Formulating a research question


Conducting a literature review provides a researcher with an overview and evaluation of available resources on a specific topic--a "big picture" perspective on the current state of research on a topic, question, or problem. Though it's tempting to jump right in and start searching for sources, there's a prior step in any research project: to determine, as precisely as possible, what question or topic you're really trying to examine.

By the end of this term you should be able to:

Let's begin by talking about research questions.

 Select and state a research question

Although stating a research question may seem relatively straightforward, it is often the least well-defined aspect of a research program. Questions present themselves to our minds all the time; most of those questions, in their original forms, aren't optimally researchable. So the first task is to adapt the question (or topic, or problem) to the research process--in essence, to make a question into a research question.

While many people understand the difference between over- and under-generalization, they still create research questions that either overgeneralize or undergeneralize. An additional difficulty occurs when a researcher revises his or her research question during the research process; while some adjustment of focus might be warranted in response to accumulating knowledge, too many changes makes it difficult to achieve reliable, comprehensive results. So, first and foremost, a researcher must have a consistent and well-defined focus. Let's consider a simple research question:

  • Why do readers refuse to read texts?
  • Although this question seems like a resolvable issue, consider what has been left out:

    So, the research question could be posited in a more specific way:

  • What features of the Non-Directional Beacon Field Service Manual make it difficult for service personnel to complete their tasks?
  • Sounds good, but this question introduces a new set of difficulties.

    Given this further problem-setting analysis, a third rendition of the research question might be:

  • What characteristics of procedural, or reference, manuals make it difficult for service personnel to complete their routine tasks?
  • At this point, the researcher could offer further clarification by defining manual characteristics, creating a profile of service personnel, and defining routine tasks.

     Identify subject headings and keywords

    Once you have a stable and well-defined research question (and any supporting corollaries, definitions, or sub-questions), you can begin to identify subject headings and keywords. Generally, you should rely on subject headings, which tend to be broader in scope, if you are uncertain about the inclusive character of your research question. You can also use these subject headings to check completed research based on keywords to be sure you have not missed important sources.

    If we use our research question as stated above, subject headings such as reading behaviors, reading research, and the like might provide some information.

    In contrast, keywords have been compiled from titles, abstracts, and subject headings. Before we consider what keywords might be found in a database, let's try to identify potential keywords in our research question:

  • What characteristics of procedural, or reference, manuals make it difficult for service personnel to complete their routine tasks?

    Potential keywords: procedures, reference, referential, manuals, texts, documentation, service, tasks; procedural manuals, reference manuals, reading behavior, audience analysis, task definition.

  • You may also want to add such search terms as specific authors (known authorities, for example), titles, title words, journals, and even dates to help limit (or expand) your search possibilities.

    Since search techniques vary considerably among possible sources, a model search will not be suggested here. Instead, you should create your own model search and try searching various sources. It is likely that you will find more information during this search than you expected. For example, it is likely that a database search will return some initial, and early, indication if there is the potential for narrowing (or expanding) the search terms. This model search will also help you to discern the database's behavior in terms of "grammar" and methods used to retrieve records. Be sure to read all help information to broaden your own awareness of the search potential of any one database.

     Establish search criteria

    Although you have now identified potential keywords, you need to decide which keywords seem most important for your research needs, which are likely to yield any useful records, and which data sources will provide those records. All of these decisions are difficult, but they do become easier as you exercise your research abilities over time.

    Begin this process by identifying the major sources in your field (or the field most closely related to your research question). You ought to review Lecture 1 and the material for week 10 for this course. Of course, these lists change over time and you need to check even their accuracy. But, they are a good starting point.

    Keep in mind that you should begin EVERY research task by discovering what you (and what others) ALREADY know about a topic. That is, identify ANY existing bibliographic collections first. For example, two published bibliographies were used to provide background as this course was developed:

    Alred, Gerald J. The St. Martin's Bibliography of Business and Technical Communication.

    Hull, Debra L. Business and Technical Communication: A Bibliography, 1975-1985.

    These two collections bring research in the field up to about 1996 (though only a few citations beyond 1990 appear in the Alred collection). Despite this "declared" coverage, even a cursory examination of Alred's text reveals some interesting deficiencies. For instance, the World Wide Web, for better or worse, isn't even mentioned. Well, when did that technology come into everyday use? (An interesting research question in itself, wouldn't you say?)

    But I would still maintain that the KNOWN should always be your starting point. At least, it allows you to decide if your topic is even represented in any database. Based on your ability to collect these known resources, you can then establish how much searching you will have to do to assure yourself that you have, indeed, captured all of the relevant information about your research question.

    After collecting these known resources, you should begin your search with the databases that index the major journals in your field. No easy answer here! The best way to learn where journals in your field are indexed is to read them. Often, the journal's front matter will tell you what databases index the journal. Review the major journals in your field, often! I've given you a start in the Week 12 "Resources" list (see course calendar) by listing the journals that typically appear in major bibliographies in the field or in Technical Communication's "Recent and Relevant" section. You, once again, need to assess the appropriateness of these resources for your own needs.

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    Last Modified: 08/24/06