Ingredients of a good research question

If you are a researcher undertaking research at some level in your career, you will likely be required to write a research question as a part of your research proposal. But what are the ingredients of a good research question? What are the elements or characteristics that make a research question good or bad? Why is identifying and developing a good research question such a big deal? If you have wondered any or all of the above, this article will help demystify your concerns surrounding a good research question and how to curate one.

What is a research question?

Let us start with the very obvious question you might be having in your mind as an early stage researcher- What is a research question anyway? How does it differ from a research topic? Ok, so let’s look into this first and foremost. A research topic is theme which broadly tells people about the area you work in. For instance, I am interested in mobile robotics which is a research theme, quite broad at this point and doesn’t exactly tell you what pain points do I address but we’ll get to that in a second. Similarly, someone could work in linguistics, agriculture, environmental monitoring, or any other research theme available out there. So, now let us understand what a research question is supposed to be. As I alluded to earlier, a research theme is quite broad whereas a research question narrows down the scope. The term “research question” is comprised of two words: research and question. So, it is essentially a question which guides the study in finding particular answers. Also, at this point you should know that there is no magic number to how many research questions a particular research study would have. It could have one or many depending upon the size and aim of the study. So, let us now try and understand what are the various types of research questions one could formulate.

What are the various types of research questions?

The nature of the research question or questions required by a research study are largely governed by the nature of the study itself. Depending on whether the research study is qualitative, quantitative or mixed, one can develop supporting research questions accordingly. So, let us look into each of these categories one by one:

Quantitative research questions

Quantitative research questions aim to obtain quantifiable data to approve or disprove a research hypothesis. These types of research questions can be further subdivided into following categories:

  • Descriptive research questions

    • Descriptive research questions “describe” or rather quantify the variables of interest in terms of percentages, ratios, frequencies, etc. to explain when, where, why or how a particular phenomena occurred
  • Comparative research questions

    • Comparative research questions “compare” or help to contrast between groups of dependent variables. Their complexity varies with how many dependent variables and measured quantities are being considered.
  • Relationship research questions

    • Relationship research questions aim at explaining the “relationship”, i.e., the nature of interaction between groups. This could be explained in terms of causality, associativity or even trends.

Qualitative research questions

Qualitative research questions are usually more flexible and open-ended in nature as opposed to Quantitative questions. As opposed to using quantifiable data and statistics, these type of research question rely more on surveys, case studies and focus groups. These questions can be further classified based as follows:

  • Exploratory research questions

    • Exploratory research questions aim at understanding and exploring more about a topic while keeping biases aside
  • Predictive research questions

    • Predictive research questions aim at finding out the future outcome of an action hence the name
  • Interpretive research questions

    • Interpretive research questions aim at understanding a group’s behavior in their natural setting 
  • Evaluative research questions

    • Evaluative research questions aim at evaluating the existing methods in terms of their effectiveness 
  • Generative research questions

    • Generative research questions aim at generating newer ideas for developing theories

Mixed-methods studies

As the name suggests, mixed-method studies are hybrid in nature meaning that they have both quantitative and qualitative components involved. In such cases, either the research could develop separate subsets of research question to cater to each component individually or a single mixed-method research question as a joint study of both components.

What are the ingredients of a good research question?

So, now let’s address the elephant in the room. What qualifies as a “good” research question? What are some crucial components a good research question must have. Here are some elements of a good research question though in no particular order:

 

  • Feasible: The research question should be feasible in the sense of time and funding- implementing the study, gathering and analyzing the data should be attainable within the timeframe and budget allocated to the study
  • Interesting: If you are the only one interested in the research question, then it isn’t the right question to go after. A good research question should attract the attention of key investigators and also the readers while presenting the findings
  • Novel: Needless to say that a good research question should lead to novel findings to an extent that it may open up further avenues to continue the research while resolving an existing gap in literature
  • Ethical: A good research question must be ethical and comply with all the local ethical norms set by the governing bodies
  • Relevant: A good research question is highly relevant and clearly answers the question why now? thereby establishing the urgency of conducting the study
  • Focused: A good research question focuses on one and only one problem at a time. In case of multiple research questions, while each of those should focus on one particular aspect of the problem, together they should all contribute to a focal theme of the research
  • Answerable: A research question needs data allowing the researcher to find evidence and answers to the question. Data could be quantitative or qualitative in nature and may come from primary or secondary sources. But, if the data itself in inaccessible then the research question is unanswerable and must be recalibrated.
  • Specific: A good research question uses specific terms and does not leave parts of it open to interpretation by others.
  • Complex: The research question should not be so narrow/simple that one could wrap up with a Yes/No answer or simply search for it on Google. It should be complex enough that there is room for a debate allowing you to interpret and present the findings with evidence. Also, be sure that your question does not result in opinions or action plans. Research is about interpretation and not drawing up instruction manuals.
  • Moat: Ever seen or heard of deep wide ditches filled with water surrounding castles (sometimes even with wild alligators)? Just like those are meant as a defense mechanism, in research too, you would want to maintain a competitive advantage over your peers. Often, the PhD students worry about somebody else beating them to the punch because the “publish or perish” dilemma is very real but if your research question offers you a solid moat, you can maintain the lead. 

What are the steps to develop a good research question?

There isn’t really one particular way to approach the curation of a research question. But this approach we are about to discuss serves more like a framework to guide your thoughts. Here is how it works.

I normally refer to this framework as the outside-in approach and here are the steps it entails:

Step-1: Select a broad topic or research theme

The reason for keeping it broad at this stage is to give you ample opportunities to pick and choose from multiple research questions which we will get to in the coming steps. Let us understand this with an example of the 2 sip test: Imagine you are explaining what research you do to your grandma but here is the catch- she is neither skilled in your domain so you can’t throw jargon at her and she has 2 sips of tea (or coffee) left in her cup. You need to finish your explanation before she finishes her 2 sips and hence the name. This will serve as a motivation statement for what you do and wouldn’t necessarily cover how you do it.

Step-2: Thoroughly survey the literature

Now that you know your broad theme, it is imperative to understand what has already been done by your peers. In our previous article on 5 questions to ask yourself if you want a PhD we looked into one of the soft skills of planning and managing the literature review database which will be very handy for this step. You don’t want to base your research on guesstimates only to find that you were trying to reinvent the wheel or have you beaten to the punch by someone else. For this, you clearly need to identify who you are likely going to compete with, what is their current area of focus and what are some research gaps in their approach.

Step-3: Develop and score multiple potential research questions

Now is the time when you will start to make the most of your research gap analysis. Basically, you already have made some notes from Step-2 and identified what people have missed at this time. So, you can likely swoop in and contribute to plug those gaps. This is done by formulating good research questions around the gaps with an aim to either extend or complement what your peers have already presented and published. At this stage, I normally like to formulate multiple potential research questions and jot them down in a table. The idea here is that you don’t necessarily know the impact of each individual research question especially if you are an early stage researcher. So, you would want to have multiple candidate questions and then score them based on potential impact on or relevance to your field. Then depending on the scope of your study, you can either pick top 1 or top N questions from your sorted list for which you might need some help from your seniors too.

Step 4: Identify key assumptions

Based on your literature review in the Step-2, you might have already come across some common assumptions made by your peers. Make a note of these and also cross-check with your own candidate research questions to see if there are any additional assumptions you would need to make. At this time, you open up yet another avenue of finding potential research questions to complement Step-3 and it is called problematization. Here, you aim is to identify certain set of assumptions that others have made but you can challenge. Like this, you can set yourself up for developing more influential and robust research finding that rely on well thought through and relevant assumptions.

Step-5: Rinse & repeat to ensure you have the essential ingredients

Once you are done preparing a candidate research question database and have scored them, make sure that each of your candidates has the necessary ingredients of a good research question. Then, rinse and repeat until you cannot improve the quality of your research questions anymore. Once you reach this stage, you are ready to cherry pick the one or few research question that would become the guiding principles of your upcoming research study. In case you end up selecting multiple research questions, there might be some you could work on in parallel while others might be causal in nature. If this is the case, I usually recommend my mentees to prepare a block diagram as the connecting arrows will make it ample clear about such dependencies helping you to plan your work carefully.

Step-6: Evaluate publication potential

While some might consider this as an optional step, I normally ask my mentees to take this step as a crucial step towards evaluating the quality of the research question. At this stage, you are trying to see, if you were to find interesting answers to your research questions, could you publish your findings and if so where? You could potentially see the nature of impact since a conference submission may have slightly lesser impact compared to a journal article and so on. So, the bigger the publication potential the more are the chances of it being a good research question. Though, take this with a grain of salt as some conference venue these days are valued at par with top tier journals but this analysis is mostly for internal reference. Additionally, if you do end up making the block diagram from Step-5 you can assign these potential publication venues as milestones so you can get the big picture of the overall research contributions.

Key takeaways

Developing a good research question is a painstaking process and requires time and patience. Cutting corners when developing research question(s) may lead to significant frustration and even failures down the line so it is imperative that one does this process diligently. There are few crucial ingredients of a good research question as we saw in this article and there is no magic number to how many research question would a study need- it is governed by the nature of study itself. We also saw that there can be various types of research questions- quantitative, qualitative and mixed so be sure to select their category in line with your target study. Once you have successfully found your research questions, you are ready to write a research proposal to seek approval to getting started with the actual research work.