plagiarism and can still incur penalties. It’s easy to become paranoid.

Hey, maybe I can suggest this to Jorge Cham as a story line for a Piled Higher and Deeper comic strip?

Clearly, my particular research-related paranoia is plagiarism. What’s yours?

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