If you are just starting your bachelor’s or master’s thesis, chances are you have heard about finding a “research gap.” In this blog, we will explain what a research gap is, the four most common types of research gaps, and how to identify a suitable research gap.
What is a research gap?
A research gap refers to an unanswered question or unresolved problem in a field of study, indicating a lack of existing research in that area. A research gap can also exist when a substantial amount of existing research has been conducted, but the findings of the studies point in different directions. For example, suppose your research focuses on identifying the cause (or causes) of a specific disease. Upon reviewing the literature, you find that certain studies conclude that cigarette smoking is a significant factor. However, you also come across numerous studies that find no association between smoking and the disease. In such a case, you may be dealing with a research gap.
The different types of research gaps We distinguish four most common types of research gaps:
- The classical research gap
- The disagreement research gap
- The contextual research gap (most popular among thesis writers!)
- The methodological research gap
1. The classical research gap
This research gap occurs when there is a new concept or phenomenon that has not been extensively studied or not at all. For example, when a new social media platform is launched, there is an opportunity to explore its impact on users, how it can be used for marketing, its influence on society, and so on. The same applies to new technologies, new communication tools, new therapies, etc. Always try to delimit your research well. For a thesis, investigating an entirely new therapy, for example, is often too broad and extensive. Also, keep in mind that you will need to rely on adjacent literature to build your literature review. You won’t find many existing studies directly related to your topic.
2. The disagreement research gap
As the name suggests, the disagreement research gap arises when there are conflicting or contradictory findings in the existing research regarding a specific research question. The example we described above about the causes of a disease is an example of this type of research gap. Importantly, for this type of research gap, there must be different conflicting findings. In other words, a situation where 95% of the articles find one result and 5% find the opposite result would not really constitute a disagreement in the literature.
3. The contextual research gap
The third type of research gap is the contextual gap. Simply put, a contextual research gap exists when you find a considerable amount of existing research on a specific topic, but there is a lack of research in specific contexts. This could include:
- A specific population – perhaps a certain age group, gender, or ethnicity.
- A geographic area – for example, a city, country, or region.
- A particular time period – maybe most studies were conducted many years or even decades ago, and the landscape has changed.
Many thesis students choose this type of research gap because it allows them to base their research on existing literature and possibly even use existing questionnaires. It is important to clearly justify in your thesis why you expect differences in the specific context you choose. Make sure you can explain clearly why your chosen context is “different” from existing studies and why it could reasonably lead to different findings.
The methodological research gap
As the name suggests, this type of research gap arises due to the research methodology or design of existing studies. You may conclude that the methodology of existing studies is somehow inadequate or that they lack a certain perspective. For example, you may describe that the majority of existing research has adopted a quantitative approach and that there is, therefore, a lack of insight that a qualitative study could provide. Alternatively, you could describe that existing studies have mainly provided a snapshot of the situation, while a longitudinal approach could help uncover how variables have changed over time.
How to find a research gap?
Now that you have a clearer understanding of the different types of research gaps, the next question is, of course, “how do you find these research gaps?” Here, we describe a basic two-step strategy to help you find the research gap.
As a starting point, you need to gather as much recent literature reviews, systematic reviews, and meta-analysis articles as possible that relate to your topic. It is also a good idea to look at recent dissertations. There are several databases that share dissertations (such as OATD – Open Access Theses and Dissertations). Make sure to review the most recent sources possible; otherwise, the research gaps you find may have already been filled by other researchers. Once you have collected a substantial number of articles, focus on reading the discussion section and pay attention to anything they mention about “future research.” In the discussion, researchers will explicitly indicate areas where further studies are needed – in other words, your potential research gap. You can also look for the “limitations” they describe, as this often provides ideas for the methodological research gap. By following this process, you familiarize yourself with the current state of research, which will lay the foundation for identifying the research gap.
Tip: Go on a “FRIN hunt.” FRIN stands for “further research is needed.” Once you have found several relevant articles, search for specific keywords:
- Future research
- Further research
- Research opportunities
- Research directions
These terms are often found in what we call the “FRIN” section. Some articles have a dedicated FRIN section or paragraph, or they are mentioned in the discussion.
We wish you success in finding the research gap! If you need any assistance or have other questions, feel free to ask.