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Alyssa is a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

This isn't part of my (loose) Disabled in Grad School series, but my literature gap is related to disability.

It's pretty common for academics to talk about gaps in the literature. We want to find them, right? If we find a gap, that's a spot where we can do some work, as long as it's an area that will be of interest to other researchers in our fields. If we're not looking for a gap, we'd at least like to find an edge in the literature that we can build off of. I’ve not seen as much advice about how to do a literature review around a gap.

I had to do just that this past semester. Technically, I think I found two gaps in the literature and then I looked at their intersection. That became my project this semester in a class about Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). There isn’t much AAC research specific to autistic adults, or to part-time AAC users. You might notice I'm in both of those categories. Being an autistic adult who uses AAC part time and is interested in AAC research is actually part of how I noticed the gaps.

So, I proposed my project and then I needed to do a literature review. I got somewhat lucky, right away. A systematic review of AAC intervention research done with adolescents or adults on the autism spectrum came out within the last few months. I was only somewhat lucky because this systematic review only identified four adult subjects -- people who were at least 18-years old when they participated in research that was specifically about AAC interventions in autism. The problem with doing a literature review for a major, massive gap is that ... it's a major, massive gap in the literature. Now what?

1) Re-define "closeness" and "relevance" to your topic. It's relative. There is nothing in the peer-reviewed literature that covers exactly the intersection of my two topics. If I wanted autistic adults, there’s four subjects the systematic review found and a presentation about employment. The systematic review wasn’t talking about part time AAC users, and it wasn’t clear if the employment presentation was either. If I wanted AAC for autistic people with functional speech, there’s a 17-year-old retrospective analysis of technology use patterns of students with autism. It's about kids, and only five of them both had functional speech and got AAC devices. If I wanted part-time AAC use by adults, I can find some references to it in research focused on cerebral palsy. It wasn’t the main topic of the research, but it was noted that some participants used oral speech to communicate as well as their AAC systems.

To be clear, I still needed to spend more time on the essentials and speed through my periphery - the articles that are interesting but probably not key to my argument. I just had to redefine my periphery, much like I had to redefine closeness and relevance. Those articles I described are as close to center as I could get in the peer-reviewed literature.

2) Consider what counts as part of "the literature." I knew Typed Words, Loud Voices had relevant writing in it. It was by people who type to communicate, including contributions from autistic people who use AAC part time. It was also a book -- not peer-reviewed, but a book. It wasn’t a stretch to count that as part of my literature. (The somewhat awkward bit was that I'm in this book, and also did the cover art.)

Then there's media coverage. Fellow GradHacker Eva suggests following it for an idea of how people are talking about our fields, so I included it as part of my literature. An UpWorthy post about the guy who programmed Emergency Chat? That's exactly the sort of thing I wanted to know about, and I wasn’t about to ignore it just because of where I found it. Since the creator, Jeroen de Busser, was named in the post, that led me to his blog -- he's got a tag all about the app!

3) Find sources to back up the claim that there is, in fact, a gap in the literature. Here's another reason that systematic review on AAC interventions for autistic adolescents and adults was a lucky find. One of its main findings was the need for more research on AAC and autistic adults, because there isn't much. A survey from AssistiveWare, a company that makes AAC applications for the iPad, similarly told me that while plenty of adults use AAC part time, research generally focuses on full-time use. Now I know why I had to redefine "relevance" and "the literature," and I have citations to tell everyone else why too.

4) Follow authors and references to find more sources. An UpWorthy post led me to Emergency Chat. I found the retrospective analysis of technology use through a reference in a newer paper. I discovered a presentation on exactly my topic at Autism Society of America because a blogger I follow helped give it. The reference list of a relevant paper (or links from a relevant blog post) makes a great resource when you're doing your own review, and it gets all the more valuable when finding work near your topic is hard.

Have you ever had trouble finding sources relevant to the topic you were reviewing? How did you handle it?

[Image by Flickr user Eddi and used under Creative Commons licensing.]

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