How to Choose and Formulate Research Questions for Studies that Get Cited

The research process answers important questions; so, choosing and formulating your research question is the beginning and most fundamental part of any research project.

Whether for a master’s thesis, PhD dissertation, or research you’ll submit to a journal for publication, your research question guides you. It justifies why you’re doing the work, both to others and as a reminder to yourself.

This article walks you through the process of creating a research question. You’ll the different types of research question, good and bad examples, and recommended steps to prepare yours.

What is a research question?

A research question is what your research will confirm or test, and what it will then answer. It’s the specific inquiry that your study will answer.

What your research question does

It also has a number of functions. Your research question:

  • Narrows down your topic from the infinite other possible questions to a specific topic of concern
  • Guides what sources you’ll use
  • Suggests how you’ll structure your argument
  • Directly informs your hypothesis (what you initially, based on previous evidence, expect as a result)

It’s also dynamic; it can change. As your study progresses, you may find you want (or need) to adjust your question.

That’s perfectly OK.

But all research questions aren’t the same. There are different types. As the pilot of your research, you can choose from among them.

Different kinds of research questions

Different studies have different objectives. Some seek breakthroughs based on great new ideas. Some will build on previous work. Some want to speculate while others want to clarify what’s going on.

Descriptive

The most fundamental type of research question is a descriptive question.

This is where you present data or observations to describe something.

  • What is the speed of x?
  • How many of x are present in area y?
  • What is the solubility of the new drug x?

Descriptive questions will be personally interesting for you, the researcher. The trick here is to see the bigger picture.

Ensure that the basic, descriptive questions you seek to answer are actually going to have some relevance to others, inside and hopefully outside your field. That’s the type of research that will be read and cited.

Example:

“How many, and which, species of butterfly in the family Pieridae are present in the Chocó–Darién moist forests of eastern Colombia?”

For a butterfly biologist or ecologist, this is interesting. But outside of this quite-specific research area, this question holds little interest.

So, while it may appeal to other lepidopterists (butterfly researchers), there is little for any other researchers to cite or build on.

The study may get published in a low-impact specialized journal because it has so little impact. If you aren’t recognized and cited, it will be harder to you to get support and funding for studying more of your questions.

But you can reframe your question a little, for much more impact:

“How has climate warming affected butterfly species numbers and composition over the last 50 years in Colombia?”

Now you’ve taken a purely descriptive question and put in much wider contexts (climate change and geography) means that the work immediately becomes more interesting to a wider readership group (and therefore has a better chance of higher impact publication).

This is a great way to think about your own research and how to formulate questions.

Descriptive research questions in action

“The decline of butterflies in Europe: Problems, significance, and possible solutions”

This was the title of an article in PNAS. The descriptive question, then, is: “What are the problems, significance, solution for the decline in butterflies in Europe?”

It’s a pretty simple question at face value. But it’s hard to answer because it needs so much data, which then need to be placed and analyzed along a time axis.

The authors collated existing data from standard sources and presented a series of simple conservation solutions.

The answer to their question is yes – there has been a considerable decline in butterfly species numbers over time across Europe. Then they tackled the significance and solutions.

“Trial of Intensive Blood-Pressure Control in Older Patients with Hypertension”

This was one we edited at Edanz. Read it here.

The study assigned Chinese patients with hypertension aged 60–80 years to a systolic blood pressure target. This analysis/question + response, was purely descriptive in scope and was successfully published in the elite (impact factor 74) journal, The New England Journal of Medicine.

It’s an interesting and very relevant question and has clear and immediate clinical relevance. It can be compared with other studies in different populations, and it can be extended in the same way.

The topic, naturally, as a global concern, can also attract attention from across the clinical and social sciences.

That’s good research from a good descriptive question, and it was justifiably rewarded. The authors performed well in their field, gained prestige, and increased their publication output.

Sometimes, though, we want to look to the future. Anticipating what may happen is another immensely valuable motivation for a researcher.

Speculative

Speculative research questions are often called “blue sky research.” Thinking outside of the box. They may result from great research ideas that come from seemingly out of nowhere. Because they’re so novel, they are also the hardest to justify, fund, and get off to the ground. And perhaps the most rewarding.

  • What happens if I do x instead of y?
  • Why is this problem x so prevalent in area y?
  • No one’s tried the x approach for x yet. Why on Earth not?

For this reason, speculative research questions often end up getting tested on a whim, or by accident. Once you have some data, and some answers, it’s often possible to reformulate these kinds of questions so they do address something of clear interest to journals and prospective readers.

Speculation helps refine our questions and ask more inventive questions with our research.

Ironically, this kind of work is often the most productive in terms of opening up new questions or new areas of research.

Some results that address a speculative research question are also great for grant applications: You’re able to show that a new direction will in fact lead to something. This is often exactly what funding agencies are looking for, rather than “more of the same”, “run of the mill” research.

Example

Here’s another one that passed through the hands of our expert editors.

“Comparison of Surgical Outcomes Between Two Types of Lamellar Macular Holes”

This speculative research question simply seeks to understand the difference in outcomes between two different forms of degenerative eye conditions. Its descriptive in its impartially looking at what happens. Yet it leads to speculation, and valuable continued research.

Case studies in medical research are very often speculative and fit within this kind of question setting. You don’t know WHY a piece of research is interesting until after the work or study is complete.

Read the article here (don’t worry, it’s open access).

Someone should be trying out these great ideas. Why not you? But perhaps we have a more specific idea of what will happen. Or perhaps someone else has put forth a theory and you want to take it up as a challenge. Read on.

Interrogative hypothesis-testing

Interrogative research questions seek to test a hypothesis that you’ve postulated yourself oer another researcher has.

Often in research, a hypothesis is stated at the start, and then data (qualitative or quantitative) are collected to test the question. A null hypothesis assumes a hypothesis can’t be supported.

So when posing interrogative questions, it’s also important to think about how these might be testable. What kind of data would need to be collected in your work to present a significant interrogation of the hypothesis.

Here’s an award-winning example of an interrogative hypothesis-based research question from the University of Michigan:

“Grandparenthood, Grandparenting, and Working Longer: Do the Genders of Grandparent and of Grandchild’s Parent Matter?” (source)

This study assessed the effects of ability and time available to work given that older people are increasingly called on to take care of their grandchildren.

A further example and one we edited:

“Should compression bandage be performed after total knee arthroplasty? A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials” (source)

Critical/Improvement-based

Critical research questions are usually formulated in response to existing work.

You might read something written in another academic article and disagree. You might already have data, or know how to collect data, that enable you to be critical of a research question from an earlier work.

This might be taken up in a commentary, as explained in Berterö (2016).

A key here is to remain positive in how you formulate the critical research question. No one likes to read overly negative “attack” papers, nor are they good for your career.

Remain positive even if you do need to strongly criticize others’ work. That’s why these are also caused “improvement-based” questions, as they seek to do better.

Good and bad research questions

In graduate school, your supervisor/chair/etc. should be guiding you on formulating a good question. But as a post-doc or a career researcher, you may lack that immediate criticism. These are general guidelines for how to make good questions (and how not to).

What makes a good research question?

A good research question effectively guides your work, or at least gets it going, and maybe you’ll modify it later.

Your question should be clear and focused. It should use existing literature to present a unique hypothesis. 

You can use all these devices to come up with a good question:

  • Base your research question on existing knowledge in your field of study
  • Relate your question to problems that people face daily
  • Discuss your proposed question with your colleagues and project supervisors to refine it
  • Focus your question. Make it specific.
  • Consider if you’ll be able to answer that question within your given time and resources.

Also consider:

  • Is your research question an important one? (we’ll explain how to evaluate this)
  • Are your findings useful? (will other researchers, ideally from a range of different disciplines, need to use and apply the outcomes of your study?)
  • Is your research ethical?

Example

“Does quetiapine increase the effects of moderate alcohol consumption on short-term memory?”

In this well-formulated, precise research question the kind of influence being investigated is clear. It’s also clear what kind of data will need to be collected (and how), so that you can address the question.

What makes a bad research question?

Now we’ve built it, let’s knock it over and see how to make it a bad research question.

Anticipates a simple answer, a yes or no

It’s too simple. It’s not nuanced at all.

It’s hard to anticipate how you might collect data bearing on this question. Also, generally obvious given the leading nature of the question.

Example

“Is drinking alcohol a bad idea if you are also taking antipsychotic drugs?”

Uses loaded, vague, or argumentative terms

It leaves the reader in no doubt of the author’s opinion at the outset. It makes strong, contentious claims.

“Does drinking alcohol badly harm health when taken concurrently with antipsychotic drugs”

With some rewording and evidence, this could be the start of a hypothesis, but it’s not a good research question.

Unfocused

The kind of relationship being investigated isn’t clear. Again, it’s hard to determine what kind of data collection would be relevant to test this question.

Example

“What is the relationship between antipsychotics and alcohol?”

There are many types of relationships, antipsychotics, and alcohol. Not to mention populations that take them.

Ties things down too much, looks for too much detail

Too specific, requires the exact collection of data to answer a question that is not broad enough to be appealing to more than just a handful of other researchers working directly in the same field.

Example

“What is the cumulative effect on GABA of drinking Old Grandma whiskey and the effects of the quetiapine in never-married men aged 31-34 in Kamloops, Canada”

Indeed, the findings might be interesting, but how can anyone cite or extend something so specific?

Steps to take to formulate your research question

So then, we’ve laid out the types of research questions, and good and bad examples. Now let’s start formulating.

1. Do the background work

Typically, research question formulation starts with reading. And more reading.

To create a research question that will make a new contribution to the literature and keep your field moving forward, you must read extensively on the topic.

You already know your general research area – this is your broad area of interest, be it animal biology, organic chemistry, or contemporary Chinese literature.

Often, your own interests have already determined your topic of research. Otherwise you wouldn’t be working as a researcher.

Start broad enough, within your field.

Literature searches

Literature searches for existing data on compound characteristics can help you streamline or redirect your own research, saving you countless hours.

Relying on such third-party data has traditionally required attention to its origin. You do this by verifying peer review status, replicability, clearly identifiable compound characteristics, fit with other established research, and consideration of alternative conclusions.

Modern databases typically have done a lot of this vetting for you. Note that each journal may have guidelines or standard practices for citing or incorporating received compound data, which may shape how you conduct and document your literature search.

In large databases, like Scopus and Web of Science, you can try special publisher repositories.

Online journal subscribers can sign up for email alerts for databases such as Google and PubMed, and from journal publishers. These e-mails provide titles and links to relevant new articles as they are published online. Using this approach, it is easy to acquire articles by simply clicking on titles of interest and downloading them to your computer or mobile device.

Check preprints as well, to see immediately trending topics.

Attend conferences and seminars

This is a great way to keep up with the latest research developments, understand what’s being studied, and identify what knowledge is missing in your field.

This knowledge can help you formulate your research question. Exciting or controversial topics are often presented, and there are opportunities to speak with peers and experts.

If you have the chance, present your unpublished results (usually in poster form) at a conference and encourage people you meet to give you feedback on your presentation.

The way others respond to your work will be a good indicator of how much (or how little) your future manuscript will appeal to others.

If you present your work at a conference and it gains little attention, compare your topic with topics that attracted greater interest. How do they differ? Can you adjust your topic to focus more on current trends?

If your study doesn’t attract the attention of your peers at a conference, your article will be less likely to be published, or to be read and cited if it is published.

2. Identify a knowledge gap

Thorough research within, and around, your topic will lead to a number of ideas for potential future investigations. These so-called knowledge gaps are questions and new directions that will likely lead to new results that fill the gaps in your area.

The question is: Where to focus your energy and resources? Which gap should you try to fill?

This comes with experience. Senior researchers have had the chance to practice more, often through trial and error, which areas to focus their attention. If you don’t have that background, you can offset it.

Talk to colleagues, discuss with your peers, and ask for feedback from supervisors and other senior researchers to determine which gaps are going to be better use of your time than others.

Which questions are more interesting? More fundamental? Non-trivial? Likely to result in higher impact publications?

3. Formulate your effective research question

By this point, you probably have a list of candidate questions.

As we’ve discussed, when you start to formulate your research question, it’s important to consider:

  • What’s the problem to be solved?
  • Who cares about this problem and why?
  • What have others done?
  • What’s your solution to the problem?
  • How can you demonstrate that your solution is a good one?

When formulating your research question, remember the handy F.I.N.E.R. criteria (Hulley et al., 2007). Thus, is your research question:

  • Feasible: Do you have enough time, staff, and funding?
  • Interesting: Will people be curious about your study?
  • Novel: Have you done a careful literature search to find a knowledge gap?
  • Ethical: Have you used a design method reviewers will approve of?
  • Relevant: Will your work advance scientific practice or policy?

Good luck and happy questioning!

Whether you need help with formulating your question, doing research, critically analyzing your work, or refining the language before submission, we have services to help you succeed. Explore Edanz Research Services here.

You can also ramp up your knowledge on every step of the research process by signing up for the Edanz Learning Lab for free. If you haven’t already, sign up here.

Access courses, tools, and infographics, like this one on mastering the F.I.N.E.R. approach:

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