What to do when there is Little Existing Literature on your research topic
Our understanding of the world is ever evolving and constantly expanding. Our job as researchers is to contribute to this growth in understanding. However, you may well find yourself in a situation one day where you’re tasked with researching a topic about which there is little or no existing and available published literature. In this article, we discuss how to tackle this situation.
Looking deeper and beyond
1. Gather and read all the publications you can
To get an idea of how much actually is available to you in terms of published work, a good first step is to gather all the possible publications you can get your hands on. Start with established databases, such as PubMed and Web of Science, and make sure you do a thorough literature search by using any synonyms in your database search that apply to your field. Collate these into a list in a spreadsheet or reference manager, and start reading.
You will begin to get a feel for the overall attitudes towards your topic, and you may even be able to make and retain a mental identification of those who are prominent authors and publishers in the subject.
2. Use the references to determine what else you can look into
The next step is to use this initial list of references to find out more about what this body of work is based on. Look up the authors that crop up most often and see if you can find out about their research background and how they came to enter the field you are researching. This may give you clues as to what else to look into.
3. Expand your pool to non-peer-reviewed articles
You can then expand your research pool from peer-reviewed articles to other pieces these authors may have written, which are also valuable references. Just beware that as these aren’t peer-reviewed, they may include opinions and other assertions that were not subject to the usual peer review process.
You may also want to consider grey literature, which is another form of non-peer-reviewed documentation. If so, learn more about grey literature here: Understanding and using Grey Literature for your research paper
4. Look at the authors’ previous publications
Another important step is to look at the publications that a particular paper of interest is based on. Usually, authors will refer to their previous work, which may have laid the foundation for what they are currently publishing. These are valuable resources to help you understand the researchers’ processes.
Discovering that there is just not enough literature
Niche, new or emerging fields can often attract researchers as they can benefit from the potential for early breakthroughs. So, if you believe you can make an impact, this should encourage you to dive into it and give yourself over to this field.
However, there may be situations where you are merely adjacent to this topic or are simply tasked with preparing a review of the area. In these cases, it’s important to gauge whether sinking time and effort into this endeavour is appropriate when there is currently only very little published research available that deals with the area.
There could be many reasons why there are not many publications available, including a high bar to entry to the field owing to it being specific to a particular region or situation. In this case, allowing more time for the field to develop (discussed next) may be a better option as it will ultimately yield more for you to work with at a later time.
Deciding to not continue with the topic (for now)
It’s very possible for you to find yourself in a situation where the only option seems to be to move away from your topic. This option is fine but don’t be too discouraged or feel that changing your topic altogether is the only route you can take. For example…
- Consider the possibility of centering your final written work more heavily on opinion and speculation, and providing – in the form of recommendations – future directions that you expect the field might take.
- It can even be an opportunity for you (to wait) to be one of the first people to publish in the field. As it grows, you’ll gain plenty of citations as being ‘one of the first’ to publish in it, and be considered pioneering.
Finding yourself in the situation where little published work is available to you can be difficult, especially when you are trying to complete a piece of work that relies on publications. But don’t worry. There are ways of digging deeply into any topic, and reaching for more unconventional sources could be a way for you to find a reasonable body of work that you can base your own work on.
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