"an original contribution to knowledge"
Now most types of research add something, it is implicit when you submit a paper for publication that it adds something. To look at that sentence in its parts, first original contribution does not mean Nobel Prize for Physics or enormous change to entire discipline. Some ikkle bits of research are capable of this, and some PhD thesis, notably Likert's 1930's one for psychological measurement have indeed been break-thorough. For most of us mere mortals though, our contribution is going to be much less significant, but hopefully it will be novel or original and it will add in some way. The three types of contributions which are usually of interest here are Methodological, Theoretical and Practice contributions.
A methodological contribution is where you have either added to the knowledge regarding a research method or you have tried something original with a research method or approach. Unless you are doing something truly different, usually methodological contributions aren't huge, but they may be present.
Theoretical contributions add something to the current knowledge. As some person once said to me, if you imagine the biggest book (100,000 pages+) possible which contains absolutely everything about your discipline, your paper, phd or work has added something to that book.. possibly though just a paragraph in page 57,723. BUT what a paragraph it is! You’ve added something! And, hey, it could be a footnote! Again though, the SO WHAT? question comes to mind though, you’re addition must survive that cocky chavver with an attitude problem.
Practice and Managerial Contributions (Or, what you hope they are)
These are usually difficult, as these are generally what you hope that you are going to add to practice or managerial know-how with the outcomes and findings of your student. Here the SO WHAT question becomes more of a SO WHO? As you’ll have to clearly identify the users of this type of information, and you’ll want some vague kind of credibility to this “who”. A vague hand-wavery of “managers” might not be enough here, and particularly a PhD student may want to be able to name people or parties who he/she has had discussions as “proof” of professional interest in a viva.
Usually the practice contributions are the implications of what you have found for practice, and you should have a good idea of how this practically relates. Basically turning conceptual conclusions into what they mean for practice. Research papers or theses which have very business focused research questions can expect this to be the main crux of where their contribution is assessed.
SO WHAT for MMO Research?
Well so far in MMO research perhaps the biggest so what has been from the business community at large. As I alluded to in my “Why Study Virtual Worlds?” post there are those in the video game business community in general who currently cannot see much of an answer to “SO WHAT?”. That isn’t particularly an issue for those papers, thesis or research pieces who have non-applied research questions. Indeed I’ve read over the years some great sociological and educational research pieces of work which have no business application whatsoever (or, at the very least, no immediately viable one). That’s great, if your research question is orientated in that direction.
For other papers and other thesis though, particularly pieces which sometimes “claim” that they are focused on helping or engaging with business, sometimes that “claim” is both tenuous and vague. A vague, “this will help managers… well.. if they read this” is never going to rank well against “I have contacted managers in the business field and they have expressed an interest in looking over the findings of my research once it is published”.
Methodological and theoretical contributions have a different objective ranking, but unfortunately one which will only be clear in hindsight; how often will they be cited by fellow academics. It’s a horrible system and thing to say, but if your wonderful research paper or article is never cited by another person, probably it added very little to the field.