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Before You Start Your Research: Developing a Research Question

Learn about how to publish in a scholarly journal

Deciding what to research

The earlier you are in your career the more difficult you might find it to land on a research question, just because there is so much to choose from. 

You can find inspiration in many places:

  • Published studies that interest you might lead you to your topic, or help you identify a problem, gap or controversy.
  • Patients you see in a clinical setting might inspire you to ask a specific question or help you identify a problem with care for those patients.
  • Encountering more experienced colleagues or experts who give opposing advice on a topic could lead you to an un-explored gap in the existing research.
  • Maintaining a healthy skepticism to “that's the way we do it” as well as new developments can help you keep asking new questions.
  • Teaching and mentoring will almost certainly result in someone asking you a question you don’t know the answer to, which can give you a gap to consider or a question to investigate.

Be Specific

One way to think about getting from anything in the world down to a specific research question is: 

Topic - A general area of interest

Problem - A problem, gap, or controversy in your Topic

Question - The question about the problem, gap or controversy that you would like to answer

Once you have gotten from a topic to a question, you need to make it specific enough to both be able to answer it, and to be able to explain to other people why it matters.

For clinical types of questions, PICO is used to plan a question that is specific enough to search in a database, but it can also help you to focus in on who/what you are studying: 

P Population, problem Who or what are you studying? Age groups, health conditions, etc. of relevance go here
I Intervention What treatment, procedure or test are you studying?
C Comparison Are you comparing either the Intervention or the Population to another intervention or population?
O Outcome What outcomes are you interested in?


If PICO doesn't fit, for any study about an effect you can use "Who Does what To whom To what effect": 

Who Population who acts
Does What Action
To Whom Objects of action
To What Effect Outcome of action

Does Your Question Need to be Asked

You need to be familiar with the existing literature to be sure that the question you want to ask and the way you want to investigate it will contribute something valuable. These approaches can help:

  • Thorough searches on topics, problems, gaps and controversies.
  • Critical reading of the literature – what does it say it finds, what does it actually find, what are the limitations, biases, etc.
  • Scoping Review is a Knowledge Synthesis method that is used to identify gaps, and map the key concepts and research methods used in a given topic area.  This is a rigorous and time consuming research method that generally involves comprehensive, often iterative, searches of numerous databases, and the screening of many thousand citations. 
  • Participating in meetings and conferences, and building relationships with experts and other researchers in your topic area.

Further Reading

Aslam S, Emmanuel P.  Formulating a researchable question: A critical step for facilitating good clinical research. Indian journal of sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS. 2010;31(1):47.

Beckman LM, Earthman CP. Developing the Research Question and Study Design. Support Line [Internet]. 2010;32(1):3.

Farrugia P, BScN, Petrisor, Bradley A., MSc, MD, Farrokhyar, Forough, MPhil, PhD, Bhandari, Mohit, MD, MSc. Research questions, hypotheses and objectives. Canadian Journal of Surgery. 2010;53(4):278-81.

Lipowski EE. Developing great research questions. American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy. 2008;65(17):1667-70.

Morrison J. Developing research questions in medical education: the science and the art. Medical Education. 2002;36(7):596-7.

FINER research

When you have a research question in mind, consider these aspects to help you decide if it is both do-able and worth doing:

Feasible

  • Size
    • For research involving humans, how many subjects would you need to include to answer your question well? Are you going to be able to both recruit and manage this number?
    • For Knowledge Synthesis research, roughly how many citations is an appropriate search likely to yield for your question?  (Talk to an Information Specialist about how to determine an estimate.)  Can you and your team handle this number of citations for deduplication, screening, data extraction, and an appropriate synthesis method to answer your question?
  • Do you have the expertise needed on your team?
    • Subject specialist?
    • Search specialist?
    • Statistician?
    • Someone with expertise with any software, hardware, or equipment you need to use?
  • Do you have time to complete your research while adhering to best practices? (Think of both deadlines and the hours required each week for each team member.)
  • Do you have access to appropriate space, storage, hardware, software and other necessary equipment?
  • Do you have a sufficient number of team members to meet methodological requirements and complete your research in a timely manner?
  • Do you have sufficient funding to pay for all of the above, or a plan to obtain the funding?

Interesting

  • Are you and your team genuinely interested?
  • If outside funding is necessary, will funders be interested in the answer to your question?
  • Are patients and/or clinicians and/or other stakeholders interested in the answer to your question?
  • Is your department, institution or school interested in your question?

Novel

  • Is your research likely to confirm, refute, or expand on existing findings?

Ethical

  • Will the institutional review board approve the project?
    • The ARECCI Ethics Screening Tool can help you consider the types of ethical risks involved in your project before you submit to the appropriate type of ethics review.
    • Note: 
      • All research involving humans that is performed under the auspices or within the jurisdiction of University Health Network requires institutional authorization prior to the conduct of the research.
      • All research involving humans or confidential patient information within UHN requires approval of the UHN REB prior to the initiation of a research project.
  • Do you have the capacity to follow best practices / rigorous methods in answering this question?
  • Does your research design effectively eliminate bias to the extent possible?
  • Does this research using these methods avoid contributing to research waste
  • Is everyone on your team prepared to follow authorship policies and recommendations, including acknowledgements and researcher responsibilities?
  • Is everyone on your team knowledgeable about and prepared to avoid plagiarism and inappropriate data manipulation, both intentional and accidental?

Relevant

  • Is your research on this question likely to have an impact on scientific knowledge, clinical practice, health policy, or future research?

 

Adapted from "Characteristics of a Good Research Question" "Feasible, Interesting, Novel, Ethical and Relevant (which form the mnemonic FINER)":
Conceiving the Research Question and Developing the Study Plan. Designing Clinical Research. 2013:14-22.  (Chapter 2)