Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Why a 'gap' in a field is not an argument for research

One quite common argument used in research papers is made by showing that there is a 'gap' in the field that no one or few have studied or researched. This argument is flawed in many ways. It is built on some assumptions that do not make sense. For instance, it is built on the assumption that the whole 'field' (whatever that means) need to be equally well researched. It also assumes that areas that have been researched do not require the same attention as other areas.

We know from the history of science that a field is never researched completely or finished. In the decades before Einstein, there was a growing sense in physics that the field was done, that the world of physics was more or less completely understood. So, if Einstein had followed the advice of only study gaps, his revolutionary theory would probably not have been developed. Instead, he studied the area of physics that was perhaps most developed, most complete, and the most popular. There was no gap for him to approach. His ideas revolutionized physics.

In my own field, HCI, the idea of studying gaps is extraordinarily strong. It seems as if the idea is that only by studying something less researched there is a chance to make a contribution to the field. This has led to a field that mainly develops its knowledge horizontally, that is, by adding new aspects or phenomena to the repertoire of study. We see much less of vertical knowledge production, that is,  in-depth studies of areas where we already have substantial knowledge.

There have been some attempts in the field to advocate for more vertically oriented knowledge production (such as Repli-CHI) but in general, the aspiration for the new and the novel in combination with the idea of the 'gap' is apparently too strong. For a dynamic field like HCI this is unfortunate and may not, in the long run, lead to a foundation of knowledge that is stable and sustainable and that can deliver increasingly deeper insights about the relation between humans and machines.

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