Formulating a Research Question
“Research is what I’m doing when I know what I’m doing” (Wernher von Braun)
All research starts with a question. The research question is a formal, precise statement of what you want to know. This guide explains why it is important to formulate a good research question and summarises some of the key factors to consider.
Why is a good research question important?
A good research question provides a path from the problem, through the research process, to analysis and interpretation of the findings. It helps to:
- Identify the problem: what (exactly) do you need to know?
- Focus the scope of the research: is it feasible?
- Guide the research process: how will you find out?
- Increase understanding of the problem: what does it mean? Who will benefit?
A research question specifically states the issue that the research aims to investigate. This is not the same as a research problem, which identifies the area of concern, or where there is need for improvement. However, clearly identifying the problem may lead to formulation of a research question that is feasible, important and ethical. That is, the question has to be answerable within a particular timeframe and with the resources available; is of value to the community (scientific and public); and complies with the standards of research and ethical boards (Farrugia et al., 2010).
Just presenting a research topic as a question is not sufficient. A good research question defines the focus of the project and sets the boundaries to guide the research.
From research problem to research question
Before formulating a research question, a preliminary scope of the literature on your topic of interest is useful to see what research has already been undertaken. Discussions with the people who are likely to use the research findings also help to inform the relevance and focus of the question. This exercise avoids duplicating effort and identifies important gaps in the existing research.
Understanding of the field
Some understanding of the field/literature should guide development of a good research question:
- Do you know the field/literature on the research topic?
- Is there a lot of existing research in this area?
- What are the important questions in this field?
- What needs to be investigated further?
- Will your study lead to greater understanding? Does it fill a gap? Or has it been done before?
- Is it the time right to address this problem? Is it a priority for research, or has the field moved on?
- Does the research question pass the “so what” test? What is the benefit of answering the question? Who cares? What is the potential impact on a target group (e.g., patients, practitioners)?
Purpose and importance of the topic
Once you are clear about the purpose and importance of the research topic, formulating a specific, focused question follows:
- Use a suitable framework (see mnemonics below) to guide question development
- Where possible, work with interested groups to define a relevant question that will add something of value to the field (e.g. consumer groups, experts, health care providers).
Evaluate the question
Once the research question has been developed, evaluate the question and how it could be answered:
- Does the question try to solve the problem, or provide clarity to a complex research field?
- Is the question too broad, too narrow, or OK?
- Is it clear and unambiguous?
- Is it focused and specific?
- Is it complex? Not answerable by simple ‘yes’, ‘no’ or facts/descriptions
- Is the question researchable?
- Within the available timeframe?
- Given the available resources?
- Is information or data available?
- What sources/resources are needed to answer the question? Are they accessible? Is ethics permission required?
There are several useful mnemonics that can assist in developing a research question and guide the search strategy. The choice will depend on whether the questions relate to clinical issues, or focus on health policy, services or management issues. For example, PICO (and its variations) is better for clinical questions; whereas ECLIPSE (and its variations) is more useful for policy and management questions (Davies, 2011). However, the question does not have to fit a specific framework. Whichever tool is selected, it is meant only as a guide to prompt you to consider a variety of common elements that may influence the research question. Not all elements will be relevant to all questions; but thinking about them helps to refine and focus the question.
Useful for clinical research:
- Patient/population/problem: who or what is of interest?
- Intervention: what intervention is being investigated?
- Comparison group: what alternatives can be compared to the intervention group?
- Outcome of interest: what should the intervention achieve? What improvements?
- Time: what is an appropriate assessment period? Follow-up period?
- Type of research/evidence: systematic review/meta-analysis; quantitative/qualitative/mixed method?
Useful for non-clinical or health service/management research:
- Expectations: what does the user want the information for? What needs to change?
- Client group: for whom is this research important?
- Location: where is the health care/service situated?
- Impact: what service changes are being evaluated? How is success/failure measured (outcomes)?
- Professionals: who will provide the services?
- Service provision: What types of services are under consideration? (e.g., outpatient services, nurse-led clinics, etc.).
Useful for qualitative research evidence (e.g., evaluating projects or interventions):
- Setting: What is the context for the research question? The context may influence whether the findings are transferable
- Perspective: Who are the potential users or stakeholders of the service?
- Intervention: What program/intervention is being implemented?
- Comparison: What are the alternatives? E.g., different intervention, usual care
- Evaluation: What measures will reflect the intervention’s impact (success/failure).
Useful for qualitative/mixed methods:
- Sample: small group of participants, rather than population
- Phenomenon of Interest: “how” and “why” pertaining to behaviours, decisions, experiences, rather than exposure to an intervention
- Design: theoretical framework drives the research method
- Evaluation: outcomes including subjective constructs, such as attitudes, views
- Research type: qualitative, quantitative, mixed methods (Cooke et al., 2012).
Useful for a range of different types of questions
- Feasible: adequate evidence, technical expertise, time and money, scope
- Interesting: getting the answer intrigues those invested in the project
- Novel: confirms, refutes or extends previous findings
- Ethical: meets institution’s requirements
- Relevant: to scientific knowledge, clinical and health policy, future research (Farrugia et al., 2010).
Evaluate your research question against these criteria:
- Specific: define concepts and populations
- Measurable: whether quantitative or qualitative, you need data if you want to find answers (i.e., not just commentary or opinion)
- Achievable: adequate resources; ethical access to information
- Realistic/relevant: importance of the question; is it worth doing?
- Time Frame: question can be answered within a specified period/by a certain date
10 Tips for formulating a good research question
- It’s an important issue to investigate (relevant, worth researching, may impact on costs, improve practice, reduce mortality/morbidity)
- It’s researchable (likely to find some answers through research)
- You don’t already know the answer (don’t duplicate what has been done; or decide on the answer before doing the research)
- There may be multiple answers (not simple yes/no; “why” questions may lead to explanations)
- The question is clearly focused (use direct, active and succinct language; or use sub-questions to refine the focus). For example, simple, broad questions can be refined by introducing additional variables of interest.
- Demographics (gender, age, ethnicity)
- Geographic location
- Treatment, intervention, program, policy
- The question is reasonable (credible information is available to answer the question)
- Avoid questions that have a premise or suggest an answer. Remain neutral and avoid value judgements (e.g., Why do older Australians prefer to go to the emergency department for health care? – implies that this is what usually happens. Alternatively, Where do most older Australians prefer to go for health care?, or What are the main reasons that older Australians attend the emergency department for health care? are more neutral questions that are likely to give more useful information)
- Define the terms used in the question to ensure you know what you are asking
- New questions can be generated once all the information has been collected (i.e., the research may raise additional questions for another research project)
- Finding the right answer is important (i.e., it’s more than just an interesting academic exercise) (McMaster University).
Cooke A, Smith D, Booth A. (2012). Beyond PICO: The SPIDER tool for qualitative evidence synthesis. Qual Health Res, 22(10): 1435-43.
Davies K. (2011). Formulating the evidence based practice question: A review of the frameworks. Evid Based Libr Inf Pract, 6.2
Farrugia P, Petrisor B, Farrokhyar F, Bhandari M. (2010). Practical tips for surgical research: Research questions, hypotheses and objectives. Can J Surg, 53(4):278-81
Useful PHCRIS resources
See PHCRIS Getting Started Guides on:
Searching the literature:
Other useful resources
McMaster University provides free resources to help shape a “good” inquiry question.
National Collaborating Centre for Methods and Tools is an excellent source of information for research and professional development. Some relevant resources include:
Defining your question: PICO and PS: This resource aims to help users define questions for quantitative and qualitative research
Defining your question for finding qualitative research: SPIDER tool: this resource extends the PICO tool to include qualitative and mixed methods designs
Defining a problem using evidence: A SUPPORT tool
Center for Innovation in Research and Teaching (CIRT) provides several tutorials and other research resources.
Research begins with a question: Sandra Burge, University of Texas Health Science Centre at San Antonio provides an interactive tutorial on developing research questions.
Primary Health Care Research & Information Service (2017). Getting Started Guide: Formulating a Research Question. From phcris.org.au/guides/formulating_research_question.php (Accessed 17 Oct 2017)