‘Nobody’s ever asked this before’ and other research question misconceptions

In classes where students and I have focused on developing research questions there are a number of common concerns that emerge about their planned work. Here are some of them, with solutions we have created together.

I’m confused! Should I begin by defining a research question then reading up on it? Or should I consult the literature before trying to create or refine my question?
People can and do use both approaches. Sometimes reading an inspiring (or infuriating) paper means you think of things you would like to investigate based on that work. Your reading of one or more papers on a particular topic may highlight a particular angle or area they have not adequately addressed. Their limitations or suggestions for further work may alert you to what needs doing next. Or you may seek to replicate what they have done with a different community, sample etc. Alternatively you may have a draft idea that you’d like to develop into a question but you use the literature to strengthen this and indicate to you whether your question either has already been covered in depth or if it needs changing or adapting or even if you should ditch your original idea and try something else.

I already know what I want to ask so there’s no need for me to read any other research.
It’s great that you know what you want to do, but it’s worth looking at what has been done already so you can build upon that work, use it to justify what you are doing, and help you double check you are actually doing something worthwhile. It may be that checking the literature confirms you’re on the right track, but as described above it may alert you to the fact you’re wasting your time, need to modify your question, or do something else.

Literature alone isn’t going to answer my question!
Actually it might. One good reason to see what else has been done is to identify if you even need to do more research. Research is time consuming and costly. And if you are busy with other work it makes sense that rather run a study from scratch you adapt work that’s already out there. It may be a thorough and systematic literature search answers your question, or gives you enough information to inform practice.

I have no idea what my research question is! I’ll keep posting longer and longer queries into a search engine in the hope an answer will be revealed to me.
This is unlikely to help you. If you don’t really know what you want to do it may be useful to look for other research that has been done before to see if they offer any limitations or suggestions for further work you could adapt. Or ask within your community if there are questions they need assistance answering. If you are doing this as assessed work your supervisor may be able to suggest something. Or you might want to draw on your own experiences for issues that have affected you you’d like to explore further. Alternatively, you could try thinking about a research ‘puzzle’ or ‘sentence’ to get you started if an actual, fully formed, question remains elusive.

I don’t know how to search the literature (or synthesise or appraise papers)
It isn’t easy to admit this, particularly if you are under pressure to proceed with research or undertaking further study where it is assumed you already have these skills. While people can and do undertake research from a question they created but no additional literature to underpin it, for most projects where you’re seeking to bring about change, make a difference, inform practice or use scholarly approaches then using existing evidence is important. It may be you pause your plans to rush ahead with finalizing your research question and doing your study and seek training in literature searching etc. [The tools linked to in the Resources page of this site may help you here]. Or that you team up with other practitioners or colleagues who have these skills where you develop your question as they help you find, unpack and apply evidence from other publications.

I don’t have access to the literature!
Working with students and colleagues who are within or linked to academia and have access to online (or real life) libraries can be frustrating when they are averse to using these resources to inform both their research question(s) and the work that follows. Even moreso when I consider how many of us outside academia struggle to access papers, reports etc that aren’t open to us. You may find using resources like Scholar help where open access papers are clearly indicated within searches you run. Alternatively, if you find papers that aren’t open access, emailing the corresponding author (or their media office) usually results in them being flattered you asked to read their work and sending it to you. Colleagues with access to journals may be kind enough to assist in getting you papers, while some journals offer free access if you are resident in particular low income countries. Even so, you will be at a disadvantage if you are doing research outside an academic setting and clarifying this within any reports, presentations or papers you create from your studies is an important means of highlighting this inequality.

How does my research question relate to the rest of my study?
Remember, your question will determine your method and your method determines what analysis you will need to use. Asking a highly specific question in a format that is looking to test something will usually require quantitative approaches, while more open questions will point towards qualitative ones. However this isn’t carved in stone and this is another good reason why reading existing research can give you ideas not just about questions to ask, but methods to utilize to answer those questions. You are not in thrall to your original idea so if you know you don’t have the skills, experience or time to learn about or use a method or the subsequent analysis it requires that your current question is indicating, or if it won’t appeal or be suited to your participants, then you may want to adapt your question into one you know you can handle.

My question is so novel nobody will have looked at it before (so there’s no point in me using existing evidence)
In my experience when students or colleagues say this a quick literature search usually shows that yes, somebody has. It may be they used a different sample, or community, or worked in a different subject area, but there should be existing work you can build upon. In the unlikely event nobody has ever done anything on your specific question before there will be work that is on a closely related area, so you could begin with that and see what it teaches you about the question you plan to answer. The Research Whisperer also has some words of caution about claiming ‘firsts’.

My question has to be completely novel/new otherwise my funders/backers/clients/audiences won’t pay attention to it
For those working in development, the third sector, PR or journalism, research questions may or may not be novel but to ‘sell’ them to other funders, media outlets etc they have to be sold as such. This again can lead to the belief there is no point in looking at the literature because your unique situation means you don’t need to consider what has come before. However, you can use existing evidence to back up what you plan to do and confirm you are on the right track, while showing the question you asked and the people you asked it of are worth hearing about.

Using existing evidence is cheating. Surely I have to create something nobody has looked at/asked before
Many students and practitioners in healthcare, social science and development wrongly believe that if they use preexisting theories, ideas or studies to inform their work, or replicate research, that this will count against them as they didn’t come up with the original idea. Sadly sometimes tutors and managers wrongly reinforce this. Looking at what has already been published helps focus your question, gives you ideas of what you would like to replicate or develop and helps you avoid reinventing the wheel. Presenting someone else’s work as your own is cheating. Using that work, with credit, in a study where you replicate their approach or tweak or develop it is good practice.

Do you have questions about creating your research questions? If so, the previous posts may help you, or you may want to ask in the comments if there are things you’d like to know more about regarding creating research questions. Alternatively if you have favourite tools or resources you use in teaching or research practice please feel free to link to them below.

[Image is an illustration of Dorrie and her cat Gink, from the storybooks Dorrie the Little Witch by Patricia Coombs]

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