Mind The Gap In The Literature

cat in literatureIn the course of my work I read a lot of academic articles, chapters, and books. This means I sometimes make surprising discoveries. For example, last weekend I was reading an article by, I’ll call the author McGonagall, who, in the course of developing her argument, claimed that topic X had not been identified as relevant to the development of field Y. I had another article already open on screen by, let’s say Trelawney, published four years before McGonagall’s article, which explicitly identified topic X as relevant to the development of field Y.

McGonagall’s article was published in a top-ranked journal. This means that not only the author, but the editor and some expert reviewers, were unaware of Trelawney’s article. Trelawney’s article was in a less highly ranked journal, but one from a reputable academic publisher and which focuses entirely on field Y.

So McGonagall claimed to have found a gap in the literature, but in fact that gap had been filled four years previously. I wonder how often this happens?

Both Trelawney and McGonagall had written articles that, for me at least, were worth reading and helpful for my work. I ended up citing them both. If McGonagall had found, and cited, Trelawney’s article, that would not have invalidated her own contribution. This made me wonder whether it’s time to rethink the way we mark our territories in scholarly work. For a while now I have been quite careful with these kinds of claims about what exists in the literature. I explicitly take responsibility, and so use formulations such as ‘To the best of my knowledge there is no previous work on…’ or ‘I have been unable to find any discussion of…’ rather than asserting that such work or discussion doesn’t exist. After all, there is far too much literature out there these days for anyone to be confident about what has or hasn’t been covered. And saying something doesn’t exist – at least, saying it in English about literature in English (which is the only language I read) – has imperialist overtones in its refusal to acknowledge the possibility of scholarly work in other languages.

Also, a gap in the literature is not the only thing scholars need to address. Perhaps you want to write on a topic where there is already a sizeable body of literature. If so, then make a rationale for writing from a particular time, or place, or standpoint, or theoretical perspective. And keep it simple. Probably nobody has written a Queer-Framed Bourdieusian Gaze On The Post-Feminist Praxis Of Shed Construction In Huddersfield Using An Extended Baking Metaphor and there’s a good reason for that. Several good reasons, in fact.

Rather than filling a gap, what can we add that has value? Figuring out the contribution your work makes is likely to help motivate you to get the words down. Also, it should help you to convince editors and reviewers that your work is worth publishing. People often don’t like to think of it this way, but it’s a sales pitch. Even when no money changes hands directly, publishing is a commercial exercise; publishers, even non-profit publishers, have to make a surplus to stay in business. And if you’re self-publishing, you want people to read your work, right? So you have to sell it – even if you’re giving it away. I suspect the old ‘gap in the literature’ claim is losing force in today’s market. It’s time to think up other claims, preferably ones we can legitimately make. Have you come up with any good ones? If so, please share them in the comments.

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15 thoughts on “Mind The Gap In The Literature

  1. Thank you. In a de-colonial environment, your comment about the “gap” existing only in the English language is appreciated. In addition, the exclusion – as a result of financial constraints, from the dominant Western “big-publishing” remains an issue.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Very thought provoking post Helen. Thank you. Loved the post-Bourdieu shed joke! Another area where claims about gaps in literature isn’t helpful is in literature based work. I tell my MA dissertation class that if there is a lot of literature already on the topic that interests them they can still do original work by reviewing it from the perspective of particular research questions and as all work is historically and socially situated their critique today will bring a different gaze and sensibility to analysis of sexual violence say, post #metoo than before it. The same applies to primary empirical research and researching the same thing as someone else has, but from a different time and place. In the UK REF criteria of originality, significance and rigour push academics to make claims about originality that accentuate the gap, that widen it, instead as you say of us seeking more humility and ditching or at least problematising gap-talk.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for your helpful comment, Harry. I was explaining that point about literature-based work to a worried doctoral student earlier in the week, though nowhere near as eloquently as you have done here.


  2. Sylvia (not sure why I can’t reply to your comment directly, so I hope you see this): thank you for saying so. I do what I can to amplify marginalised voices. Often it feels like shouting into the wind so it’s good to know it has an effect somewhere.


  3. Thank you for writing about it. I was into this while writing my literature review chapter and had issues in finding the gap as there is lot of work around domestic violence. Definitely, follow it now

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is similar to what I tell my research students. Why waste your time filling in the blanks when you can go beyond; why fill in the gaps between 1-10 when you can meaningfully create 11, 12, 13 and beyond!

    Liked by 1 person

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