How To Find A Research Gap, Quickly
A step-by-step guide for new researchers
By: Derek Jansen (MBA) | Reviewer: Eunice Rautenbach (DTech) | April 2023
If you’ve got a dissertation, thesis or research project coming up, one of the first (and most important) things you’ll need to do is find a suitable research gap. In this post, we’ll share a straightforward process to help you uncover high-quality, original research gaps in a very time-efficient manner.
What is a research gap?
As a starting point, it’s useful to first define what we mean by research gap, to ensure we’re all on the same page. The term “research gap” gets thrown around quite loosely by students and academics alike, so let’s clear that up.
Simply put, a research gap is any space where there’s a lack of solid, agreed-upon research regarding a specific topic, issue or phenomenon. In other words, there’s a lack of established knowledge and, consequently, a need for further research.
Let’s look at a hypothetical example to illustrate a research gap.
Within the existing research regarding factors affect job satisfaction, there may be a wealth of established and agreed-upon empirical work within a US and UK context, but very little research within Eastern nations such as Japan or Korea. Given that these nations have distinctly different national cultures and workforce compositions compared to the West, it’s plausible that the factors that contribute toward job satisfaction may also be different. Therefore, a research gap emerges for studies that explore this matter.
This example is purely hypothetical (and there’s probably plenty of research covering this already), but it illustrates the core point that a research gap reflects a lack of firmly established knowledge regarding a specific matter. Given this lack, an opportunity exists for researchers (like you) to go on and fill the gap.
So, it’s the same as a research topic?
Not quite – but they are connected. A research gap refers to an area where there’s a lack of settled research, whereas a research topic outlines the focus of a specific study. Despite being different things, these two are related because research gaps are the birthplace of research topics. In other words, by identifying a clear research gap, you have a foundation from which you can build a research topic for your specific study. Your study is unlikely to resolve the entire research gap on it’s own, but it will contribute towards it.
If you’d like to learn more, we’ve got a comprehensive post that covers research gaps (including the different types of research gaps), as well as an explainer video below.
How to find a research gap
Now that we’ve defined what a research gap is, it’s time to get down to the process of finding potential research gaps that you can use as a basis for potential research topics. Importantly, it’s worth noting that this is just one way (of many) to find a research gap (and consequently a topic). We’re not proposing that it’s the only way or best way, but it’s certainly a relatively quick way to identify opportunities.
Step 1: Identify your broad area of interest
The very first step to finding a research gap is to decide on your general area of interest. For example, if you were undertaking a dissertation as part of an MBA degree, you may decide that you’re interested in corporate reputation, HR strategy, or leadership styles. As you can see, these are broad categories – there’s no need to get super specific just yet. Of course, if there is something very specific that you’re interested in, that’s great – but don’t feel pressured to narrow it down too much right now.
Equally important is to make sure that this area of interest is allowed by your university or whichever institution you’ll be proposing your research to. This might sound dead obvious, but you’ll be surprised how many times we’ve seen students run down a path with great excitement, only to later learn that their university wants a very specific area of focus in terms of topic (and their area of interest doesn’t qualify).
Step 2: Do an initial literature scan
Once you’ve pinned down your broad area (or areas) of interest, the next step is to head over to Google Scholar to undertake an initial literature scan. If you’re not familiar with this tool, Google Scholar is a great starting point for finding academic literature on pretty much any topic, as it uses Google’s powerful search capabilities to hunt down relevant academic literature. It’s certainly not the be-all and end-all of literature search tools, but it’s a useful starting point.
Within Google Scholar, you’ll want to do a few searches using keywords that are relevant to your area of interest. Sticking with our earlier example, we could use the key phrase “job satisfaction”, or we may want to get a little more specific – perhaps “job satisfaction for millennials” or “job satisfaction in Japan”.
It’s always a good idea to play around with as many keywords/phrases as you can think up. Take an iterative approach here and see which keywords yield the most relevant results for you. Keep each search open in a new tab, as this will help keep things organised for the next steps.
Once you’ve searched for a few different keywords/phrases, you’ll need to do some refining for each of the searches you undertook. Specifically, you’ll need to filter the results down to the most recent papers. You can do this by selecting the time period in the top left corner (see the example below).
Filtering to the current year is typically a good choice (especially for fast-moving research areas), but in some cases, you may need to filter to the last two years. If you’re undertaking this task in January or February, for example, you’ll likely need to select a two-year period.
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Step 3: Review and shortlist articles that interest you
Once you’ve run a few searches using different keywords and phrases, you’ll need to scan through the results to see what looks most relevant and interesting to you. At this stage, you can just look at the titles and abstracts (the description provided by Google Scholar) – don’t worry about reading the actual article just yet.
Next, select 5 – 10 articles that interest you and open them up. Here, we’re making the assumption that your university has provided you with access to a decent range of academic databases. In some cases, Google Scholar will link you directly to a PDF of the article, but in most cases, you’ll need paid access. If you don’t have this (for example, if you’re still applying to a university), you can look at two options:
Open-access articles – these are free articles which you can access without any journal subscription. A quick Google search (the regular Google) will help you find open-access journals in your area of interest, but you can also have a look at DOAJ and Elsevier Open Access.
DeepDyve – this is a monthly subscription service that allows you to get access to a broad range of journals. At the time of shooting this video, their monthly subscription is around $50 and they do offer a free trial, which may be sufficient for your project.
Step 4: Skim-read your article shortlist
Now, it’s time to dig into your article shortlist and do some reading. But don’t worry, you don’t need to read the articles from start to finish – you just need to focus on a few key sections.
Specifically, you’ll need to pay attention to the following:
- The abstract (which you’ve probably already read a portion of in Google Scholar)
- The introduction – this will give you a bit more detail about the context and background of the study, as well as what the researchers were trying to achieve (their research aims)
- The discussion or conclusion – this will tell you what the researchers found
By skimming through these three sections for each journal article on your shortlist, you’ll gain a reasonable idea of what each study was about, without having to dig into the painful details. Generally, these sections are usually quite short, so it shouldn’t take you too long.
Step 5: Go “FRIN hunting”
This is where the magic happens. Within each of the articles on your shortlist, you’ll want to search for a few very specific phrases, namely:
- Future research
- Further research
- Research opportunities
- Research directions
All of these terms are commonly found in what we call the “FRIN” section. FRIN stands for “further research is needed”. The FRIN is where the researchers explain what other researchers could do to build on their study, or just on the research area in general. In other words, the FRIN section is where you can find fresh opportunities for novel research. Most empirical studies will either have a dedicated FRIN section or paragraph, or they’ll allude to the FRIN toward the very end of the article. You’ll need to do a little scanning, but it’s usually pretty easy to spot.
It’s worth mentioning that naturally, the FRIN doesn’t hand you a list of research gaps on a platter. It’s not a silver bullet for finding research gaps – but it’s the closest thing to it. Realistically, the FRIN section helps you shortcut the gap-hunting process by highlighting novel research avenues that are worth exploring.
This probably sounds a little conceptual, so let’s have a look at a few examples:
If you scroll down to the bottom of this article, you’ll see there’s a dedicated section called “Limitations and directions for future research”. Here they talk about the limitations of the study and provide suggestions about how future researchers could improve upon their work and overcome the limitations.
In this article, within the limitations section, they provide a wonderfully systematic structure where they discuss each limitation, followed by a proposal as to how future studies can overcome the respective limitation. In doing so, they are providing very specific research opportunities for other researchers.
In this article, they don’t have a dedicated section discussing the FRIN, but we can deduct it based on the limitations section. For example, they state that an evaluation of the knowledge about telemedicine and technology-related skills would have enabled studying their independent effect on the perception of telemedicine.
Follow this FRIN-seeking process for the articles you shortlisted and map out any potentially interesting research gaps. You may find that you need to look at a larger number of articles to find something interesting, or you might find that your area of interest shifts as you engage in the reading – this is perfectly natural. Take as much time as you need to develop a shortlist of potential research gaps that interest you.
Importantly, once you’ve developed a shortlist of potential research gaps, you need to return to Google Scholar to double-check that there aren’t fresh studies that have already addressed the gap. Remember, if you’re looking at papers from two years ago in a fast-moving field, someone else may have jumped on it. Nevertheless, there could still very well be a unique angle you could take – perhaps a contextual gap (e.g. a specific country, industry, etc.).
Ultimately, the need for originality will depend on your specific university’s requirements and the level of study. For example, if you’re doing an undergraduate research project, the originality requirements likely won’t be as gruelling as say a Masters or PhD project. So, make sure you have a clear understanding of what your university’s expectations are. A good way to do this is to look at past dissertations and theses for your specific programme. You can usually find these in the university library or by asking the faculty.
How to evaluate potential research gaps
Once you’ve developed a shortlist of potential research gaps (and resultant potential research topics) that interest you, you’ll need to systematically evaluate them to choose a winner. There are many factors to consider here, but some important ones include the following:
- Originality and value – is the topic sufficiently novel and will addressing it create value?
- Data access – will you be able to get access to the sample of interest?
- Costs – will there be additional costs involved for data collection and/or analysis?
- Timeframes – will you be able to collect and analyse the data within the timeframe required by your university?
- Supervisor support – is there a suitable supervisor available to support your project from start to finish?
To help you evaluate your options systematically, we’ve got a topic evaluation worksheet that allows you to score each potential topic against a comprehensive set of criteria. You can access the worksheet completely free of charge here.
Recap: Key Takeaways
We’ve covered quite a lot of ground in this post. Here are the key takeaways:
- A research gap is any space where there’s a lack of solid, agreed-upon research regarding a specific topic/issue/phenomenon.
- Unique research topics emerge from research gaps, so it’s essential to first identify high-quality research gaps before you attempt to define a topic.
- To find potential research gaps, start by seeking out recent journal articles on Google Scholar and pay particular attention to the FRIN section to identify novel opportunities.
- Once you have a shortlist of prospective research gaps and resultant topic ideas, evaluate them systematically using a comprehensive set of criteria.
If you’d like to get hands-on help finding a research gap and research topic, be sure to check out our private coaching service, where we hold your hand through the research journey, step by step.
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