How to find and fill gaps in the literature [Research Gaps Made Easy]

As we dive deeper into the realm of research, one term repeatedly echoes in the corridors of academia: “gap in literature.”

But what does it mean to find a gap in the literature, and why is it so crucial for your research project?

A gap in the literature refers to an area that hasn’t been studied or lacks substantial inquiry in your field of study. Identifying such gaps allows you to contribute fresh insights and innovation, thereby extending the existing body of knowledge.

It’s the cornerstone for every dissertation or research paper, setting the stage for an introduction that explicitly outlines the scope and aim of your investigation.

This gap review isn’t limited to what has been published in peer-reviewed journals; it may also include conference papers, dissertations, or technical reports, i.e., types of papers that provide an overview of ongoing research. 

This step is where your detective work comes in—by spotting trends, common methodologies, and unanswered questions, you can unearth an opportunity to explore an unexplored domain, thereby finding a research gap. 

Why Looking for Research Gaps is Essential

Looking for research gaps is essential as it enables the discovery of novel and unique contributions to a particular field.

By identifying these gaps, found through methods such as analyzing concluding remarks of recent papers, literature reviews, examining research groups’ non-peer-reviewed outputs, and utilizing specific search terms on Google Scholar, one can discern the trajectory of ongoing research and unearth opportunities for original inquiry.

These gaps highlight areas of potential innovation, unexplored paths, and disputed concepts, serving as the catalyst for valuable contributions and progression in the field. Hence, finding research gaps forms the basis of substantial and impactful scientific exploration.

Then your research can contribute by finding and filling the gap in knowledge. 

Utilizing Concluding Remarks of Recent ResearchThis method involves examining the concluding remarks of recent research papers for insights on limitations and future research directions. These comments may provide clues to potential research gaps and indicate areas that require further exploration.
Examining Research Groups and Non-peer Reviewed OutputsResearch outputs that are not peer-reviewed, such as preprints, conference presentations, and dissertations, can provide real-time information about ongoing research. They can help identify emerging trends and potential research gaps. However, these sources must be interpreted with caution as they may not have undergone rigorous peer review.
Searching for ‘Promising’ and ‘Preliminary’ Results on Google ScholarBy searching for the phrases “promising results” or “preliminary results” within your research area on Google Scholar, you can identify research questions that have been opened but not fully answered. These areas may be ripe for further exploration.
Reading Around the SubjectComprehensive reading around the subject of interest can help identify recurring questions, common themes, and shared challenges in the research. It can reveal areas where research is thin or missing. It involves strategic and critical reading to identify patterns, inconsistencies, and gaps in the existing literature.
Consulting with Current ResearchersEngaging in conversations with active researchers in the field of interest can provide valuable insights into current challenges and potential research gaps. This method may involve asking about the challenges they are currently facing in their projects or tapping into the knowledge of supervisors who often have ideas for potential research topics.
Utilizing Online ToolsOnline tools that visualize the interconnectedness of research literature, like Connected Papers, ResearchRabbit, and LitMaps, can help identify potential research gaps. These tools allow for the examination of patterns and relationships among studies, which can lead to the discovery of unexplored areas.
Seeking Conflicting Ideas in the LiteratureAreas of conflict or ongoing debate in scientific research can often be fertile ground for finding research gaps. Introducing a fresh perspective, a new technique, or a novel hypothesis to such a contentious issue can lead to the uncovering of a significant research gap.

Method 1: Utilizing Concluding Remarks of Recent Research

When embarking on a quest to find research gaps, the concluding remarks of recent research papers can serve as an unexpected treasure map.

This section of a paper often contains insightful comments on the limitations of the work and speculates on future research directions.

These comments, although not directly pointing to a research gap, can hint at where the research is heading and what areas require further exploration.

Consider these remarks as signposts, pointing you towards uncharted territories in your field of interest.

For example, you may come across a conclusion in a recent paper on artificial intelligence that indicates a need for more research on ethical considerations. This gives you a direction to explore – the ethical implications of AI. 

However, it’s important to bear in mind that while these statements provide valuable leads, they aren’t definitive indicators of research gaps. They provide a starting point, a clue to the vast research puzzle.

Your task is to take these hints, explore further, and discern the most promising areas for your investigation. It’s a bit like being a detective, except your clues come from scholarly papers instead of crime scenes!

Method 2: Examining Research Groups and Non-peer Reviewed Outputs

If concluding remarks are signposts to potential research gaps, non-peer reviewed outputs such as preprints, conference presentations, and dissertations are detailed maps guiding you towards the frontier of research.

These resources reflect the real-time development in the field, giving you a sense of the “buzz” that surrounds hot topics.

These materials, presented but not formally published, offer a sneak peek into ongoing studies, providing you with a rich source of information to identify emerging trends and potential research gaps.

For instance, a presentation on the impact of climate change on mental health might reveal a new line of research that’s in its early stages.

One word of caution: while these resources can be enlightening, they have not undergone the rigorous peer review process that published articles have.

This means the quality of research may vary and the findings should be interpreted with a critical eye. Remember, the key is to pinpoint where the research is heading and then carve out your niche within that sphere.

Exploring non-peer reviewed outputs allows you to stay ahead of the curve, harnessing the opportunity to investigate and contribute to a burgeoning area of study before it becomes mainstream.

Method 3: Searching for ‘Promising’ and ‘Preliminary’ Results on Google Scholar

With a plethora of research at your fingertips, Google Scholar can serve as a remarkable tool in your quest to discover research gaps. The magic lies in a simple trick: search for the phrases “promising results” or “preliminary results” within your research area. Why these specific phrases? Scientists often use them when they have encouraging but not yet fully verified findings.

To illustrate, consider an example. Type “promising results and solar cell” into Google Scholar, and filter by recent publications.

The search results will show you recent studies where researchers have achieved promising outcomes but may not have fully developed their ideas or resolved all challenges.

These “promising” or “preliminary” results often represent areas ripe for further exploration.

They hint at a research question that has been opened but not fully answered. However, tread carefully.

While these findings can indeed point to potential research gaps, they can also lead to dead ends. It’s crucial to examine these leads with a critical eye and further corroborate them with a comprehensive review of related research.

Nevertheless, this approach provides a simple, effective starting point for identifying research gaps, serving as a launchpad for your explorations.

Method 4: Reading Around the Subject

Comprehensive reading forms the bedrock of effective research. When hunting for research gaps, you need to move beyond just the preliminary findings and delve deeper into the context surrounding these results.

This involves broadening your view and reading extensively around your topic of interest.

In the course of your reading, you will start identifying common themes, reoccurring questions, and shared challenges in the research.

Over time, patterns will emerge, helping you recognize areas where research is thin or missing.

For instance, in studying autonomous vehicles, you might find recurring questions about regulatory frameworks, pointing to a potential gap in the legal aspects of this technology.

However, this method is not about scanning through a huge volume of literature aimlessly. It involves strategic and critical reading, looking for patterns, inconsistencies, and areas where the existing literature falls short.

It’s akin to painting a picture where some parts are vividly detailed while others remain sketchy. Your goal is to identify these sketchy areas and fill in the details.

So grab your academic reading list, and start diving into the ocean of knowledge. Remember, it’s not just about the depth, but also the breadth of your reading, that will lead you to a meaningful research gap.

Method 5: Consulting with Current Researchers

Few methods are as effective in uncovering research gaps as engaging in conversations with active researchers in your field of interest.

Current researchers, whether they are PhD students, postdoctoral researchers, or supervisors, are often deeply engaged in ongoing studies and understand the current challenges in their respective fields.

Start by expressing genuine interest in their work. Rather than directly asking for research gaps, inquire about the challenges they are currently facing in their projects.

You can ask, “What are the current challenges in your research?”

Their responses can highlight potential areas of exploration, setting you on the path to identifying meaningful research gaps.

Moreover, supervisors, particularly those overseeing PhD and Master’s students, often have ideas for potential research topics. By asking the right questions, you can tap into their wealth of knowledge and identify fruitful areas of study.

While the act of discovering research gaps can feel like a solitary journey, it doesn’t have to be.

Engaging with others who are grappling with similar challenges can provide valuable insights and guide your path. After all, the world of research thrives on collaboration and shared intellectual curiosity.

Method 6: Utilizing Online Tools

The digital age has made uncovering research gaps easier, thanks to a plethora of online tools that help visualize the interconnectedness of research literature.

Platforms such as:

  • Connected Papers,
  • ResearchRabbit, and
  • LitMaps

allow you to see how different papers in your field relate to one another, thereby creating a web of knowledge.

Upon creating this visual web, you may notice that many papers point towards a certain area, but then abruptly stop. This could indicate a potential research gap, suggesting that the topic hasn’t been adequately addressed or has been sidelined for some reason.

By further reading around this apparent gap, you can understand if it’s a genuine knowledge deficit or merely a research path that was abandoned due to inherent challenges or a dead end.

These online tools provide a bird’s eye view of the literature, helping you understand the broader landscape of research in your area of interest.

By examining patterns and relationships among studies, you can effectively zero in on unexplored areas, making these tools a valuable asset in your quest for research gaps.

Method 7: Seeking Conflicting Ideas in the Literature

In scientific research, areas of conflict can often be fertile ground for finding research gaps. These are areas where there’s a considerable amount of disagreement or ongoing debate among researchers.

If you can bring a fresh perspective, a new technique, or a novel hypothesis to such a contentious issue, you may well be on your way to uncovering a significant research gap.

Take, for instance, an area in psychology where there is a heated debate about the influence of nature versus nurture.

If you can introduce a new dimension to the debate or a method to test a novel hypothesis, you could potentially fill a significant gap in the literature.

Investigating areas of conflict not only opens avenues for exploring research gaps, but it also provides opportunities for you to make substantial contributions to your field. The key is to be able to see the potential for a new angle and to muster the courage to dive into contentious waters.

However, engaging with conflicts in research requires careful navigation.

Striking the right balance between acknowledging existing research and championing new ideas is crucial.

In the end, resolving these conflicts or adding significant depth to the debate can be incredibly rewarding and contribute greatly to your field.

The Right Perspective Towards Research Gaps

The traditional understanding of research gaps often involves seeking out a ‘bubble’ of missing knowledge in the sea of existing research, a niche yet to be explored. However, in today’s fast-paced research environment, these bubbles are becoming increasingly rare.

The paradigm of finding research gaps is shifting. It’s no longer just about seeking out holes in existing knowledge, but about understanding the leading edge of research and the directions it could take. It involves not just filling in the gaps but extending the boundaries of knowledge.

To identify such opportunities, develop a comprehensive understanding of the research landscape, identify emerging trends, and keep a close eye on recent advancements.

Look for the tendrils of knowledge extending out into the unknown and think about how you can push them further. It might be a challenging task, but it offers the potential for making substantial, impactful contributions to your field. 

Remember, every great innovation begins at the edge of what is known. That’s where your research gap might be hiding.

Wrapping up – Literature and research gaps

Finding and filling a gap in the literature is a task crucial to every research project. It begins with a systematic review of existing literature – a quest to identify what has been studied and more importantly, what hasn’t.

You must delve into the rich terrain of literature in their field, from the seminal, citation-heavy research articles to the fresh perspective of conference papers. Identifying the gap in the literature necessitates a thorough evaluation of existing studies to refine your area of interest and map the scope and aim of your future research.

The purpose is to explicitly identify the gap that exists, so you can contribute to the body of knowledge by providing fresh insights. The process involves a series of steps, from consulting with faculty and experts in the field to identify potential trends and outdated methodologies, to being methodological in your approach to identify gaps that have emerged.

Upon finding a gap in the literature, we’ll ideally have a clearer picture of the research need and an opportunity to explore this unexplored domain.

It is important to remember that the task does not end with identifying the gap. The real challenge lies in drafting a research proposal that’s objective, answerable, and can quantify the impact of filling this gap. 

It’s important to consult with your advisor, and also look at commonly used parameters and preliminary evidence. Only then can we complete the task of turning an identified gap in the literature into a valuable contribution to your field, a contribution that’s peer-reviewed and adds to the body of knowledge.

To find a research gap is to stand on the shoulders of giants, looking beyond the existing research to further expand our understanding of the world.

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton has a Masters and PhD in Chemistry from the UK and Australia. He has many years of research experience and has worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate at a number of Universities. Although having secured funding for his own research, he left academia to help others with his YouTube channel all about the inner workings of academia and how to make it work for you.