Written by Anthony Granziol
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, 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 thing 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 the common characteristics present in both kinds, so that you can evaluate your research question and improve it to suit your needs.
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." – Thomas Berger
First off, a bit of clarification. While there are constants among questions no matter what content you're writing about, you will use different standards for the humanities and social sciences than you will for hard sciences like chemistry. The former depends on subjectivity and the perspective of the researcher, while the latter requires answers that can be replicated and empirically tested.
For instance, if you research influences on the writings of Charles Dickens, you will have to explain your stance and observations to the reader before supporting them with reasonable evidence. If you research how to improve superconductivity in material kept at room temperature, the reader will not only need to understand and believe you but also be able to duplicate your work to confirm that you are correct.
Bearing this in mind, and knowing that it will influence what makes a given research question good or bad, let's get the unpleasant stuff out of the way first.
How to avoid a bad question
"Ask the right questions, and the answers will always reveal themselves." – Oprah Winfrey
If finding the right research question were easy, doing research would be much simpler. However, research does not provide useful information if its questions have answers that are too easy to reach (because they are too simple, too narrow, or too general) or cannot be reached at all (because they 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 of opinion alone (even if the opinion is popular or logically reasoned), and it cannot simply be a description of known information. A mere synopsis of what currently exists is not worth researching. An analysis of what currently exists, however, 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 also a bad one.
Bad research question examples
Here are examples of bad research questions, as well as brief explanations of what makes them ineffective for the purposes 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 really interesting.
"Do violent video games cause players to act violently?"
This question also requires a definitive answer (yes or no), does not invite much critical analysis, and allows opinion to influence or provide the answer.
"How many people were playing balalaikas while living in Moscow on July 8th, 2019?"
This question cannot be answered without expending far too much in time, money, and resources. It is also far too specific, with no discernible way of answering it. Finally, it doesn't seek new insight or information, only a number that has no conceivable purpose.
How to write a good question
"The quality of a question is not judged by its complexity but by the complexity of thinking it provokes." – Joseph O'Connor
A good research question 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 only 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 for why they are effective.
"What are the long-term effects of using activated charcoal in place of generic toothpaste for routine dental care?"
This question is just specific enough to prevent digressions, has 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. (At this point in 2021, at least. If you are reading this article a few years in the future, there might already be an answer for 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 being tightly focused, this question presents an assumption (that the music influenced gender identification) and seeks to prove or disprove it, allowing for the possibility that the music had no influence at all or had a demonstrable impact. Answering the question will involve explaining the context and using substantial citations 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 for 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." – Ernest Hemingway.
How do you turn something that won't help your research into something that can? Start by taking a step back and asking yourself 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 gap while searching, 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 within the sciences, if your research question will not produce results that can be duplicated, 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 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 results sooner and possibly justify future research to eventually reach that lofty goal later on.
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.
We hope that these examples of good and bad research questions will help you throughout your academic journey. But before we wrap things up, here are a few final words of advice.
When you have your early work edited, do not 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, examining a less significant topic—or a different facet of a known issue—because the testing conducted did not produce what was expected. If that happens, take heart. You have the means to assess your question now, look for 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, something else that the world does not yet know (but will know), once you have your research question down.
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About the Author
A Scribendi in-house editor, Anthony is happily putting his BA in English from Western University to good use with thoughtful feedback and incisive editing. An avid reader and gamer, he can be found during his off hours enjoying narrative-driven games and obscure and amusing texts, as well as cooking for his family.