How do I identify a research gap?
A research gap exists when:
- a concept or new idea has not been studied at all
- a question or problem has not been answered by existing research in a particular field
- all the existing literature on a topic is outdated
- a specific population/location/age group has not been studied
- existing research used similar research methods and the topic would benefit from being studied using a new methodology
Step 1: Search the literature
The first step in identifying a research gap is to complete a literature review on your topic. You first need to learn what IS there in order to figure out what ISN’T there. When you find a research gap, you can design a study that will meet that need. The articles you find in your literature review will provide support for why your research is important.
- You can start your search in the library’s all-in-one search Discovery, or you might want to start in Google Scholar. Either way, you want to start your search board. If you are too specific right away, your search won’t bring back enough results. You can add additional search terms as you learn more about your topic and start to see the trends in the research that has already been done.
- You want to find recent studies on topics close to yours to see what recommendations they make that will expand on what’s already been done. Make sure you limit your results to current research published within the last five years. If your search continues to bring back few results, you can broaden out the publication date range to see if older articles cover your topic. If your topic has changed over time and there are no recent articles on your topic, this could be a potential research gap.
- Pay close attention to any meta-analyses, literature reviews, and systematic reviews on your topic. These types of papers provide a thorough overview of the literature on a topic, as well as examining the trends and changes over a long period of time and summarizing previous research findings. Based on the review, authors will often provide detailed recommendations for future research.
- You can use the words “literature review,” meta-analysis, or “systematic review” as a keyword in your search string.
- Try using the words “future research” as a search term
- If your topic has a medical or health care focus, use the Advanced Search features within CINAHL to limit the Publication Type to “Systematic Review” and “Meta Analysis”. Use the Control key to select multiple items in the list. Use the search bar to type in your broad topic terms.
Example search string
If our topic was the information seeking behaviors of new nurses, our search string might look like the image below. (Note: Quotation marks tell the database to search for those words as a phrase instead of individually.) This is a broad topic as there are many aspects of information-seeking we could focus on, or we could narrow our topic by looking at new nurses in a particular practice setting.
Step 2: Read the literature for recommendations
Once you have found an article, you will want to read it, paying close attention to the end of the article where authors usually make their recommendations for future research. There is no consistent section where the authors identify where more research is needed. Looks for these sections:
- Discussion (look at the final paragraphs)
In the example below, we can see the section is titled “Implications for policy, practice, and future research”. We can see the author identifies three areas for future research.
The following example shows the Limitations section of a study. The author believes a future study that uses triangulation could provide a new layer of research findings.
Make sure you do a thorough review of the literature and read the recommendations for research from all the articles you found. Once you have a clear picture of current research, you can determine where a gap exists.
Step 3: Double check your research gap
At this point, we think we might have found a research gap. First, we need to do additional searches to see if someone else has already done the recommended research. One way we can do that is using Google Scholar. Copy and paste the title of the article that made suggestions for future research into the search box and find the record in the results. You will see a link below the record that says "Cited by”. You can click on this link to get a list of books and articles that have cited that article since it was published. We would want to review those publications to see if they address the research gap.
Here is an example Google Scholar record.
We would also want to conduct another literature search using keywords from the identified research gap to see if we find any results.
The process of identifying a research gap requires a good understanding of your topic, multiple literature searches, critical thinking, and some investigative work. However, this process is important to ensure that your academic work is adding to the scholarly conversation instead of repeating what’s already been done.