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Research: Establishing the Problem Space

What is the Problem Space?

A gap is a space between two objects or a break in continuity.  A research gap is a break or missing part of the existing research when you define the research gap or the problem space you are defining what is known and what is missing in the existing research.  The "problem space" of a study is a definition of the topic, the problem statements or research gaps mentioned by other researchers, and the steps other researchers took to answer the research question. The problem space is a way to identify and establish boundaries for your research, it helps to guide what should be included or excluded from your research.  The problem statement expresses how your study will answer or fill the research gap.

The problem space is thus comprised of identifying what is known about a topic, understanding how it has come to be known (the theories, designs, methods, instruments), and then figuring out what is not yet known (or perspective not explored).   Problem spaces are built by taking note of the limitations and recommendations discussed in the empirical research articles you gather as you build your literature review.

Examples From Empirical Articles

When looking to find discussions of research that has yet to be done (AKA research gap) in existing articles there are a few keywords to look out for such as limitations identified, further research needed, needs clarification, not been reported (studied, reported, or elucidated), suggestions for further research, questions remains, poorly understood, and/or lack of studies

Below are two examples of types of passages to look for.

Example of a Limitations Section

From the article:

Spanhove, V., De Wandele, I., Kjær, B. H., Malfait, F., Vanderstukken, F., & Cools, A. (2020). The effect of five isometric exercises on glenohumeral translations in healthy subjects and patients with the hypermobility type of the ehlers-danlos syndrome (heds) or hypermobility spectrum disorder (hsd) with multidirectional shoulder instability: an observational study. Physiotherapy107, 11–18.

"Limitations and strengths
In addition to limitations and strengths already mentioned in light of the discussion, other aspects of our study should be considered. First, the sample size is rather small since EDS is a rare disease and strict inclusion criteria for MDI were applied to avoid selection bias. Therefore, findings should be interpreted with some caution. Second, evaluation of scapular 3D kinematics or muscle electromyography were not incorporated in this study. Patients with MDI may experience a decreased scapular upward rotation during elevation, possibly due to aberrant muscle recruitment. We therefore recommend that scapular 3D analysis and electromyography are integrated into future research. Third, performing our own reliability study was not possible in view of the required number of exercise repetitions, possibly harmful in this fragile population."

From this passage, an argument could be made for performing a similar study, but with 3D analysis.

Example of a Recommendation for Further Research

Some articles will go beyond discussing their limitations and describe further research that should be done. 

For example, this article:

Carey, J., Pathak, A., & Johnson, S. C. (2020). Use, Perceptions, and Awareness of LibGuides among Undergraduate and Graduate Health Professions Students. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice15(3), 157-172.

Suggests several different avenues of further research:

"While LibGuides will naturally vary by institution, further study of their usage at other locales by health sciences students could reveal more about the information needs and behaviors of health sciences students in general. In addition, investigators could design a similar study to explore the use, perceptions, and awareness of research guides by students majoring in other subjects. They could conduct a comparative study to examine responses of students enrolled in online and hybrid courses versus those of traditional students on campus. Finally, a study utilizing focus groups could provide qualitative insights about health sciences and other students’ LibGuides usage and information behaviors."

How to Use Review Articles

Review articles can help formulate a gap, or at least point out a direction to look for one. Since they provide an overview of the published literature, they can give you a head start on what kinds of research are lacking.

How to Locate Review Articles: Systematic Reviews, Literature Reviews, and Meta-Analyses

  • Start with your general topic area. For example:
    • handwashing or hand washing or hand hygiene or hand sanitation
    • AND nurs*
  • Add a search field for review type articles:
    • systematic review or meta-analysis or literature review or scoping review
  • Adjust dates to be within 2 years. 
  • Most reviews will also include their search strings. This can add to your own keywords to expand your searches.
    • For instance the above search was used to locate this article:

Seo, H.-J., Sohng, K.-Y., Chang, S. O., Chaung, S. K., Won, J. S., & Choi, M.-J. (2019). Interventions to improve hand hygiene compliance in emergency departments: a systematic review. The Journal of Hospital Infection, 102(4), 394–406.

  • Within this article, their search includes the following string:
    • (hand antisepsis or handwash* or hand wash* or hand disinfection or hand hygiene or surgical scrub*)
    • With terms that should be included when searching on this topic.
  • This article states a gap in the conclusion:
    • "Further well-designed controlled studies are necessary to examine the true effects and identify which intervention modalities are more effective than others for HHC improvement in EDs."
    • Reviewing the articles this article studied would then provide support for this gap.

Pursuing a health care topic? Search Cochrane Reviews or Joanna Biggs EBP as well as the more general databases.

Example of a Review Article

Review articles can clarify where a lack of research exists. To then establish the problem space fully, you will need to track down the articles cited in the review.

For instance, consider the following passage from this review article:

Martin, A. (2019). An acquired or heritable connective tissue disorder? A review of hypermobile Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. European Journal of Medical Genetics, 62(7), 103672.

"The gap in longitudinal studies identifies the quality of evidence generated from cross sectional observations of clinical features that develop with age (Forghani, 2019). For example, Scheper et al. (2017) reported inconsistent results from a cross sectional study of the influence of proprioception on muscle strength and activity limitations. Muscle weakness and poor resistance affect movement and posture but the lack of strength in the muscles is due to anomalies instead of muscle waste (Proske and Gandevia, 2012). A statistical control for physical activity in a study examining lower extremity muscle mass, muscle strength, functional performance and physical impairment indicated very low muscle strength in hEDS (Rombaut et al., 2012). Nonetheless, subsequent research still involves associations of muscle weakness with muscle waste linked to pain and fatigue in hEDS (Scheper et al., 2017)."

This is indicating a need for longitudinal studies for this condition to better understand the relationship between muscle strength and muscle waste. Further examining the cited articles would establish this avenue for a study.