Thinking about gaps in knowledge

Image by calimiel from Pixabay

In writing recently about how to define research, I had a weird thought. For the purposes of my work, I like to describe research as a formal or informal process conducted in order to fill a gap in knowledge, build on existing knowledge, or create new knowledge. 

The thought I had was about that “gap in knowledge” part. I actually thought this came from the ACRL Standards but it turns out that was a misconception of my part. The Standards skip over identifying the need for information altogether and instead locate the start of the research process as determining the extent of information needed. Which I guess makes sense since the Standards were mostly concerned with academic research, where an information need almost always comes in the form of a research assignment. 

Wherever I originally got it from, I noticed recently that “knowledge gap” is something that comes up a lot in the scholarly literature on curiosity. Basically, curiosity is when you feel compelled to fill a gap in your knowledge with information. The question among curiosity researchers seems to be how big the gap needs to be or how great the desire for knowledge needs to be before someone will actually go to the trouble of seeking information to fill it. 

What’s interesting about this is curiosity researchers are pretty clear that “knowledge gap” refers to your own personal knowledge. There’s something you don’t know that you want to know, so you seek information about it. This is also what I was thinking of when I inserted the language about filling a gap in knowledge in my definition of research and it’s a big part of what makes me think that curiosity plays an important role in the research process that we don’t often talk about in information literacy. 

But in information literacy, we do talk about gaps in knowledge. What I’ve started wondering lately is what gaps in knowledge we’re talking about: gaps in personal knowledge or gaps in fields of knowledge? 

I always thought it was the first one but that might be another misconception on my part. Maybe this whole time we’ve been talking about gaps in a field of knowledge. Rather, gaps in the literature in a field of knowledge. 

This is an important distinction. Because if we think of research primarily as a process for filling in gaps in a field of knowledge, then it’s no wonder that when we teach students about research, we only teach them about academic and scholarly forms of research. Scholarly research is, after all, the type of research you do when you’re looking to contribute to a field of knowledge and academic research, with its insistence on using scholarly sources and formal citation, is just practice for scholarly research. (Scientific research also has similar goals and a similar relationship to academic research in some disciplines.)

If my thinking here is at all accurate, then, well, that’s pretty elitist of us. If doing research requires contributing to a field of knowledge as an end goal, then only those who conduct scholarly or scientific research can be said to be doing research. Everyone else is just…what?

Information seeking, I guess. Maybe that’s why in the library and information science literature we have two separate terms, research and information seeking, for what are really the same thing. It’s just that information seeking is research conducted by non-scholars, who may only be seeking to fill a gap in their personal knowledge. 

Here’s the thing, though. Even if “all” you’re doing with your research is seeking information to help satisfy your curiosity, information literacy still matters. It still matters how you search for information and how you evaluate the information you find.  If it didn’t matter, then issues like fake news and misinformation wouldn’t be such big problems, certainly not ones that information literacy instructors should concern themselves with except to the point where they might matter to “real” research. 

So the process we go through to fill a gap in our personal knowledge is just as important as the process we go through to fill a gap in a field of knowledge. It may even be more important because gaps in personal knowledge are likely to affect individuals more directly than gaps in scholarly literature. 

Anyway, this was just something I’ve been thinking about as I work on my book project, where I’ve been diving more deeply into the contextual nature of research. I already knew that there was conflation between the word “research” and academic and scholarly contexts but I hadn’t thought how that might apply to what is probably the very first step in the research process, identifying a gap in knowledge.  

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