TL;DR Science: Research Questions

By John Sutor
June 17, 2020 · 6 minute read

One of the guiding principles of all scientific research is questioning everything, from what we don’t know what we believe we already know. This intrinsic need to question

What is a Research Question?

A research question is a question that guides the course of a research project. It allows a researcher to understand what direction to take their work in by giving them an overarching question to answer. 

How do I Create a Research Question? 

Though we wish it was, coming up with a research question isn’t as simple as having a quick brainstorming session to come up with potential research topics. In fact, the process of creating a research question is a lot more involved and requires quite a bit of time to investigate. Nonetheless, this is ultimately time well spent because of how important it is to have a good research question. 

The first step, and possibly the simplest, is to think about a research area that interests you. If you plan on carrying out an entire research project, it’s important that you first have a vested interest in the topic that you plan to examine. There’s no need to only “chase the clout” when it comes to a research question since working on a project that you’re not very passionate about in the first place will ultimately only hurt your research. 

This next step will really test your Googling and Database navigation skills: the literature review. Having a solid understanding of the field that you plan on conducting research is crucial to picking out a research question that passes FINERMAPS (more on that later). Therefore, it’s extremely important to read through lots of research in your field of interest. A great way to approach this is by reading 20-30 papers, taking detailed notes on each. Once done, Read through your notes and identify common themes. Also, take note of where different papers disagree. Based on your findings, you can better create a research question that is relevant to your field, while simultaneously making sure that your research is interesting, novel, and relevant. 

Finally, it’s time to evaluate your research question. The perfect research question is neither too broad nor too narrow in scope. As long as your question can ultimately be answered through a presentation of relevant evidence, you’re on the right track. Next, we’ll discuss how to examine just how “good” your research question is. 

What Makes a Good Research Question?

Long story short, FINERMAPS. This acronym stands for Feasible, Interesting, Novel, Ethical, Relevant, Manageable, Appropriate, Publishability, and Systematic. Phew, that’s a mouthful. Nonetheless, this lengthy acronym provides us with some very valuable insight on how to make sure that your research question is one worth pursuing. 

When it comes to being feasible, make sure that what your project sets out to do can actually be done. If you’re limited in the number of resources available to you, it may be best to reconsider your project and the question that it aims to offer. That being said, be sure to check out the rest of our website to find resources that are available to you.

 It’s also important to have an interesting research question, otherwise, it’s very unlikely that anyone will pay attention to your research. As we stated previously, make sure that your project has some form of hype around it while simultaneously making sure that it is interesting to you. This goes hand in hand with creating a novel research question since nearly all of the greatest research projects ever were inherently interesting because they proposed novel ideas.

Another often overlooked criterion for your research question is making sure that it is one that is ethical. There are no overarching “rules” to make sure that your project is ethical, though each field of science has its own considerations for what is to be considered ethical. A good rule of thumb is to say that if your research harms anyone or anything, please, don’t do it. 

Having a relevant research question further emphasizes the previous points of being novel and interesting, since it will require you to understand the current state of your research’s subject area. We discussed earlier that one of the best ways to achieve this is to dig into the literature of papers within the field you plan on conducting research in. 

A research question being manageable is very closely related to its feasibility. This comes down to what you’re hoping to achieve with your research given your own constraints. Time is one of the biggest constraints when it comes to whether a research project is manageable or not, so be honest with yourself, your peers, and your advisor about your ability to take on the task of conducting scientific research based on the research question you choose.

The appropriateness of your research question has to do with how appropriate your question is for your field scientifically and logically. This mostly means making sure that your question actually applies to the subject at hand, and can be answered logically with supporting evidence.

Publishability can be interchanged with Potential, depending on whether you are conducting research at a pre-collegiate level or at the collegiate level. This examines whether your research question is something that other researchers will find interesting as well. Though you may be very passionate about digging into a question due to personal interest, if you want fame and glory, this cannot be your sole reason for investigating a topic of your choosing. But hey, if you have no interest in the superstar scientist status, by all means, pursue that question! 

Finally, a systematic research question is one that can be pursued in a systematic approach. Since science is all about replicability, you have to have a project with a clearly defined method so that others can achieve similar results to your own. Sending your readers on a wild goose chase will do nothing to help your cause, so be sure to take into account whether your research question will ultimately lead to a project with replicable results. 

Wow, that was a lot. Just remember, FINERMAPS. Or don’t remember it, just remember the link to this post. Memorize something cooler instead, like the first 100 digits of pi. If you’re still unsure whether your research question is good, post it on our site and get feedback from other students and scientists on how you can improve! We’re here to help, and you can get started now by signing up. 

TL;DR

A research question guides your research project by providing an overarching prompt that your work aims to address. Creating a research question involves an extensive literature review before you can determine a relevant question to ask. To make sure that your research question is good, be sure it satisfies the requirements of the acronym FINERMAPS.

Sources

https://writingcenter.gmu.edu/guides/how-to-write-a-research-question

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6322175/

https://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/resources/bioethics/whatis/index.cfm

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