How To Write a Research Question

How To Write a Research Question
The guidance in this post explains the challenging process of writing an excellent research question and provides several examples of the key principles for success. The assistance will be especially welcome to scholarly authors who are still learning how to report their original research in text. Although research questions vary widely, the best questions are clear and informative, providing a concise and directed overview of the research. They are also specific, complex and debatable, defining the inquiry, determining the logic of the document and demanding more than a simple factual answer.

The example questions I offer among my explanations below are entirely fictional, the products of imagination designed to demonstrate the principles behind an excellent research question. A real research question must, of course, be based on active research and represent the author’s goals and ideas. It should serve to focus the researcher’s perspective and guide his or her research; it should identify specific variables and influence the research methodology; it should affect the researcher’s interpretations, conclusions and implications, and ultimately shape the argument of the research document. Taking the time to get both the content and the wording of a research question just right is therefore imperative regardless of the kind of academic or scientific document intended or its scope and length.
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How to Design, Develop & Write a Research Question
In order to write an effective research question for an academic or scientific document, the author must first choose a topic or general research area that is appropriate for the purpose and target audience of the document. A topic that is personally interesting to the researcher will prove more enjoyable than one that is not and will also make the formulation of an engaging and meaningful question a good deal easier. A little preliminary research to determine the current state of study and debate on the topic is advisable and will offer an opportunity to brainstorm simple questions based on the problems and issues that arise from reading the published scholarship. Let us say, for instance, that a researcher is interested in artificial lighting and has two different topics in mind:
A. The effect of outdoor lighting on wild birds.
B. The use of indoor lighting to grow plants.

While reading about these general topics in a critical and reflective manner, the researcher will ideally arrive at a simple question for each that begins to focus his or her research intentions:
A. How does outdoor lighting affect wild birds?
B. What type of indoor lighting is best for growing plants?
Either of these questions constitutes a sound beginning, but both are still far too broad and general, leaving a great deal of room for ambiguity and open interpretation, neither of which is constructive in a research question.

Whichever question the researcher chooses for further attention will therefore require some development through the addition of specific details to define the research more clearly and narrow the project to fit the document the author intends to write, whether that is a long book, a journal article or a short class essay. In question A, for example, the specific type of lighting, the location of the lights and the kind of wild bird could be added:
A. How do the street lights of Oceanside City affect wild puffins?
Question B, on the other hand, could specify particular types of lighting to be considered as well as the type of plants grown:
B. Is fluorescent, metal halide or LED lighting best for growing tomatoes indoors?

Both questions now offer a clearer picture of the intended research, but they also describe very large projects, so a little more detail is necessary to indicate exactly what the researcher will be observing or measuring, particularly if a short research paper is the goal. In question A, for instance, a specific behaviour of puffins that the researcher will be considering in relation to the street lights could be indicated:
A. How do the street lights of Oceanside City affect the migratory habits of wild puffins?
For a similar focus in question B, a particular group or type of tomatoes could be specified, and in this case defining exactly what is meant by that word ‘best’ would be advisable:
B. Does fluorescent, metal halide or LED lighting produce the most fruit for the lowest cost when growing cherry tomatoes indoors?
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The refinement and complication of a research question via the addition of specific details can be virtually endless. More than one kind of outdoor lighting or the lights of more than one city might be considered in question A, for instance, or the flight of young puffins could perhaps be compared to that of mature puffins. Question B, on the other hand, could indicate a comparative study of several types of tomatoes or consideration of specific characteristics of the lighting systems such as wattage, light spectrum and durability. Specifics of this kind will often focus a research question further and continue to narrow the range of the project as a whole, but it is important to remember that simply adding more variables tends instead to increase the number of relationships considered, making the project more expansive and resulting in a longer research document. For example, focussing exclusively in question B on which form of lighting produces the most vitamin C in indoor cherry tomatoes might establish a suitably narrow topic for a short journal paper or class essay, but measuring vitamin C content along with individual fruit size, shape and seed counts, time to maturity, total output of different plants and other variables would make for a very long study more suited to a monograph than an article or essay.

Whatever shape a research question ultimately takes, it is essential that it achieve a certain level of complexity. A question for which a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer suffices will not do. An effective question should raise or address an arguable point or issue, and answering it should necessitate the current research and guide the analysis, interpretation and discussion that constitute a sound academic or scientific argument. In addition, both answer and argument will only be valid and valuable if the question can be answered in a convincing manner via the research methods used, so the methodology for a project must always be considered and either adopted or designed with the research question in mind. Finally, the language of a successful research question should be both precise and concise, so each word must be chosen with extreme care, phrasing should convey exact meanings and intentions, and anything potentially confusing or simply extraneous must be eliminated.

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If you are in the process of preparing an article for an academic or scientific journal, or planning one for the near future, you may well be interested in a new book, Guide to Journal Publication, which is available on our Tips and Advice on Publishing Research in Journals website.

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