Helen writes: find the gap

Continuing her occasional series, Writing Skills Advisor Helen Williams reflects on what it means to find a gap when writing your literature review.

The fact that doctoral research must be original and fill some kind of ‘gap’ in the literature is trotted out all the time, particularly to PGRs in their first year or so of study who may still be grappling with all the existing research on their topic. But how do you search for an absence? How do you identify something that isn’t there?

It can feel like a somewhat impossible task, especially if there are reams of articles, chapters and books that have been written on your topic. One answer could be changing the parameters of your research slightly; focusing on a specific and under-researched angle might tick that ‘originality’ box in a field that is saturated with research. However, if this isn’t practical, or you’re already fairly set on what research you want to carry out, it might be that you need to try to record your reading in a way that makes that gap more obvious.

The temptation when reading through all the published work on your topic is to do so in a fairly linear way. After identifying useful articles or texts, and then perhaps ordering them in terms of relevance or interest, most PGRs read through them one-by-one making notes as they go. Generally this results in a stack of papers and an even larger stack of notes. Whilst this level of detail isn’t necessarily a bad thing, sometimes it can muddy the waters even further as to where that elusive gap might lie.

Instead, what can be helpful is trying to get a bird’s-eye view of the literature – something we covered in more depth during the recent Writing Summer School. One way to do this is to skim the surface of each text, just capturing what it is about and plotting this into a table like the one below.

A table with 19 references listed in the first column, and 7 concepts as the headings for subsequent columns.  There are ticks in various cells to indicate that a particular reference includes information on the relevant concept.
Klopper, R., Lubbe, S. & Rugbeer, H. (2007). The Matrix Method of Literature Review, Alternation, 14 (1), pp. 262-276. DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10520/AJA10231757_377

From this, we can see quite quickly that lots of people are writing about e-learning, for instance, but that digital inclusivity is far less frequently discussed, and perhaps under-researched. If you were interested in this as an aspect of online education, it might be helpful to think about this further, and investigate if there is a bit of a gap in the literature here.

It’s also worth remembering that gaps do exist. Sometimes it can feel that so much research has been published, there can’t possibly be any corners left of a subject that have been overlooked. However, if you have searched in all the right places, done a thorough sweep of all the relevant databases and used as many relevant keywords that you can think of, you can usually be fairly sure that any gaps you find are real. If you’d like more support with effective literature searching, speak to the Research Skills Team. New research is published all the time, so keeping on top of that is important too, but do try to feel confident in your own abilities to search the literature and to identify where those gaps might lie.

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