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How to identify gaps in research and determine your original research topic

Every research project begins with identifying an issue within your field that has not yet been addressed. At the beginning of any research project, you will probably be asked to submit a research proposal, wherein you will need to clearly outline what you intend to research and why this research is significant, valuable and relevant. What this means is that you need to clearly demonstrate why this research is needed, what gaps in existing research it seeks to fill, how it intends to fill these gaps or how it will address outstanding problems. Here, we discuss how to identify gaps in research and determine an original research topic.

Familiarise yourself with existing work, theories and debates

Before you can even begin thinking about your specific research topic, it is imperative to have some idea of previous research on the subject. 

Start very broadly with a large subject area that you are interested in. Then, read as much as you can around the main bodies of work, debates and theories on this subject. While you won’t be expected to read everything at this stage of your research, you should at least familiarise yourself with the most prominent, well-known and popular schools of thought. 

Gaining this understanding will provide a solid foundation to start thinking about the most common issues, problems and questions that are addressed and investigated within the field.

Start asking questions

As you read, start reflecting and asking questions about what you’re reading. Think broadly and dig deeply. Explore an issue from as many different angles and perspectives as you can. 

For example, you might ask:

What problems, contradictions or uncertainties can be identified within existing arguments, theories or studies?

Have these problems been addressed elsewhere?

If those problems have not been addressed or solved, why not?

Why is method X used more commonly than method Y?

Why has nobody used a combination of both method X and Y, or new method Z?

The more questions you ask, the closer you will get to identifying a gap in the existing knowledge that has not yet been studied or addressed. 

Reading widely and questioning deeply can also open up avenues of enquiry into other subjects. You might start with an interest in one topic, but as you read and critique existing studies you might be led into other subjects or disciplines. This may prompt you to think of new or alternative ways to approach an existing problem.

Small gaps are important too

Bear in mind that finding – and filling – a gap in existing research does not have to equate to conducting huge, ground-breaking research. You do not need to be creating a whole new subject of research nor studying something that nobody has ever touched before. 

The small gaps and questions can be just as valuable and important. For example, you could study the effects of using a new, perhaps unheard-of, method or technology to address a long-standing problem in cancer research. You could analyse historical documents alongside radical perspectives and theories that have never previously been considered. Or, if you are conducting person-centred social research, you might work with a specific community, age-group, racial or ethnic group that has not been studied before. 

All such areas of research are valid examples of how you might investigate a gap that has not been addressed in previous or existing studies. Consequently, you can generate new insights, findings and knowledge in that field.

Summary

As you begin to identify gaps in your specified field of interest, remember that this process itself marks the beginning of your research. Through reading, you are beginning to do a broad-level literature review and to acquire an understanding of the issues at hand. You are also starting to think about possible methodological approaches and methods needed to solve these issues. 

All this preparatory work is centred around identifying a gap in knowledge and finding the best methods to address those gaps. It will then help to develop your research question(s) or hypothesis, methodology and overall project design.

 

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