Epidemiology, General, Microbiology

Writing Great Research Questions: How To Find the Best Questions For Your Research Study

Author Chandana Balasubramanian, 11-11-2021

Table of contents

Finding a good research question can be incredibly stressful.

After all, it is the compass that guides your entire research process – from data gathering and analysis to reporting and publishing.

What are good research questions?

Good research questions must:

 – identify a relevant issue in your field,

 – pursue relatively unchartered research territories to address the problem, and

 – pique the interest of your professors and peers.

It may seem overwhelming at first, but following a step-by-step approach, like the one outlined below, can help.

Here’s how to write a research question in 5 steps.

 – Step 1: Pick a topic of interest

 – Step 2: Find your different perspective

 – Step 3: Check access to relevant research and data

 – Step 4: Write a strong research question

 – Step 5: Validate your research question

 

Coming Up With a Good Research Question With Post Its

Step 1: Pick broad topics for your research question

If you can pick any topic you like, select a topic that you care about. Even if you do not have complete freedom to choose your topic, evaluate if certain aspects or problems within the area that interest you.

For example, suppose you want to write about an emerging infectious disease. You could pick:

 – a specific pathogen to write about,

 – a novel way to treat the disease,

 – the potential for a vaccine, or

 – study the epidemiology of outbreaks worldwide or region-specific.

If you are interested in data science, you could evaluate different data models and compare how effective they are in predicting the spread or progression of a disease.

Do not worry about finalizing topics at this stage. Pick two (or three) topics to explore further.

 

Step 2: Find a different perspective for your study

A good research question needs to offer a unique perspective, approach, or insight into a topic.

However, finding the right research topic is a balancing act.

If a topic is already well-researched, it may be harder to differentiate and find an ‘unknown’ for you to address. On the other hand, if a topic is heavily under-researched, you may have difficulty finding the data you need.

Once you have your potential research topic areas (from step1), review journals and periodicals to evaluate:

 – What research already exists on your topic?

 – What are the controversies and hotly debated issues surrounding your topic?

 – What areas do the latest research (in the past five years) focus on?

Pro Tip for Inspiration:  Pay attention to the discussion section in journal articles to identify unsolved issues in your field. Focus on well-written, well-cited articles in peer-reviewed publications. Authors often list challenges they faced during their research and discuss issues in the field that remain unaddressed.

 

Step 3: Check your access to relevant research, data, and journals

You will need to rely on pre-existing primary and secondary research in your field for your work.

Make sure you verify if your library or department:

 – is subscribed to journals relevant to your topic,

 – can provide you access to required databases for your analysis, and

 – offers the analytical or simulation software you need.

For example, what if you want to learn if recent dengue outbreaks may turn into the next pandemic? Apart from publications, you need access to a comprehensive epidemiology database like GIDEON, the World Health Organization (WHO), or others. Depending on the type of study, you may also need access to technology for advanced statistical analysis, creating spatial or heat maps, and specific types of charts.

Step 4: Writing a good research question

There are 5 research question types:

– Exploration: These are questions that want to understand more about a certain topic a higher-level topic.

– Predictive: As the name suggests, these types of research questions attempt to interpret historical trends or user survey responses to predict future events or outcomes.

– Interpretive: This type of research observes behavior in a group of study subjects or a natural phenomenon as it exists without introducing any change. 

– Comparative: Comparative studies compare the differences in one or more groups performing against a specific set of variables.

– Relationship-based: A group of variables that are related to each other or influence each other in one or more ways, can be studied using a relationship-based research question [1].

These can be grouped into 3 categories of research questions – qualitative research questions, quantitative research questions, and mixed-method research questions.

How to write a quantitative research question

A quantitative research question is, as the term suggests, one that attempts to answer a problem with a quantitative solution. Studies that answer quantitative research questions are often data-driven and often involve statistical analytics or data science.

Quantitative research questions attempt to analyze and offer measurable results like:

 1) How much? How often? What percentage or proportion?

 2) What is the difference between one or more groups? 

 3) How does one variable affect or correlate with another? You are often evaluating the relationship between two or more variables.

How to write qualitative research questions

Qualitative research questions often do not have one clear answer. Their answers will be more descriptive. You will be debating, weighing, and analyzing various complex issues.

Remember, your research topic may be complex, but your research question must be concise, focused, and clear.

Qualitative research questions should be:

 – Concise and clear,

 – Specific and objective, not generic and open-ended, and 

 – Focused on answering a particular problem through a well-argued discussion.

So, take a look at the research question examples listed here.

Note: If you have a longer thesis or dissertation, you may have to find your overarching research question first, and break it down. 

A mixed-method, the third type of research question, uses both quantitative and qualitative data to address specific issues. This type of process is used to discuss more complex questions and often in new and emerging fields of research where there are several unknowns.

Step 5: Validate your research question

By the time most students get to step 5, you are exhausted from the effort of finding the right research question. This is why it is essential not to skip this step.

Run your research question by your research mentor, knowledgeable peer or seniors, or others in the field to get their thoughts. You can also ask someone who is not in your field of research for a fresh, outside perspective. 

Now, here are some examples of good and bad research questions.

Write this, not that: examples of bad, good, and great research questions

Bad: How many countries have lymphatic filariasis infections?

Good: How much have the incidence and prevalence rates of lymphatic filariasis changed across Southeast Asia in the past decade, and why?

Great: How have lymphatic filariasis control programs in Southeast Asia affected prevalence rates in the last decade?

Analysis: The bad question is too simple. The answer can be found in another research study or epidemiological database like GIDEON in the blink of an eye. The good question works because you are analyzing and reporting trends across various countries in a region. Additionally, you are providing insight into why changes have occurred over a specific timeframe of a decade. The great question helps the audience understand the ‘so what’ or relevance of your research. In this instance, you are not only analyzing trends but tying them to what people are most concerned about when it comes to infectious diseases – what worked and what didn’t.

***

Bad: Is hypertension dangerous? Or Why is hypertension dangerous?

Good: How does hypertension affect blood sugar levels?

Great: What is the effect of untreated hypertension on adults with type 2 diabetes mellitus?

Analysis: The bad question is too generic. The topic for the good question is current and relevant – there is considerable research into the factors affecting type 2 diabetics. The prevalence of both health conditions, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes is on the rise. This warrants more investigation. However, the question is still relatively open-ended. The great question narrows down the problem of the unchecked increase in blood pressure levels on a specific group of people – adults with type 2 diabetes.

***

Bad: How to stop the next pandemic?

Good: What were the most significant factors that turned a COVID-19 outbreak into a pandemic?

Great: How effective were U.S. policies in preventing the spread of COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) and its variants from March 2020- August 2021?

Analysis: The bad question is too generic and open-ended. The good question is related to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is a specific and current topic of interest globally. However, the great question dives down into a specific country’s COVID-19 policies during a relevant time period. As part of your background research, you will research the significant factors that helped COVID-19 turn from an outbreak to a pandemic and offer insight into what worked and what didn’t.  

***

Bad: Will the next pandemic be dengue?

Good: In what ways are recent dengue outbreaks a potential to be the next pandemic?

Great: In what ways do recent Dengue outbreaks in new regions indicate a high risk to become the next pandemic?

Analysis: The bad question can be answered with a yes or no. It is also more like the attention-grabbing title from a news outlet. The good question works because it states that there are recent dengue outbreaks, making the topic relevant and specific. Also, the question asks if a trend or pattern is connecting these outbreaks to a more widespread disaster. There is much scope for analysis and discussion. The great question adds more relevancy and urgency to the research. It talks about the fact that dengue outbreaks have spread to new regions. This makes it a cause for concern and could be a sign of a future pandemic.

 ***

Finding the right research question is often iterative. So, do not worry if you begin your research and find that you need to make changes. If you plan to submit your research to a journal or publication, please follow their rules and guidelines.

 

References

[1] Yourdictionary.com, “Types of Research Questions With Examples,” YourDictionary.com, [Online]. Available: https://examples.yourdictionary.com/types-of-research-questions-with-examples.html. [Accessed 10 11 2021].
Author
Chandana Balasubramanian

Chandana Balasubramanian is an experienced healthcare executive who writes on the intersection of healthcare and technology. She is the President of Global Insight Advisory Network, and has a Masters degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA.

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