Researchers often talk about the “knowledge gap.” What is the “knowledge gap?”
This post explains what the “knowledge gap” is and provides examples from the social sciences.
- How to Write the Introduction to a Research Article in the Social Sciences
- Academic Writing for Psychology Students
At a glance…
What is the knowledge gap?
The knowledge gap is the space between what we know and what we do not know.
“Whereas we know this…”
“We do not know that…”
Your research should present a puzzle — something that needs to be solved. The puzzle is the “problem” — something that we do not know, but should. The article is the “solution.” In other words, the article will solve (or address) the problem, and so fill the knowledge gap.
In order to know where the gap is, we need to know its boundaries. The boundaries are (a) the known knowledge (what we know) and (b) the unknown knowledge (what we know of what we do not know).
Filling the gap is the contribution of the article (or thesis or dissertation) to the field or discipline.
The knowledge gap is a criticism of the literature. It is a criticism of what we know. It is important to be specific about what we do not know.
Examples of knowledge gap
There are two main ways to frame the knowledge gap. There is a “one-step” approach, and a “two-step” approach (from Schimel’s 2012 Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded). Let’s look at examples for each.
We use the one-step approach when the audience is already familiar with the concepts of the article. Don’t worry if you are not familiar with these concepts — just focus on how the author wrote the one-step approach.
“Although previous research has substantiated the important role that issue identification plays in the decision-making process (e.g., Dutton, Stumpf, & Wagoner, 1990; Panzano & Billings, 1994; Thomas, Clark, & Gioia, 1993; Thomas & McDaniel, 1990), little empirical work has examined what variables predispose an individual to frame an issue in a certain way. Addressing this research need, the purpose of the current study is to examine the effects of self-efficacy and issue characteristics on issue categorization.”
Mohammed, S., & Billings, R. S. (2002). The Effect of Self‐Efficacy and Issue Characteristics on Threat and Opportunity Categorization. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 32(6), 1253-1275.
This is a classic one-step approach. “Although” is about what we know. “Little empirical work” is about what we do not know. The knowledge gap is the space between what we know and what we do not know. And all of this is in one sentence.
Nota bene! The phrase “little empirical work” is risky. In the age of Google Scholar and AI tools such as Elicit and Consensus, it is likely that you will find ample empirical work on whatever you are studying. The best criticism of the literature is not that there is “little” empirical work, but that there are flaws of the empirical work itself — e.g. in the conceptualization, theory, measurement, and analysis.
We use the two-step approach when terms are unfamiliar to the audience.
The audience is who reads the journal — a generalist journal, such as the American Sociological Review, has all of sociology as the audience. A specialist journal, such as Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, has mostly scholars in the sociology of religion as the audience.
Here is an example of an article published in a specialist journal, but one unfamiliar with the basic terms. The specialist journal published it because it was relevant for their audience.
Step one: Introduce the importance
Shipp, A. J., Edwards, J. R., & Lambert, L. S. (2009). Conceptualization and measurement of temporal focus: The subjective experience of the past, present, and future. Organizational behavior and human decision processes, 110(1), 1-22.
The concept was “temporal focus.” The authors begin with a basic description of the importance of time.
“A fundamental premise underlying temporal research is the notion that people differ in their perceptions of the past, present, and future (Bluedorn, 2002; Nuttin, 1985; Rappaport, 1990)…
One individual difference construct, temporal focus, describes the extent to which people characteristically devote their attention to perceptions of the past, present, and future (Bluedorn, 2002). Temporal focus is important because thinking about the past, present, and future affects current attitudes, decisions, and behaviors, as evidenced by research on goal-setting, motivation, and performance (Bandura, 2001; Cottle, 1976; Fried & Slowik, 2004; Nuttin, 1985), learning and self-regulation (Carver & Scheier, 1982; Sanna, Stocker, & Clarke, 2003), sense-making (Weick, 1979), affect (Wilson & Ross, 2003), and strategic choice (Bird, 1988; Das, 1987; Hambrick & Mason, 1984)…”
In step one, the authors introduced the topic and why it was important.
Step two: Introduce the gap
“Despite the importance of temporal focus for a variety of organizational behavior concepts, several conceptual and methodological challenges remain…
The purpose of this article is to advance the conceptualization and measurement of the temporal focus construct.”
In step two, they define the boundaries of the knowledge gap.
Here we have an example of a psychology article published in a journal designed for specialists in organizational studies. The organizational studies audience was unfamiliar with the basic term, so the author defined it and stated explicitly its importance. Then, the authors defined the boundaries of the knowledge gap, and told them that this article will fill the gap.
Nota bene! When writing the knowledge gap, the phrase “few have” or “there is no research on…” becomes risky when so much research appears in so many forms – articles, presentations at conferences, working papers, etc. Knowledge gaps are about criticism. A better criticism would be about the specific deficiencies of previous studies. Perhaps previous research had not emphasized this link between A and B, and had some deficiency in how they approached it methodologically or theoretically.
In sum, the knowledge gap is a criticism of the literature — it is the space between what we know and what we do not know. That space is a puzzle to solve! The article is the solution to that puzzle.
Joshua K. Dubrow is a PhD from The Ohio State University and a Professor of Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences.
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