Emulate. The word is often used instead of “copy” or “imitate.” In education, copying is discouraged and often punished. Originality is encouraged and rewarded. Emulation, in my view, is pivotal to learning. Emulation should be encouraged, even celebrated, rather than stigmatized. In many of the trades, apprentices learn from master craftsmen. Want to be a master stonemason? Observe a master stonemason, emulate her technique. Under her supervision and a mastery of technique over a period of years, one might advance to journeyman. One is a master when one is worthy of emulation. Imitation acknowledges the mastery of another.

During a recent trip to the Getty Museum to view their exhibition Rembrandt and the Inspiration of India, I started thinking about the role of emulation in the learning process. The Dutch East India Company’s interactions with India included bringing the art of the Indian subcontinent to Northern Europe. Rembrandt, like many of his contemporaries, was fascinated by the artistic techniques employed by these artists. He spent many hours emulating Mughal art, perfecting the techniques and incorporating elements of European art into the scenes.

Four Orientals Seated Under a Tree
Four Orientals Seated Under a Tree

There are several differences between the two pictures (left). The Mughal painting is in color and Rembrandt used charcoal. Behind the men, Rembrandt added a tree that does not exist in the original. He did not capture the detail of the carpets in the Mughal art. However, the most obvious difference, for me, is the addition of perspective. Rembrandt adds perspective to the scene, giving his version depth of field and rendering a more “natural” scene, something that is more consistent with our experience of the world. The one concession to the flat perspective of the original is the detailed “carpet” behind the right shoulder of the man on the left. Here the carpet retains some of the detail captured in the Mughal painting.

Artists’—painters, sculptors, musicians, and others—acknowledge their debt to other artists. In the natural and social sciences, by contrast, “originality” is suggested as the gold standard of achievement. Consider this definition of research adopted by the Council on Undergraduate Research that highlights originality: “An inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline” (emphasis added). Originality is a very high bar, one that may be impossible for anyone to clear. Isaac Newton, arguably the inventor of Calculus, acknowledged his debt to previous work: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on [the] shoulders of giants.” Creativity and discovery are iterative processes that build on the accomplishments of others. Rembrandt learned by copying the style of the Mughal artist but also added elements of his style to create a synthesis of East and West. Picasso’s cubism emerged from his mastery of the Impressionists’ style.

An obsession with “originality” fails to acknowledge that emulation is the linchpin of progress in the natural and social sciences. Emulation is the heart of replication, and replication is the gold standard of the sciences. Studies that cannot be replicated throw empirical findings into doubt. Replication is a means for “self-policing” in the sciences. Failure to replicate actually moves science forward by exposing false findings and sometimes suggesting new research directions. Emulating the study design and techniques allows a scholar absorb the norms of good science, develop skills and techniques and, in some circumstances, perfect and extend previous findings.

In an advanced methods course in graduate school, we were given a dataset—on a 5.25” floppy disk (yes, I am that old)—for a recently published American Political Science Review article (APSR is the leading journal in the profession). We were required to replicate the results reported in the article. Seemed easy enough. We began working as individuals, poring over the article. As the hours passed and none of us were successful, we joined together. “How did you operationalize this variable?” Another, “You could do it another way.” Try again. Dozens of hours later not one of us successfully replicated the article. But the exercise of attempting to replicate, that is, emulate, the article taught me valuable lessons about conducting empirical research that I have never forgotten. My first major publication resulted from replicating a study and then using a technique developed in another field to produce a novel result.

If one takes a moment to reflect, they will realize that much of what they know was learned first by emulating others. As a young, sports-obsessed, boy, I often watched and then tried to emulate the techniques of professional players. Much of what I know about writing developed through emulation. In unfamiliar circumstances one might stand aside to observe the behaviors of others, emulating their actions as a strategy to avoid social embarrassment. Though by no means a “master,” I try to model the traits of intellectual curiosity, persistence, and openness to constructive criticism, creating an emulation opportunity for college students and junior scholars.

Observation is the key to emulation. Look for examples of individuals who exhibit outstanding practice, watch them carefully, discover what makes their practices successful, and then emulate them. Emulate your way to originality.