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Literature Gap & Future Research

What is a ‘gap in the literature’?

The gap, also considered the missing piece or pieces in the research literature, is the area that has not yet been explored or is under-explored. This could be a population or sample (size, type, location, etc.), research method, data collection and/or analysis, or other research variables or conditions. For a more detailed definition, see The Research Paper Toolbox: Identifying a gap in the Literature.

How do you identify the gaps?

Conducting an exhaustive literature review is your first step. As you search for journal articles, you will need to read critically across the breadth of the literature to identify these gaps. You goal should be to find a ‘space’ or opening for contributing new research. The first step is gathering a broad range of research articles on your topic. You may want to look for research that approaches the topic from a variety of methods – qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods. SAGE Research Methods Online, accessible on the Library’s Databases page, is an excellent source for learning about research methodology.

Using the search technique called nesting, you can add these words to your search and limit to the abstract of the articles to quickly identify research that uses different methods. To learn more strategies and how to take advantage of advanced search features in article databases, see the Library’s Research Methods & Design page.

Where can you locate research gaps?

As you begin to gather the literature, you will want to critically read for what has, and has not, been learned from the research. Use the Discussion and Future Research sections of the articles to understand what the researchers have found and where they point out future or additional research areas.

See this example below from Frisch, C. & Huppenbauer, M. (2014). New insights into ethical leadership: A qualitative investigation of the experiences of executive ethical leaders. Journal of Business Ethics, 123(1), 23-43. DOI: 10.1007/s10551-013-1797-9





Continue to ask critical questions of your topic – who, what, when, where and how – about the population or setting, conditions or variables, methods or analysis, and measurement or outcomes. Also consider what has not been explored in the study and what may be a possible ‘gap’ or opening for your potential research and contribution to the topic. Use organizational tools such as charts or Venn diagrams to map out the research you find from scholarly articles. These methods may be helpful to organize what information you have found and what is shared among the literature, as well as to identify what areas may be missing in the research. This page provides a matrix for organizing research from multiple articles.

These three examples below illustrate how researchers from different disciplines (psychology, business, and education) identified gaps in existing literature:
1. Applications of Psychological Science to Teaching and Learning: Gaps in the Literature (PDF)
2. Executive Teams in Research-based Spin-Off Companies: Literature Review and Research Gap (PDF)
3. A summary of Research on the Effects of Test Accommodations: 1999 through 2001

For additional examples, try a Roadrunner Search using this search string: ("Literature review") AND (gap*)



Resources

Most of the resources provided on the Library’s Definitions page, under Resources for Literature Reviews and Annotated Bibliographies, discuss elements of a scholarly literature review and how to identify gaps. If you have taken the NCU Scholarly Literature Review course, return to your course book, The literature review: A step-by-step guide for students (Ridley, 2012) for the chapter, “Signaling a gap in previous research…” (p. 35). You can also find a preview of these pages on Google Books.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that just because you identify a gap in the research, it doesn't necessarily mean that your research question is worthy of exploration.  You will want to make sure that your research will have valuable practical and/or theoretical implications. In other words, answering the research question could either improve existing practice and/or inform professional decision-making (Applied Degree), or it could revise, build upon, or create theoretical frameworks informing research design and practice (Ph.D Degree). See the Doctoral Candidacy Milestone Documents for additional information about dissertation criteria at NCU.

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