Written by Scribendi
So, you've got a research grant in your sights or you've been admitted to your school of choice, and you now have to write up a proposal for the work you want to perform. You know your topic, have done some reading, and you've got a nice quiet place where nobody will bother you while you try to decide where you'll go from here. The question looms:
What Is a Research Question?
Your research question will be your focus, the sentence you refer to when you need to remember why you're researching. It will encapsulate what drives you and be something your field needs an answer for but doesn't have yet.
Whether it seeks to describe a phenomenon, compare things, or show how one variable influences another, a research question always does the same thing: it guides research that will be judged based on how well it addresses the question.
So, what makes a research question good or bad? This article will provide examples of good and bad research questions and use them to illustrate both of their common characteristics so that you can evaluate your research question and improve it to suit your needs.
How to Choose a Research Question
At the start of your research paper, you might be wondering, "What is a good research question?"
A good research question focuses on one researchable problem relevant to your subject area.
To write a research paper, first make sure you have a strong, relevant topic. Then, conduct some preliminary research around that topic. It's important to complete these two initial steps because your research question will be formulated based on this research.
With this in mind, let's review the steps that help us write good research questions.
1. Select a Relevant Topic
When selecting a topic to form a good research question, it helps to start broad. What topics interest you most? It helps when you care about the topic you're researching!
Have you seen a movie recently that you enjoyed? How about a news story? If you can't think of anything, research different topics on Google to see which ones intrigue you the most and can apply to your assignment.
Also, before settling on a research topic, make sure it's relevant to your subject area or to society as a whole. This is an important aspect of developing your research question, because, in general, your research should add value to existing knowledge.
2. Thoroughly Research the Topic
Now that you've chosen a broad but relevant topic for your paper, research it thoroughly to see which avenues you might want to explore further.
For example, let's say you decide on the broad topic of search engines. During this research phase, try skimming through sources that are unbiased, current, and relevant, such as academic journals or sources in your university library.
Pay close attention to the subtopics that come up during research, such as the following: Which search engines are the most commonly used? Why do some search engines dominate specific regions? How do they really work or affect the research of scientists and scholars?
Be on the lookout for any gaps or limitations in the research. Identifying the groups or demographics that are most affected by your topic is also helpful, in case that's relevant to your work.
3. Narrow Your Topic to a Single Point
Now that you've spent some time researching your broad topic, it's time to narrow it down to one specific subject. A topic like search engines is much too broad to develop a research paper around. What specifically about search engines could you explore?
When refining your topic, be careful not to be either too narrow or too broad. You can ask yourself the following questions during this phase:
Can I cover this topic within the scope of my paper, or would it require longer, heavier research? (In this case, you'd need to be more specific.)
Conversely, is there not enough research about my topic to write a paper? (In this case, you'd need to be broader.)
Keep these things in mind as you narrow down your topic. You can always expand your topic later if you have the time and research materials.
4. Identify a Problem Related to Your Topic
When narrowing down your topic, it helps to identify a single issue or problem on which to base your research. Ask open-ended questions, such as why is this topic important to you or others? Essentially, have you identified the answer to "so what"?
For example, after asking these questions about our search engine topic, we might focus only on the issue of how search engines affect research in a specific field. Or, more specifically, how search engine algorithms manipulate search results and prevent us from finding the critical research we need.
Asking these "so what" questions will help us brainstorm examples of research questions we can ask in our field of study.
5. Turn Your Problem into a Question
Now that you have your main issue or problem, it's time to write your research question. Do this by reviewing your topic's big problem and formulating a question that your research will answer.
For example, ask, "so what?" about your search engine topic. You might realize that the bigger issue is that you, as a researcher, aren't getting the relevant information you need from search engines.
How can we use this information to develop a research question? We might phrase the research question as follows:
"What effect does the Google search engine algorithm have on online research conducted in the field of neuroscience?"
Note how specific we were with the type of search engine, the field of study, and the research method. It's also important to remember that your research question should not have an easy yes or no answer. It should be a question with a complex answer that can be discovered through research and analysis.
Perfect your paper.
How to Find Good Research Topics for Your Research
It can be fun to browse a myriad of research topics for your paper, but there are a few important things to keep in mind.
First, make sure you've understood your assignment. You don't want to pick a topic that's not relevant to the assignment goal. Your instructor can offer good topic suggestions as well, so if you get stuck, ask them!
Next, try to search for a broad topic that interests you. Starting broad gives you more options to work with. Some research topic examples include infectious diseases, European history, and smartphones.
Then, after some research, narrow your topic to something specific by extracting a single element from that subject. This could be a current issue on that topic, a major question circulating around that topic, or a specific region or group of people affected by that topic.
It's important that your research topic is focused. Focus lets you clearly demonstrate your understanding of the topic with enough details and examples to fit the scope of your project.
For example, if Jane Austen is your research topic, that might be too broad for a five-page paper! However, you could narrow it down to a single book by Austen or a specific perspective.
To keep your research topic focused, try creating a mind map. This is where you put your broad topic in a circle and create a few circles around it with similar ideas that you uncovered during your research.
Mind maps can help you visualize the connections between topics and subtopics. This could help you simplify the process of eliminating broad or uninteresting topics or help you identify new relationships between topics that you didn't previously notice.
Keeping your research topic focused will help you when it comes to writing your research question!
A researchable question should have enough available sources to fill the scope of your project without being overwhelming. If you find that the research is never-ending, you're going to be very disappointed at the end of your paper—because you won't be able to fit everything in! If you are in this fix, your research question is still too broad.
Search for your research topic's keywords in trusted sources such as journals, research databases, or dissertations in your university library. Then, assess whether the research you're finding is feasible and realistic to use.
If there's too much material out there, narrow down your topic by industry, region, or demographic. Conversely, if you don't find enough research on your topic, you'll need to go broader. Try choosing two works by two different authors instead of one, or try choosing three poems by a single author instead of one.
Make sure that the topic for your research question is a reasonable one to pursue. This means it's something that can be completed within your timeframe and offers a new perspective on the research.
Research topics often end up being summaries of a topic, but that's not the goal. You're looking for a way to add something relevant and new to the topic you're exploring. To do so, here are two ways to uncover strong, reasonable research topics as you conduct your preliminary research:
Check the ends of journal articles for sections with questions for further discussion. These make great research topics because they haven't been explored!
Check the sources of articles in your research. What points are they bringing up? Is there anything new worth exploring? Sometimes, you can use sources to expand your research and more effectively narrow your topic.
For your research topic to stand on its own, it should be specific. This means that it shouldn't be easily mistaken for another topic that's already been written about.
If you are writing about a topic that has been written about, such as consumer trust, it should be distinct from everything that's been written about consumer trust so far.
There is already a lot of research done on consumer trust in specific products or services in the US. Your research topic could focus on consumer trust in products and services in a different region, such as a developing country.
If your research feels similar to existing articles, make sure to drive home the differences.
Whether it's developed for a thesis or another assignment, a good research topic question should be complex enough to let you expand on it within the scope of your paper.
For example, let's say you took our advice on researching a topic you were interested in, and that topic was a new Bridezilla reality show. But when you began to research it, you couldn't find enough information on it, or worse, you couldn't find anything scholarly.
In short, Bridezilla reality shows aren't complex enough to build your paper on. Instead of broadening the topic to all reality TV shows, which might be too overwhelming, you might consider choosing a topic about wedding reality TV shows specifically.
This would open you up to more research that could be complex enough to write a paper on without being too overwhelming or narrow.
Because research papers aim to contribute to existing research that's already been explored, the relevance of your topic within your subject area can't be understated.
Your research topic should be relevant enough to advance understanding in a specific area of study and build on what's already been researched. It shouldn't duplicate research or try to add to it in an irrelevant way.
For example, you wouldn't choose a research topic like malaria transmission in Northern Siberia if the mosquito that transmits malaria lives in Africa. This research topic simply isn't relevant to the typical location where malaria is transmitted, and the research could be considered a waste of resources.
Do Research Questions Differ between the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Hard Sciences?
The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge.
First, a bit of clarification: While there are constants among research questions, no matter what you're writing about, you will use different standards for the humanities and social sciences than for hard sciences, such as chemistry. The former depends on subjectivity and the perspective of the researcher, while the latter requires answers that must be empirically tested and replicable.
For instance, if you research Charles Dickens' writing influences, you will have to explain your stance and observations to the reader before supporting them with evidence. If you research improvements in superconductivity in room-temperature material, the reader will not only need to understand and believe you but also duplicate your work to confirm that you are correct.
Do Research Questions Differ between the Different Types of Research?
Research questions help you clarify the path your research will take. They are answered in your research paper and usually stated in the introduction.
There are two main types of research—qualitative and quantitative.
If you're conducting quantitative research, it means you're collecting numerical, quantifiable data that can be measured, such as statistical information.
Qualitative research aims to understand experiences or phenomena, so you're collecting and analyzing non-numerical data, such as case studies or surveys.
The structure and content of your research question will change depending on the type of research you're doing. However, the definition and goal of a research question remains the same: a specific, relevant, and focused inquiry that your research answers.
Below, we'll explore research question examples for different types of research.
Comparative research questions are designed to determine whether two or more groups differ based on a dependent variable. These questions allow researchers to uncover similarities and differences between the groups tested.
Because they compare two groups with a dependent variable, comparative research questions usually start with "What is the difference in…"
A strong comparative research question example might be the following:
"What is the difference in the daily caloric intake of American men and women?" (Source.)
In the above example, the dependent variable is daily caloric intake and the two groups are American men and women.
A poor comparative research example might not aim to explore the differences between two groups or it could be too easily answered, as in the following example:
"Does daily caloric intake affect American men and women?"
Always ensure that your comparative research question is focused on a comparison between two groups based on a dependent variable.
Descriptive research questions help you gather data about measurable variables. Typically, researchers asking descriptive research questions aim to explain how, why, or what.
These research questions tend to start with the following:
For example, a good descriptive research question might be as follows:
"What percentage of college students have felt depressed in the last year?" (Source.)
A poor descriptive research question wouldn't be as precise. This might be something similar to the following:
"What percentage of teenagers felt sad in the last year?"
The above question is too vague, and the data would be overwhelming, given the number of teenagers in the world. Keep in mind that specificity is key when it comes to research questions!
Correlational research measures the statistical relationship between two variables, with no influence from any other variable. The idea is to observe the way these variables interact with one another. If one changes, how is the other affected?
When it comes to writing a correlational research question, remember that it's all about relationships. Your research would encompass the relational effects of one variable on the other.
For example, having an education (variable one) might positively or negatively correlate with the rate of crime (variable two) in a specific city. An example research question for this might be written as follows:
"Is there a significant negative correlation between education level and crime rate in Los Angeles?"
A bad correlational research question might not use relationships at all. In fact, correlational research questions are often confused with causal research questions, which imply cause and effect. For example:
"How does the education level in Los Angeles influence the crime rate?"
The above question wouldn't be a good correlational research question because the relationship between Los Angeles and the crime rate is already inherent in the question—we are already assuming the education level in Los Angeles affects the crime rate in some way.
Be sure to use the right format if you're writing a correlational research question.
How to Avoid a Bad Question
Ask the right questions, and the answers will always reveal themselves.
If finding the right research question was easy, doing research would be much simpler. However, research does not provide useful information if the questions have easy answers (because the questions are too simple, narrow, or general) or answers that cannot be reached at all (because the questions have no possible answer, are too costly to answer, or are too broad in scope).
For a research question to meet scientific standards, its answer cannot consist solely of opinion (even if the opinion is popular or logically reasoned) and cannot simply be a description of known information.
However, an analysis of what currently exists can be valuable, provided that there is enough information to produce a useful analysis. If a scientific research question offers results that cannot be tested, measured, or duplicated, it is ineffective.
Bad Research Question Examples
Here are examples of bad research questions with brief explanations of what makes them ineffective for the purpose of research.
"What's red and bad for your teeth?"
This question has an easy, definitive answer (a brick), is too vague (What shade of red? How bad?), and isn't productive.
"Do violent video games cause players to act violently?"
This question also requires a definitive answer (yes or no), does not invite critical analysis, and allows opinion to influence or provide the answer.
"How many people were playing balalaikas while living in Moscow on July 8, 2019?"
This question cannot be answered without expending excessive amounts of time, money, and resources. It is also far too specific. Finally, it doesn't seek new insight or information, only a number that has no conceivable purpose.
How to Write a Research Question
The quality of a question is not judged by its complexity but by the complexity of thinking it provokes.
What makes a good research question? A good research question topic is clear and focused. If the reader has to waste time wondering what you mean, you haven't phrased it effectively.
It also needs to be interesting and relevant, encouraging the reader to come along with you as you explain how you reached an answer.
Finally, once you explain your answer, there should be room for astute or interested readers to use your question as a basis to conduct their own research. If there is nothing for you to say in your conclusion beyond "that's the truth," then you're setting up your research to be challenged.
Good Research Question Examples
Here are some examples of good research questions. Take a look at the reasoning behind their effectiveness.
"What are the long-term effects of using activated charcoal in place of generic toothpaste for routine dental care?"
This question is specific enough to prevent digressions, invites measurable results, and concerns information that is both useful and interesting. Testing could be conducted in a reasonable time frame, without excessive cost, and would allow other researchers to follow up, regardless of the outcome.
"Why do North American parents feel that violent video game content has a negative influence on their children?"
While this does carry an assumption, backing up that assumption with observable proof will allow for analysis of the question, provide insight on a significant subject, and give readers something to build on in future research.
It also discusses a topic that is recognizably relevant. (In 2022, at least. If you are reading this article in the future, there might already be an answer to this question that requires further analysis or testing!)
"To what extent has Alexey Arkhipovsky's 2013 album, Insomnia, influenced gender identification in Russian culture?"
While it's tightly focused, this question also presents an assumption (that the music influenced gender identification) and seeks to prove or disprove it. This allows for the possibilities that the music had no influence at all or had a demonstrable impact.
Answering the question will involve explaining the context and using many sources so that the reader can follow the logic and be convinced of the author's findings. The results (be they positive or negative) will also open the door to countless other studies.
How to Turn a Bad Research Question into a Good One
If something is wrong, fix it if you can. But train yourself not to worry. Worry never fixes anything.
How do you turn something that won't help your research into something that will? Start by taking a step back and asking what you are expected to produce. While there are any number of fascinating subjects out there, a grant paying you to examine income disparity in Japan is not going to warrant an in-depth discussion of South American farming pollution.
Use these expectations to frame your initial topic and the subject that your research should be about, and then conduct preliminary research into that subject. If you spot a knowledge gap while researching, make a note of it, and add it to your list of possible questions.
If you already have a question that is relevant to your topic but has flaws, identify the issues and see if they can be addressed. In addition, if your question is too broad, try to narrow it down enough to make your research feasible.
Especially in the sciences, if your research question will not produce results that can be replicated, determine how you can change it so a reader can look at what you've done and go about repeating your actions so they can see that you are right.
Moreover, if you would need 20 years to produce results, consider whether there is a way to tighten things up to produce more immediate results. This could justify future research that will eventually reach that lofty goal.
If all else fails, you can use the flawed question as a subtopic and try to find a better question that fits your goals and expectations.
When you have your early work edited, don't be surprised if you are told that your research question requires revision. Quite often, results or the lack thereof can force a researcher to shift their focus and examine a less significant topic—or a different facet of a known issue—because testing did not produce the expected result.
If that happens, take heart. You now have the tools to assess your question, find its flaws, and repair them so that you can complete your research with confidence and publish something you know your audience will read with fascination.
Of course, if you receive affirmation that your research question is strong or are polishing your work before submitting it to a publisher, you might just need a final proofread to ensure that your confidence is well placed. Then, you can start pursuing something new that the world does not yet know (but will know) once you have your research question down.
Master your research with professional editing.
About the Author
Scribendi's in-house editors work with writers from all over the globe to perfect their writing. They know that no piece of writing is complete without a professional edit, and they love to see a good piece of writing transformed into a great one. Scribendi's in-house editors are unrivaled in both experience and education, having collectively edited millions of words and obtained nearly 20 degrees. They love consuming caffeinated beverages, reading books of various genres, and relaxing in quiet, dimly lit spaces.