Developing a Research Question

by Will Jonsson

A research question differs from a thesis statement as it proposes the direction and not necessarily the outcome of the research; it is a guide to help you find material that will help you arrive at your own. While this can seem like one of the more mundane portions of the research writing process, it is critical to the overall quality of the finished product.

My own technique has evolved over the years, but it still remains founded in the tools my instructors imparted to me. Initially, I planned to discuss my methods and thoughts on scientific writing. This was obviously too broad of a topic; there are entire books about writing scientific papers. I then chose the alternative: How to Form a Solid Research Question. That little change in topic narrowed the scope of my project considerably.

The process of writing a research question has a highly personalized methodology. It has more to do with how the author thinks–how they conduct their research–than their preconceptions of the topic. As I reflected on my own process of writing a solid research question, I contemplated all the advice I had received from professors and librarians in the past. They often came with similar advice: find a broad topic I like; refine that topic to a narrower subcategory; turn it into a question; and refine the question as needed based on the amount of research material found. In preparation for this article, I conducted some cursory research of methods recommended by various academic libraries across the country and found that many of their recommended processes also fell in line with those basic steps.

Some academic journal indexing services will walk you through this process. EBSCOhost, in particular, encourages the refinement of your search criteria. While the resultant entries into the search bars don’t necessarily form a question, you can construct one from how your research was refined.

Here is an example: a search for keywords “nitrogen,” “infiltration rate” and “soil,” might yield a question such as, “how do nitrogen infiltration rates change depending on soil type?”

A broad topic could be limited to a date range, then isolated to a relevant timeframe for a research question. Often the search engine will suggest subtopics or synonyms and these can also be integrated to broaden or narrow your scope.

I employ a patchwork of methods while constructing my own research questions. I like to start with the broadest topic possible, then run a cursory search to see just how much information is readily available on my topic. This step often tells me exactly how I should refine my question in terms of timeframe, geographic location, the subject and object of my question, and the specific action or response. This is usually a cyclical process, involving multiple revisions; however, the final research question is clear and specific.

For more thoughts and ideas about writing research papers, check out Jasleena’s ( blog entry!

Photo Courtesy of:

Gilger, J. (22 May 2009). New Library. Flickr Photostream. Retrieved from


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