Identifying Research Gaps
Identifying a research gap is one of the crucial parts of many research projects. In fact, spotting a knowledge gap and setting out to address it is generally what makes your research worthwhile. It enables you to truly contribute to the existing body of knowledge as well as sets you up to produce findings that are more likely to get published.
When you are an expert in a certain field, familiar with its theory base and current developments, detecting a good research question (that will fill a gap in existing knowledge) comes relatively easy. However, identifying a research gap is not always a straightforward task when you are new to a particular area of research. Budding researchers with limited experience and contacts often find identifying research gaps difficult, and many Master’s and PhD students still struggle to get it right. There is no exact formula that will indicate you are indeed conducting relevant research and many research skills simply come with time and practice.
Taking time with literature searches
Since identifying a research gap is such a vital part of research, you need to allow enough time for it. Your eagerness to get started with data collection does not mean you should rush the foundational part of yourproject, essential for the quality of your subsequent research.
- It will take a lot of reading and sieving through the existing literature to identify a topic that has not been studied enough. You need to find the most suitable articles – these days, this is made a lot easier with the help of academic databases and Internet search engines that use keyword combinations and allow you to specify the characteristics of the searched literature (e.g. language and date of publication).
- Reading systematic reviews, meta-analysis reports and content analysis reports is a good way to get familiar with a large body of already collected and evaluated research without having to read each of the articles individually.
- Pay attention to the introductions and conclusions of articles. These usually offer some information on what has already been studied, why studies on this topic are important and what the author believes is missing in the literature. Some research articles also include a short section on ‘suggestions for future research’.
- Limit yourself to more recent articles (within the last 5 years) to optimize your awareness of current trends and developments in the field. This will get you a better idea of what is needed (and funded) in the present moment in terms of research topics.
Making it relevant to practitioners
We all know that there is usually a big divide between theory and practice: theoreticians that create the field’s foundations frequently have little or no contact with the actual application of research findings in practice. With a few notable exceptions it is almost always advisable to think about the practical value of your study and how it will improve everyday practice.
Sometimes it can be useful to talk to people who are already working in the field, those who are faced with everyday challenges, trials and tribulations. Their practical experience might be able to illuminate things you can’t find in journal articles. Practitioners can help you identify something that might be worth exploring that is not easily discovered in the available literature.
Initiating research through problematization
You do not need to always fill gaps. You can also go for something a little bit more innovative and ambitious, yet also more risky – it’s what Alvesson and Sandberg call ‘problematization’. They propose identifying and challenging assumptions that underpin existing theories and generating research questions that will lead to potentially more interesting theories.
Since challenging existing paradigms requires some confidence (and willingness to upset people, including your colleagues, mentors and editors), this approach is less likely to be adopted by novel and inexperienced researchers who might be wiser staying off the path less trodden as they enter their area of interest.