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Don't know where to start? 6 Tips on identifying research gaps

Don't know where to start? 6 Tips on identifying research gaps

The first step of conducting a study is identifying a previously unexplored area of research. Choosing an untapped area in your research field will improve your chances of getting published. But the big question is: how to decide which research problem should you study? Some researchers have clear ideas about the research problem they want to pursue. However, researchers, particularly those who are at an early stage of their career, find themselves in a fix when they have to zero down on a research topic that is original and innovative. The best way to do this is to identify a gap in existing research in the field, i.e., finding a research gap!

This article presents some tips to help you identify a knowledge gap or an unexplored area on which you can base your research.

What is a research gap?

Let us begin with understanding what a research gap means. When you read papers or books on topics of your interest, you may realize there are some areas that have significant scope for more research but they have not been tapped by other researchers. In other words, no one has picked up or worked on these ideas. A research gap or a literature gap refers to such unexplored or underexplored areas that have scope for further research.

Why is it important to identify a unique research gap?

Assume that you have completed your research work and published the findings only to find out that another researcher has already published something similar. How devastating would that be! Therefore, it is necessary to find out those problems in your research field which have not been addressed before. Not only would you be investing your funds and resources in the right project but also increasing the chances of your research findings getting published.

Challenges you may face while identifying research gaps

Finding gaps and coming up with original and innovative topics can be tricky for more than one reason. Here’s a list of challenges that you might face while identifying research gaps in your chosen area of study:

1. Effort of dealing with an enormous amount of information: There could be a lot of unanswered questions in an area of your interest. So you might get overwhelmed with the number of research gaps you stumble upon and feel confused about which one you should focus on.

2. Difficulty of searching in an organized manner: Some researchers may find it difficult to organize the information they have gathered. One can easily lose ideas if they are not noted properly.

3. Hesitation in questioning established norms: Some researchers are not confident enough to challenge the existing knowledge in their field and may hesitate to question what others have claimed in their work.

How to identify gaps in literature

You may wonder what would be the best way to come up with some innovative research questions. Though there is no well-defined process to find a gap in existing knowledge, your curiosity, creativity, imagination, and judgment can help you identify it.

Here are 6 tips to identify research gaps:

1. Look for inspiration in published literature

  • Read books and articles on the topics that you like the most. This will not only help you understand the depth of work done by researchers in your field but also provide an opportunity to ask questions that can lead you to a research gap. Don Davis, professor of Economics at Columbia University, says: "Read what is being written in your field, recognize the contributions that have come in the prior literature, but do not be awed by it. Question everything." You can ask yourself questions like:
    • What is the significance of this research to my work or the broader field?
    • How can this article help me formulate my research questions?
    • Does the author’s argument require more clarification?
    • What issues or questions has the author not addressed?
    • Is there a different perspective that I can consider?
    • What other factors could have influenced the results?
    • Are the methods or procedures used outdated or no longer considered valid in your field? Is there scope for you to test the findings using more a current approach?
  • While reading research articles, you can focus on the Introduction section where the authors explain the importance of their research topic and the gaps they have identified and attempted to fill through their research. Also, look at the directions or suggestions for further research that the authors have made as that could be highly inspiring.
  • Read meta-analyses and review papers to learn more about the developments and trends in research over the years in the area of your liking. This will help you get acquainted with the problems that have been researched upon in the past as well as trending queries on those topics that you find interesting.

2. Seek help from your research advisor

Discuss the issues and problems in your field with your research advisor to generate ideas for research. Articulating your ideas and knowing what others think and are working on may help you identify your study area or even identify mistakes in your approach. If you think a question would be interesting to work on, you can discuss it with your advisor and get their suggestions.

3. Use digital tools to seek out popular topics or most cited research papers

To familiarize yourself with the trending queries in your field, you can use digital tools as they can save time and help you cast a wider net in your search for a research gap. Websites like Essential Science Indicator that identify the most cited papers in a field along with the emerging branches, influential contributors, publications, and countries in that field can be immensely useful to know which topics are considered important. You can also use Google Trends to learn more about the popular questions related to your research area. This will ease your search for an untapped area in your research field.

4. Check the websites of influential journals

The websites of prominent journals often have a section called ‘key concepts’ where experts in an area highlight the central ideas in that field. Reading through this section can help you gain a lot of insights and generate new ideas as well. Moreover, you should also look through the reference section of these papers as it can lead you to important resources on the topic.

5. Make a note of your queries

It is a good practice to note all the questions that cross your mind while reading any published literature. If possible, you should map the question to the resource it is based on. "Keep track of what the authors told you and the questions that occur to you whenever you read anything - an article, a book, a book chapter, a dissertation, etc." advises Nadine Anderson, Behavioral Sciences and Women's and Gender Studies Librarian at the University of Michigan. She says that this will also help in ensuring that there is no unintended plagiarism in your research paper. You can use tables, charts, pictures, or tools to maintain a record. This can help you in the long run when you are developing your idea into a research problem or even when writing your manuscript.

6. Research each question

Once you have a list of questions that could be explored, you must conduct thorough research on them. What does this mean? Read more about each doubt or query that you have. Find out if other researchers have had similar questions and whether they have found answers to them. This will help you avoid duplication of work.

Your research project is something that you will invest a lot of time in, so make sure it is something that arouses your interest and passion. While you finalize an unprecedented research idea, make sure you consider the time frame available to complete the project as well as other important aspects such as the availability of funds, equipment, and infrastructure. An over-ambitious project may be difficult to accomplish due to time and resources restraints, while research that makes an insufficient contribution may fail to get the approval of your funding committee or the journal’s editorial board.

Since there is no specific method to pick out exceptional or interesting research problems, you can use the tips presented in this article and figure out what works for you. Keep reading and asking questions until you find the extraordinary problem you’ve been looking for!

Good luck with your research!

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This content belongs to the Conducting Research Stage

Conducting research is the first and most exciting step in a researcher's journey. If you are currently in this stage of your publishing journey, subscribe & learn about best practices to sail through this stage and set yourself up for successful publication.