Mind the gap

“This project fills in a significant gap in the literature…”

“This project will address this significant gap in knowledge…”

Text on a railway platform that says 'mind the gap'.
Mind the gap, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve read several applications that identify a gap in the literature. The ‘gap’ is a useful way to think about your research. It is often presented as a triangle (or a square):

Poincairre says…
Munroe framed the problem in this way…
Flanders contributed the theory of…
However, between those three approaches, there exists a gap…

Sometimes, this research gap is real. Sometimes, it is a little bit constructed (for the purposes of the theoretical argument, of course). In the end, it doesn’t matter. You’ve found your gap.

That gap in the literature? It won’t get you funded.

If you have a gap, and every other applicant has also identified a gap, then that makes your application just like everyone else’s. It doesn’t differentiate you from the crowd. It is a necessary condition for being competitive, not a competitive advantage. Demonstrating it gets you in the game, but it certainly doesn’t win you the grant.

It might have been sufficient in your Masters or your PhD to demonstrate that you were filling a knowledge gap. For a research grant application, not so much. You need to do more than just fill in the blanks. You need to start to add to the map.

What I’m trying to say is that you need to think carefully about your gap, and how you frame it.

Background, not foreground

First of all, you need to understand what that gap represents. Is it central to what you are exploring, or is it part of the background to your research?

For most grant applications that I see, the gap is part of the background. It might have spurred you to do the work, or it might demonstrate the validity of your work, but it doesn’t underpin your whole argument. It isn’t the foundation of the research.

To understand whether it is central or not, you need to ask why there is a gap at all. Is it a new area of research, or a new sub-sub-sub-‘discipline’ that hasn’t been written about much? We seem to focus on narrower and narrower topics sometimes. Is it because you are bringing together different parts of the literature, that don’t usually talk to one another? This is where multidisciplinary work really shines. Is it because nobody cares? There is plenty of research that doesn’t need to be done. In these cases, the gap is subsidiary to the rest of the research. It forms an interesting aspect of your contribution, not the central purpose of the research. Don’t focus on the gap, focus on the research.

If, on the other hand, you have new data, new techniques or new ideas that allow you to attack an old problem in a new way, then the gap is the focus of the work. You are presenting a theoretical or practical problem, an epistemological puzzle, that has resisted all efforts to crack until now. People have only been able to write, to think, in a particular way because their research has not been able to get past this gap. You can go all the way. The gap is the research. Go for it!

In my experience, that is very rare.

Mostly, I see people using the gap as a prop, a way of trying to bolster a research argument. Don’t do that. Don’t use a gap in the literature as a rationale for your argument. It is too easy for a reader to think, “Well, that’s interesting, but it isn’t that important.” *Plonk* – that’s the sound of your carefully crafted research application hitting the floor, along with the other 80% of applications that won’t get funded today.

The other way to think about the gap is to ask yourself, “What am I going to do about this gap?” If the answer is to explore it, to outline it or otherwise define it, then that sounds like the basis for a good conceptual paper. If you are going to fill in a small piece of the gap (the first paving brick, so to speak), then that sounds like a contribution to knowledge. Neither of those approaches form like the basis for a research grant. They aren’t enough to attract funding by themselves. Your gap is background, not foreground.

If the gap is significant, and you are going to completely ‘fill’ that gap (it’s a metaphor, folks), then you should probably make your gap the focus of your research application.

Whatever you do, don’t identify a gap and then just ignore it for the rest of the application. Don’t open with “This project fills in a gap in the literature…”, and never mention it again. That’s not going to work for anybody.

Show, don’t tell

There are some fields – pure mathematics and theoretical physics, for example – where gaps can be clearly identified ahead of time, and ranked according to significance. The four-colour theorem is a good example of a ‘gap’ that was identified and judged to be significant a long time before it was filled. My rule of thumb: Don’t claim that your gap is ‘significant’ unless other people have already acknowledged it as significant.

In fact, you probably don’t need to use the word ‘gap’ at all. The phrase is hackneyed and the discussion is dry. Write with authority. Show me the literature that pertains to your work, then locate your work in the centre of that literature. That’s it – job done. Let the reader identify the gap.

You can assume that everybody who reads your research grant application will be as smart, or smarter, than you (although it won’t feel like that when you get your feedback). By placing your work within the literature, you treat them as equals rather than pointing out the obvious. You are focusing on the research in your writing, and they are focusing on your research in their reading. You are working in tandem, as colleagues.

Rather than spending half a line of precious space talking about the importance of your gap, tell me why your work is important. Where will it lead?

Gaps in the literature aren’t significant, in and of themselves. Your research is. You are planning to make a contribution to knowledge. As a result, your fellow researchers will be able to do more, to go further. That is what is significant.

More interesting gaps

Please note that I’m only talking about gaps in the literature here. There are, however, much more interesting gaps that I would encourage you to talk about. They are the gaps between theory and practice, between knowledge and implementation, between understanding and acceptance. The wide, wide gap between research findings and the adoption of those findings. Grant applications that talk about those gaps are grounded in an actual problem. Those are the applications I like a lot. We need a lot more discussion of those gaps.

No gap

Not every research grant application addresses a gap in the literature. Some deliberately eschew that approach. They take aim directly at the centre, the heartland, of the literature and expose the flaws that lie there. I like that approach, too. But that’s another article.

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