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Formulation of a research question
Jugal Kishore, Sumeena Vasundhra, Tanu Anand
Department of Community Medicine,
Maulana Azad Medical College,
New Delhi

Corresponding Author
: Dr. Jugal Kishore
Department of Community Medicine,
Maulana Azad Medical College,
New Delhi
Email: drjugalkishore@gmail.com

History : Received - 20-Sep-2011 Accepted - 20-Sep-2011 Published Online -  09-Oct-2011
DOI : http://dx.doi.org/10.7713/ijms.2011.0047


Research holds an immense importance in biomedical sciences as it contributes to the policy, designing and intervention programme thereby leading to overall welfare of the community and improvement in provision of health services of the country. Any research is embarked only after formulating a research question. A research question identifies the phenomenon to be studied and lays down the building block for hypothesis of identifying cause for disease or health. Therefore, a good research idea must be theoretical, empirical, nomothetic, probabilistic and causal which is comparable to an hour glass originating from a broader base and narrowing down to an hypothesis. So a pragmatic approach in planning the research question begins right from identifying one’s area of interest, reviewing the literature, henceforth, formulating an effective hypothesis considering its fruitful future implications. Also an assessment of formulated hypothesis in terms of feasibility, impact, novelty, ethical clearance and potential relevance is quintessential and crucial for the success of the study.

Keywords : Hypothesis; ethics; research.

Health research, is systematic generation of knowledge that can be used to promote, restore, maintain and/or protect health of individuals and populations [1]. It goes beyond illness to include the various determinants of illness as well as health. There are various terminologies used for research according to the purpose and area where it is done for example, action, applied, basic, clinical, empirical, administrative, theoretical or qualitative or quantitative research [2]. Health Research plays a crucial role in the betterment of physician’s practice and overall health services thereby contributing to the policy making and welfare of the community. Research in biomedical sciences has generated a wealth of new discoveries that are improving human health, extending lives and raising standard of living. As huge investment is ensured with more stakeholders coming in for funding health research, there is need of conducting research in scientific andcost effective manner so that with minimum and judicious uses of resources the outcomes would be beneficial in the welfare of humankind.

Research is conducted with aim to systematically and critically examine the available information to institute an effective professional health service. Because scientific knowledge is provisional, all empirical findings and theories are subject to further investigation. In addition to seeking more exact confirmations of existing claims to knowledge, research has the equally important goal of generating new claims [3]. Research question formulation is the logical first step toward this goal, without which no research can progress. Pertinent question is necessary for pertinent answer or solution.

What is a Research question?

A Research Question is a statement that identifies the phenomenon to be studied [4]. It is a fuel that drives the scientific process, and is the foundation of any research process. A research question is a clear, focused, concise, complex and arguable question around which any research is centered.

It can be based on anyone like mothers, children, diabetics, senile cataract patients or eating or sexual behaviour. But question should be assessed with skeptical mind and further probing is required.

Many social scientists hold that research questions must be formulated by carefully analysing as much available literature as possible, formally stating the problems and hypotheses that the literature suggests. One must think about the potential impact of the research which is proposed. What is the benefit of answering the research question? Who will be benefited (and how)? These questions are important and need to be answered as this will ensure that each study does its utmost to add in an orderly fashion to the sum of the existent knowledge. In other words, a good question should confirm/ refute previous findings (like does giving of atropine injection prior to intubation in children reduce the amount of bronchial secretions during general anaesthesia? Is anaemia in pregnant mothers in the third trimester related to the birth weight of the newborn?); expand / extend previous findings (If we reduce the contrast on computer screens does the incidence of eye strain in computer operators reduce?) and if possible should also provide new findings.

Types of research questions

Research questions could be of following types [5]

• Existence:
designed to systematically rule out rival explanations. For example, can neonates perceive colour? or do older adults suffer from general slowing?

• Description and classification:
Usually call for more than simple description. Answers tend to require statements of the uniqueness of the description to sub class. What are the characteristics of depression? Is it variable or invariable?

• Composition:
Call for analysis or breakdown of whole into its component parts. What are the principle parts of memory? What are the stages of sleep?

• Relationship: Complex questions about relationships among several variables. Is there any association between memory and Intelligent Quotient (IQ)?

• Descriptive-Comparative: Expected that researcher will ensure that all is same between groups except issue in question. e.g., are women more aggressive than men?

• Causality: Does X cause, lead to or prevent changes in Y? Usually this can’t be done in exploratory research. Such question also indicates which type of research methods we have to use. Does Alcohol intoxication lead to liver failure?

• Causality-
Comparative: Effects of X are compared with a rival treatment Z and not simply absence of treatment. For example, Are aerobic exercises better than problem solving exercises in improving the cognitive performance of children?

• Causality-
Comparative Interaction: Does X cause more changes in Y than Z under certain conditions and does not under other conditions?

Characteristics of Research Question: If the goal of inquiry is to create knowledge for the scientific community, then good questions are those that address current gaps in scientific knowledge while being tractable for students in terms of costs, sophistication of equipment, analytical, and statistical needs [6].

Many research questions often beginning as huge, potentially world changing ideas need to be trimmed extensively so that they become achievable within available time and resource constraints, and also predicate a research methodology capable of providing meaningful answers. This means that distillation of a research question has to go through several iterations [7,8] and following FINER MAPS [9] is an acronym used to describe a good research question:

•Feasibility and Fundability (F):
It is best to select a research question by taking into account the practical limitations and problems in terms of adequate number of subjects, and affordability in time and money. Researcher should be aware of accessibility of all the materials need to do the study. Researcher should have the expertise to do the study or be able to collaborate with someone who does.

•Interesting and Impactful (I):
A researcher may have multiple interests of picking up a study i.e. from a real interest into the depth of matter to logical step for building a career but overall the study should be interesting both for the researcher as well as mentors and experts in the field. Also, the study should have an impact all over the community [9]. Different question types are formulated in different ways. An impact question, for example, may use the acronym ‘PICOC’ method [10]. This involves specifying the following items within the question: Population: Intervention and Comparison (or other phenomenon, processes, perspectives), Outcome or other Evaluative measure, Context or Setting. Following PICOC method researchers can complete the content of questions.

•Novel (N):
A good study should contribute new information and not merely repeat what is already known. This implies that research is guided by the rules of logical reasoning and the logical process of induction and deduction are of great value in carrying out research. Induction is the process of reasoning from a part to the whole whereas deduction is the process of reasoning from the premise. In fact, logical reasoning makes research more meaningful in the context of decision making.

•Ethical (E): Ethical issues are increasingly important, particularly in relation to patients’ right to confidentiality, information and autonomy, in relation to data protection and also in relation to conflict of professional interests. A good research must not pose unacceptable physical risks or invade too much into the privacy of subject or population.

•Relevant and Replicable (R):
This refers to one of the most crucial aspect of the study and may be determined by considering how knowledge obtained might advance current scientific knowledge thereby influencing current clinical practice and research. The purpose of the research should be clearly defined and common concepts be used. Replicability allows the research to be verified by replicating the study and thereby building a sound basis for decisions [9].

•Manageable (M):
Research question should be such which can easily be researchable and researcher can manage it within the available resources and expertise.

•Appropriate (A):
Research question should be appropriate logically and scientifically for the community and institution.

•Potential Value and Publishability (P):
The study can make significant health impact in clinical and community practices if it is published by a reputed journal or publisher. Therefore, research should aim for significant economic impact to reduce unnecessary or excessive costs. Also the proposed study should exist within a clinical, consumer, or policymaking context that is amenable to evidencebased change. Above all a good research question must address a topic that has clear implications for resolving important dilemmas in health and health care decisions made by one or more stakeholder groups.

•Systematic (S): It means that research is structured with specified steps to be taken in a specified sequence in accordance with the well defined set of rules. Systematic characteristic of the research does not rule out creative thinking but it certainly does reject the use of guessing and intuition arriving at conclusions.

Characteristics of good hypothesis:
According to Cliff Davidson and Susan Ambrose of Carnegie Mellon University, "The most successful research topics are narrowly focused and carefully defined, but are important parts of a broad-ranging, complex problem”[11]. For example, “What can be done to prevent substance abuse?” is too large a question to answer. It would be better to begin with a more focused question such as “What is the effect of behaviour therapy in one to one session on substance-abusing behaviours?” A well-thought-out and focused research question leads directly into the hypotheses.

Hypothesis consists of more specific predictions about the nature and direction of the relationship between two variables [4]. It is a predictive statement about the outcome of the research, dictates the method and design of the research. A strong hypothesis should have following characteristics:

• Give insight into a research question;
• Are testable and measurable by the proposed experiments;
• Spring logically from the experience of the staff;
• Follows the most likely outcome, not the exceptional outcome

Thus, what predictions would one make about the phenomenon is under examination. This will be the foundation of application of research.

Steps in formulation of research question

In the research domain, a problem is described as a discrepancy between theory and reality, between different theories, between theory and practice, or between practice and desired practice [12]. Finding the ideal research problem does not mean simply selecting a topic from possibilities presented by your adviser or having such a topic assigned to you, attractive as this may first appear. It means going through the process of discovering and then developing a topic with all the initial anxiety and uncertainty such a choice entails. This is how you develop your capacity for independent thought.

Review prior research: Explore the research literature [13] to gain an understanding of the current state of knowledge pertaining to your research problem. A review of prior research will inform you if your research problem has already been explored (and if a revision or replication is needed), how to design your study, what data collection methods to use, and how to make sense of the findings of your study once data analysis is complete. Reviewing prior research can also help with creating research questions, what population to explore, and laying the theoretical groundwork for your study.

Determine Research Hypothesis and its Purpose: Identifying a clear purpose and creating a purpose statement helps determine how the research should be conducted, what research design to use, and the research question(s) or hypothesis of your study [13].

Four general purposes for conducting educational research to study the relation between two or more educational variables.

•Explore: an attempt to generate ideas about educational phenomenon,

•Describe: an attempt to describe the characteristics of educational phenomenon,

an attempt to forecast an educational phenomenon,

•Explain: an attempt to show why and how an educational phenomenon operates,

The purpose of your study will help you determine which research design you should follow. Your research purpose will also help you develop the research question(s) or hypothesis of your study. A research question is an extension of your purpose statement and specifically states the questions you will attempt to answer. Usually, research questions are used when your study’s purpose is more exploratory or descriptive.

Consider research implications: Implications are the practical ways your research will assist the field of education [13]. These are the underlying goals, the rationales for, or the importance of your study. Implications are linked to your research problem or topic, research purpose, and research question(s) or hypothesis (es).

Public health includes three major fields: (i) policy, as it is inherently a political enterprise that supplies services and allocates resources; (ii) practice, as policies need to be implemented to create social action and organise service delivery; and (iii) research, as interventions need to be developed and assessed on effectiveness and costbenefit ratios and a broad range of disciplines are relevant to these three major fields and public health as a whole. In fact, public health draws on biomedicine, epidemiology, biostatistics, genetics, nutrition, the behavioural sciences, health promotion, psychology, the social sciences (including social marketing), organisational development and public policy. These disciplines, each in their own way, have demonstrated that research implications are vital for improving the quality of public health today [14-17].


Research work should able to raise quality standards of the researcher and provide appropriate environment for fulfilling his/her personal and social goals within the boundary of rationality, logic and scientific thinking. Research topic should be such which is innovative and one is pretty sure that other competent colleague is not working on it [18].

And for any research to be undertaken it is a mandate to formulate a research question. It can be also stated that the research question should be able to generate enthusiasm and sustained interest, define solvable problem which is worth doing, would continue to stimulate more research questions but is manageable, and contribute significantly in learning techniques or giving rise to expertise methods, the original findings and adding to the literature appreciable by scholars, and leading to promising future for the researcher as well as the health sector.

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