Contributions to knowledge and the ‘knowledge gap’

If you have spent any time reading advice or ‘how to’ books on writing a thesis at any level, you will almost certainly have come across some version of this concept: the ‘knowledge gap’. And you will likely have been told that you have to create a research project or study that will find knowledge to fill a gap in your specific field or discipline’s knowledge base. This idea of filling a gap or hole in what your field knows or does freaks out many students, at all levels. The idea that you have to say something new when you are still learning your field and what it knows and does can be overwhelming.

But, after a conversation with colleagues who work with researcher development starting from senior undergraduate level all the way through Masters to PhD level, I have begun to wonder whether this concept of a knowledge ‘gap’ is actually not all that accurate or helpful as a starter about the purpose or goal of postgraduate research and knowledge creation, even at doctoral level. Maybe, we need to actively reframe the conversations we have with students doing research about how we can and do make different kinds of contributions to knowledge that grow and challenge knowledge in our fields.

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The most common starting point for students beginning a research process is in the field itself, reading other studies, papers, research findings and so on. This enables them to see what research is being done, what the current trends are around theory and methodology, substantive findings that support or challenge their own research problem and so on. The literature review is almost always the first thing we ask students to focus on when they are developing a research proposal, especially at doctoral level where there is a firm requirement of a ‘novel’ contribution to knowledge. So, you kind of are looking for a gap, of sorts. But you’re not looking for it in terms of a total silence on your own research problem.

The first problem with the notion of a ‘gap’ or hole in the field that your study can fill, conceptually or empirically or methodologically, is that many students seeing this as meaning exactly that: silence, as in no one has ever done this research before. They feel they must claim that there are no existing studies like theirs for their study to be ‘novel’ and to fill the identified knowledge gap legitimately. In most fields, it is almost never the case that no one has ever done your kind of study before, or asked a similar kind of research question. And you really don’t want that either, because what you are really trying to do with your research is join a field that exists, and push it a tiny bit further; you’re not trying to strike out on your own.

This leads me to the second problem with talking about knowledge gaps and the need to fill them with original or novel claims to knowledge: in essence this can prevent many students from really seeing that they are writing about their research in relation to the field, to join an ongoing conversation, rather than writing about their research as an extended proof of claims that are completely new. We need to reframe teaching about the aim of research as being focused on joining an existing conversation as a new voice that has something of value to add to the field, rather than needing to say something radically new that has not yet ever been said. I think this may help student researchers in two main ways.

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The first is with the way they read. Rather than reading every paper looking for a hole or a gap or silence and zeroing in one this, they may begin to read with a greater consciousness of how the field has already addressed similar questions, but perhaps from different angles, or with different theory, or with different methodology. They can then consider how this helps them to build and substantiate a space in which to position their own emerging claims to knowledge. Keeping a reading journal to keep track of these arguments, how they are made, and how they speak to one another or challenge one another (this bit is crucial) may then help students to begin to see the conversation emerging, and where they might be able to join in. Who is saying what, how, and why? Who is critiquing the dominant positions and why? How? Where does my work fit into all of this? What is this ongoing conversation all about?

Thinking and reading like this may then feed into a different, less defensive form of writing. Rather than trying to address every paper or article included in the literature review by showing what it doesn’t say to shore up a claim to the originality of their own research, student research writers may begin rather to craft literature reviews, and perhaps also theoretical and methodological frameworks in their thesis writing, from a different position: as one who is joining an existing field and conversation, unthreatened by all the work that is currently being or has been done. Rather, these sections will be written with the understanding that all the existing work is a resource for substantiating our own claims to knowledge, so that we can show how what we have to add builds on, extends, and perhaps may critique the current arguments dominating the conversation in the field.

Reframing the ‘knowledge gap’ as joining a conversation with a new voice and a small contribution to the field may also help researchers at other, lower, levels of study, such as Masters, Honours and senior undergraduate levels, where the knowledge gap can be particularly alarming. This is perhaps mainly because students typically do less reading, and are not required to make a novel contribution to knowledge to attain their degree. Obviously, the more you read the field, the deeper and more nuanced your sense of the conversations in your field will be, as well as how they connect and challenge one another. But students can join a conversation even at the lower levels, in a more modest form, if they are enabled to see this as what they are doing, rather than using their study to fill a gap that their reading load will not show them adequately.

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Making a contribution to knowledge and filling knowledge gaps is spoken about a great deal in postgraduate and researcher education, but I wonder how often we stop and think about how students hear this, and what impact this has on their reading and writing behaviors and choices. I hope this post will help that process along, and help us find different ways to talk to students we work with about their own research purposes and goals.

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