How to find a gap in the literature

People often talk about “finding a gap in the literature”, but it’s not always clear what exactly that means or entails.

Part of the problem, I think, is that it’s one of those clichéd metaphors so commonly used that it’s easy to repeat without thinking about whether it makes any sense or whether it’s useful.

I wouldn’t ever tell anyone to try to find a gap in the literature as a starting point, because;

  • it’s not enough to just do something nobody’s done before; it needs to be of potential interest to the field
  • research ideas are developed, not found
  • how do you find something that isn’t there?

Instead of searching for a gap in the literature…

Instead of searching for a gap in the literature, think of it as finding an edge to work on; taking existing research and developing it further; improving upon it, answering open questions or taking it in new directions.

How to find an edge to work on

Start by just reading; when you find an interesting paper, think of how you could build upon it. A lot of the ideas you think of won’t be practical, but that’s OK! It’s better to come up with a lot of ideas and then refine them than to search for “the one”.

Not every article you read will trigger great ideas; if it doesn’t make sense to you or you don’t find it interesting then it’s probably not a good basis for your own research.

When you do find a potential edge to work on, you then need to go though a process of testing and refinement to examine the viability of your idea.

Check out the blog posts below for more on this, and feel free to ask any questions below (but please don’t ask me to give you a thesis topic)

See Also:

How to choose a thesis topic

Research proposals: a good idea is not enough

How to write a PhD literature review

By InkleinOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

8 thoughts on “How to find a gap in the literature”

  1. James, I have your e-book which has been very helpful. Does one need to explicitly state the gaps, under a sub-heading, or such in the conclusion, or will the examiner understand the gaps that exist by simply reading on the existing literature presented in the review?
    Thank you for your time!

    • The general rule is, don’t make the reader do the work.

      If you want them to notice a gap, state it explicitly. For example, you can say, “despite these advances in the field, there remains a need to investigate…”

  2. I was once asked, “What’s the problem that’s called for a PhD research?” and I went speechless and I didn’t how to respond to it. I knew there’s a problem but I was asked to find evidence to support the problem. Does every research need to be supported by evidence?

  3. AWESOME Advice! You have confirmed my interest in finding an “edge” or a twist that is not present in existing research! I really appreciate your clarity!

  4. If you already have a topic, and you have several articles, how do you find a gap based on the articles you have.

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