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S.U.R.E. Program

Summer Undergraduate Research Program

Steps for identifying research gaps in the literature

Your research project should address a research gap which you identify in the literature, a research question or problem that has not been answered in your research area of interest. This shows that you have developed expertise in the body of knowledge and theoretical issues in your chosen research area. 

Step 1: Focus Your Research Area

Before you start trying to identify gaps in the literature, you need to figure out what your area of interest is, and then focus and narrow that research area. If you don't narrow down your initial research area of interest, you'll end up wanting to research everything. You'll overwhelm yourself with all the research gaps you find because there are still a lot of unanswered research questions out there. 

  • Do some exploratory research on your broad research idea in your course textbook and class notes to identify more specific issues and arguments in your research area and possible relationships between them.
  • Read ebooks to get the "big picture" about the research area you're interested in studying. Books and ebooks provide detailed information on your research area, put your research area in context, provide summaries of research, and help you identify major themes and relationships for your study.
  • Ask your advisor about possible topics or issues within your research area of interest. That being said, make sure you choose issues because you find them deeply interesting, not just because your advisor recommended them.

Step 2: Read, Read, and then Read Some More

Read (a lot of) research articles: this is going to be time-demanding, but you really do need to read through a lot of research articles in your research area to become an expert in it. That being said, what you use from the articles that you read should relate directly back to your focused research questions and hypothesis. Don't waste your time getting sidetracked by issues that don't relate to your research questions and hypothesis.

  • Go to Start Finding Sources and Search Databases to find journal articles for your research area
  • Pay close attention to Introductions, in which authors explain why their research is important, and Suggestions for Future Research, in which authors point readers to areas which lack investigation or need future examination

Follow the research trails of seminal articles and authors using Web of Science and Scopus:

  • Articles
    • In Scopus, click on Document Search, enter the article title, click on the article title in the list of search hits, then click on View all ~ citing documents link in the right sidebar for a list of articles that have cited this article
    • In Web of Science, enter the article title and choose Title from the right drop down menu, then click on the Times Cited number next to the article to see a list of articles that have cited this article
  • Authors
    • In Scopus, click on Author Search, enter the last name and first initial(s) of the author, click on the author's name in the list of search hits, then click on Cited By ~ documents for a list of articles that have cited this author
    • In Web of Science, enter the author name and choose Author from the right drop down menu, then click on the Times Cited number next to each article to see a list of articles that have cited this author's article

Read meta-analyses, literature reviews, and systematic reviews: these papers delve deep into the literature, examining the trends and changes over a long period of time in your research area and summaries of previous research findings.

Step 3: Map out the Literature:

Keep track of what the authors told you and the questions that occur to you whenever you read anything - an article, a book, a book chapter, a dissertation, etc. This will also help you write your research proposal introduction later on and help you avoid unconscious plagiarism.

  • Use mind maps, tables, charts, pictures, post-it notes to map out the literature, whatever works for you. 
  • Research each of your questions to see if there are people out there who had the same questions and found answers to them

If you find don't find any answers to one of your questions, you've probably found a research gap from which you can develop a research project hypothesis and experimental project. Get feedback from your advisor before you get too carried away, though!

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