How to Identify a Research Gap
Who, in full and healthy conscience, seeks to find problems? Even more, because there is no need to make much effort; however, problems have a special ability to appear in our lives when we least expect it. But with research gaps, it seems that the exact opposite occurs to everyday problems, even because there is a big difference between these two types of problems. As much as you search, academic problems seem to run away from you. More than the choice of a research topic, it is the definition of the problem that seems to be one of the most difficult steps in the course of a research project.
Young researchers are often stuck in this step, “burning” precious time and compromising other stages of research, including fieldwork and data collection.
In lieu of this background, what then is a research problem? A research problem can be defined in simple terms, as a gap in the existing knowledge, something that we should know, but that we still don’t know. Therefore, mastery of a certain area of knowledge is a prerequisite; only after that, a researcher will be able to identify those points that are still unresolved.
Why Identify a Research Gap?
When defining a problem for your research, you define the general and specific objective of your work. This makes the entire research process more efficient. After all, your research topic can be very interesting and relevant, but that is not enough for the preparation of an academic paper. Making a monograph takes a lot of effort and time, so having a clear objective on the topic you are working with is very important.
Another detail that shows the importance of a research problem is: if you have a defined north, it is much more difficult to get lost in the middle of the road and get away from the topic during your writing. In this way, it is also easier to know what to look for in your bibliographic references and also how to build your text. Therefore, you save a lot of time, manage to plan better, and have less headache with your research.
That said, there are some recommendations for you to find research problems.
1. Explore the characteristics of the theme
Beyond mere description or identification of similarities and differences between two situations, a survey must be driven by questions; questions whose answers are significant enough to change the way we think about a certain aspect of reality.
Therefore, when identifying a research topic, you should bombard it with questions, examining its characteristics. These questions can be guided by the essential questions: what, who, how, when, where, why?
- Try to identify how the various components of a theme relate to each other.
- How are the different subjects represented?
- Or ask questions that place your topic within a broader context.
- Try to understand your theme as something dynamic, which changes over time.
- Try to situate your theme like an episode of a larger event.
2. Read, read, and read
Undoubtedly, this is not even a recommendation, but an obligation. By reading and studying the literature review of a subject, you will not only appropriate the knowledge in question but will also be able to infer what the gaps are.
A careful and critical reading of a scientific article can lead you to question, questions that can become research problems. In conclusion, it is customary for the author to make an assessment of his research in the final considerations, pointing out the unresolved issues, suggesting new lines of investigation.
3. Asking for help
If the main difficulty in identifying a research problem is the mastery of an area of knowledge, another route of action is to resort to those who already have established ground in the field. If, through reading, you are trying to reach a level of specialization sufficient to identify what is not yet known, to request an expert helps to get directly to the point.
Many academics have opined that the choice of themes and problems is what differentiates the great research centres from the others, as in these institutions there is a clearer and more informed climate of opinion on the themes that, at that moment, are available to be investigated. However, access must be taken into account. Researchers do not always have the disposition and time to answer this type of basic questioning. If you get an answer via email it is already a great achievement; don’t expect a personal meeting. Also, as the academic environment has its competitive side, this type of information may not be easily shared. One way to overcome the difficulty of access is to seek indirect help. Search the various academic institutions’ platforms for the research project that this researcher is currently developing. The objectives stated in these projects are indicative of the research problems in this area.
It may not seem intuitive, but beyond its theoretical basis, you may also encounter research problems in your text. It is the same idea as reading, now applied to an initial version of your text. When starting the first draft of your literature review, you will already establish an intellectual dialogue with its authors, contrasting, exemplifying, exploring ideas and concepts. And especially in the final paragraphs, by making a summary of what was discussed and studied, you will be exposing what are the gaps in this knowledge.
What may seem strange is to start writing before you have a definite problem. The stages of research are generally described linearly in scientific methodology books. The schemes and diagrams used, with arrows connecting one step to another, reinforce this concept of linearity, something that is far from reality. In practice, research is an iterative process, where the knowledge and experience acquired in a more advanced stage leads to a review of the previous steps. In this sense, the process would be better represented by a spiral than by a continuous, straight line.
And according to this characteristic, the conscious, active act of writing will provide you with a new view on the subject in question and, possibly, the identification of research problems.
5. Use Standard Problems
Finally, a complementary possibility is to take advantage of the fact that the saying “there is nothing new under the sun.” If in literature, this means that all the basic scripts and arguments, in a play, have already been explored, in the field of science it is reflected that there is a limited number of research problems. These are called standard problems.
Again, they are general, abstract situations, which must soon be applied to the specific context of a given theme. Many researchers have opined that these standard problems are the reflection of opposite relations. The basic premise here is that, by contradicting a generally accepted idea, by stating that this knowledge is incomplete or incorrect, you are creating a problem situation (in the sense of research, of course).
What is the advantage of knowing how to find gaps in research one might ask? if a supervisor already has knowledge and experience, why doesn’t he simply say what the research problem is? It would be much faster, more comfortable, and would not hinder the progress of the rest of the research. However, this would completely take away the sense of researching in the first place. And the researcher won’t be familiar with concepts such as autonomy, intellectual maturity, and critical thinking, which are objectives of higher education.