Gaps, Goals, and Questions

If you have followed my advice, the introduction of your draft paper consists of three paragraphs that tell us (1) what kind of world we’re living in, (2) what kind of science you do, and (3) what you have found by doing it. If we don’t also understand why you went looking for it there by such means, then my first suggestion is to make your paragraphs better.

But sometimes even the best prose won’t satisfy an editor’s (or supervisor’s) demands for clarity. You may be asked to make your “research aims” and/or “research question” explicit and to identify your “contributions” to the literature or the “gap” in it that you are proposing to fill. I’ve never been a big fan of these demands (and I’m not alone in this) but they do come up (and sometimes for good reason), so I thought I’d write a few words about how to satisfy them should you run into them.

Like I say, ideally, the solution is already implicit in the three paragraphs you have written. You are just going to make it explicit. Presumably, your paper is based on a study, and that study was trying to answer a question. If you must distinguish between you research “aims” and your your research “question”, it might be worth thinking of the aim as more theoretical and the question as more empirical. What is the general problem you are interested in? Solving it might have been your aim. What is the specific context that you studied? That’s where you’ll be looking for answers to your question.

As a first approximation, try writing a paragraph that will appear between the second and third paragraphs of my standard introduction. That is, it will come after you have (1) evoked a world and (2) invoked a science but before you have (3) proposed a thesis. Paragraph 3 will now become paragraph 4, and in the new third paragraph will bring us from the science, through your research aim and and your research question, to your thesis. You will probably end up with two paragraphs that are in a sense about your “paper”: first (3), it’s problem statement (made by formulating your research aim and your research question) and, second, the study you are presenting (stating it’s thesis and summarizing its method, analysis, and implication, i.e., outlining your paper).

  1. World
  2. Science
  3. Paper
  1. World
  2. Science
  3. Problem (aim/question)
  4. Study (thesis, outline)

And what about the (in)famous “gap” that you might have been asked to identify as part of your literature review? Well, my advice is to make it part of your description of the science you are invoking. Ideally, the lack of prior research on your topic will not be the only thing that defines your field — there will be still be some consensus or controversy to speak of, and you should (in my opinion) presume that your reader will fill in the gap intuitively on the basis of what is already known. That will still put you in a good position to engage with the current commitments of your field.

It may be necessary (that is, your editor or supervisor may require you) to write a whole paragraph delineating this gap in your introduction. You will now have a five-paragraph introduction:

  1. World – the state of the world that interests you
  2. Science – the state of your discipline (consensus, controversy)
  3. Problem – your research aims and research question
  4. Gap – the outlines of the hole in the literature you are filling (contribution)
  5. Study – what your study shows and how it shows it

I personally think this is overly elaborate, and if I were your editor or supervisor I would try to get you do all this, some of it implicitly, in three paragraphs and under 600 words. But if you are being asked to be more explicit, there is a way.

Update on further reading: In the comments, Sébastien reminds me that, in addition to their paper arguing against gap-spotting, Mats Alvesson and Jürgen Sandberg have also written about problem statements and research questions.

2 thoughts on “Gaps, Goals, and Questions

  1. Dear Thomas,

    Thank you for this great post.
    For your readers left in doubt about how to actually find gaps and, even better, challenge underlying assumptions in the literature and then to link them to research questions, I can only recommend (if you haven’t done it before on this blog) reading :

    Alvesson, Mats, and Jörgen Sandberg. 2011. “Generating Research Questions through Problematization.” Academy of Management Review.

    Best regards,

    1. Hi Sébastien, thanks. I’m glad you like it. I’ll add a link to that other Alvesson and Sandberg paper. (I linked to their gap-spotting paper in the “I’m not alone” parenthesis above.)

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