When you start scoping out a new research project, you’re often encouraged to look for a ‘gap’ in the literature. Once you find something that hasn’t been done yet, so the logic goes, you’ll have room to make an original contribution to knowledge.
Trouble is, this ‘gap’ can be incredibly difficult to find. Normally, when something is hard to find, you might say it’s like finding ‘a needle in a haystack.’ Except that’s not what this is. A needle is a physical object. It has a presence. When you’re looking for a gap, you’re looking for an absence. Forget the needle. Finding a gap in the research is like looking at a haystack and trying to find the optimal place to add a piece of straw.
This ain’t no ordinary haystack, either. The metaphorical research haystack is utterly massive. There are about 42,500 scholarly peer-reviewed journals in the world, which collectively publish around 3 million articles per year (Johnson, Watkinson, & Mabe, 2018). 3 million articles. And that’s just peer-reviewed journal articles; when you take into account the volume of scholarly books, theses, and other types of outputs, it’s clear that there is a massive amount of research being published.
The prospect of finding a genuine gap in amongst all that literature can be incredibly daunting. How on earth can you write a thesis that does something new and different to the 3 million articles published last year, and the 3 million articles from the year before, and the 3 million from the year before that? Where the heck should you place your piece of straw?
Fortunately, you don’t have to live in hope that millions of researchers have collectively ‘missed’ something. A gap doesn’t have to be an oversight in the literature; often it’s just an angle that hasn’t been tried before, or a particular combination of perspectives that hasn’t yet been applied to the subject matter.
So how do you actually identify your gap? Here are three techniques.
(1) Read ‘gap statements’ in others’ work
Often, other researchers will highlight the gap that they are filling with their own research in one sentence. Think of that sentence as the ‘gap statement.’ In that statement, researchers explain where in the research ‘haystack’ they have chosen to place their piece of straw. Because it justifies their research, authors often place the gap statement right up top in the abstract of their paper. That’s super-handy, because it means you can find it easily. Take this example from the abstract of a recent article in Developmental Science:
Multisensory tools are commonly employed within educational settings (e.g. Carter & Stephenson, 2012), and there is a growing body of literature advocating the benefits of presenting children with multisensory information over unisensory cues for learning (Baker & Jordan, 2015; Jordan & Baker, 2011). This is even the case when the informative cues are only arbitrarily related (Broadbent, White, Mareschal, & Kirkham, 2017). However, the delayed retention of learning following exposure to multisensory compared to unisensory cues has not been evaluated [emphasis added], and has important implications for the utility of multisensory educational tools.(Broadbent, Osborne, Mareschal, & Kirkham, 2019)
The italicized section above clearly identifies research that hasn’t been conducted before (the gap statement). The authors then go on to describe their research, which fills that gap. If I’m interested in doing research in this field, I can use that gap statement to get a sense of what a research gap looks like in my area of interest. This gives me clues as to the trends in recent research in the field, and the level of specificity at which new contributions are being made.
(2) Read ‘more research is needed’ statements
A lot of papers end with some variation on the statement: ‘more research is needed.’ This is so common that it’s practically a cliche. Fortunately, many researchers are now getting specific about the kind of research that they think is necessary as a follow-on from their own. That’s great news for people trying to find a research gap, because it effectively spells one out.
In the conclusion of the same article cited above, the authors write of a limitation they encountered in their own research:
Multiple cues presented within the same modality are not easily averaged (Trommershauser, Kording, & Landy, 2011), and may compete for attention due to working memory constraints on domain‐specific stores (Fougnie, Zughni, Godwin, & Marois, 2015). Two intra‐modality cues may consequently not result in the same level of perceptual facilitation as with multisensory cues. Further research would, therefore, benefit from also including category exemplars with intra‐modal informative cues to examine this underlying mechanism [emphasis added].(Broadbent et al, 2019)
In the italicized text above, the authors identify what they think future research should do differently. This is a neon arrow pointing to a potentially sparse area of the research ‘haystack.’ However: a couple of caveats. Firstly, if the article you’re reading is not recent, someone else may have already filled that gap in the interim. Secondly, you will need to assess for yourself whether you agree with the authors that there is potential for useful research within that gap. But providing that you agree with the authors’ gap identification, you can use that as a pathway into your own project.
(3) Create originality in the elements of your project
You might find a research gap by identifying a sparse patch in the research ‘haystack.’ However, sometimes you may want to place your piece of straw right on top of the haystack. Building in brand new directions is an exciting (and challenging) way to create your own original niche. And it can be as simple as combining the elements of your project in innovative ways.
Imagine your research in terms of how it is sited – within various fields, theoretical frameworks, methodologies, paradigms, and so on. Inevitably, your project will bring a lot of these elements together. You may be able to work at an intersection that no researcher has occupied before.
Perhaps your project uses a particular theory in a new way; or applies a methodology that hasn’t been used before in your field; or includes an under-studied group of participants. It is possible, through innovative project design, to create an original angle – even if you are researching something that has been looked at intensively by other researchers.
Stanford PhD grad Lauren Oakes is a great example of someone who designed her project to build up a new part of the haystack. In her PhD research, she combined elements of ecology and social sciences to show how human and ecological ‘societies’ respond to the decline of yellow cedar trees. This interdisciplinary approach enabled her to make conclusions and recommendations about how societies might adapt in response to forest mortality caused by climate change. She even turned her PhD into a general interest book, making her research accessible to a wider audience of readers.
However, this type of approach requires great care. It’s possible that no-one has occupied a particular niche because it’s not a useful place to be. I could try doing research on dung beetles through the lens of Nietzschean philosophy, but I probably wouldn’t learn anything new about dung beetles by doing so. That being said, if you can find a new intersection that holds the potential to generate new insights, then you could be on to a good thing.
Broadbent, H.J., Osborne, T., Mareschal, D., Kirkham, N.Z. (2019). Withstanding the test of time: Multisensory cues improve the delayed retention of incidental learning. Developmental Science, 22(1), e12726. doi:
Johnson R., Watkinson A. & Mabe M. (2018). The STM Report: An Overview of Scientific and Scholarly Publishing 1968–2018. Retrieved from the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers website: https://www.stm-assoc.org/2018_10_04_STM_Report_2018.pdf