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4.1: The Qualities of a Good Research Question

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  • Research = the physical process of gathering information + the mental process of deriving the answer to your question from the information you gathered.

    Research writing = the process of sharing the answer to your research question along with the evidence on which your answer is based, the sources you used, and your own reasoning and explanation.

    Developing a good research question is the foundation of a successful research project, so it is worth spending time and effort understanding what makes a good question.


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    1. A research question is a question that CAN be answered in an objective way, at least partially and at least for now.
      • Questions that are purely values-based (such as “Should assisted suicide be legal?”) cannot be answered objectively because the answer varies depending on one’s values.  Be wary of questions that include “should” or “ought” because those words often (although not always) indicate a values-based question.However, note that most values-based questions can be turned into research questions by judicious reframing.  For instance, you could reframe “Should assisted suicide be legal?” as “What are the ethical implications of legalizing assisted suicide?”  Using a “what are” frame turns a values-based question into a legitimate research question by moving it out of the world of debate and into the world of investigation.
    2. A good research question is one that can be answered using information that already exists or that can be collected.
      • The question, “Does carbon-based life exist outside of Earth’s solar system?” is a perfectly good research question in the sense that it is not values-based and therefore could be answered in an objective way, IF it were possible to collect data about the presence of life outside of Earth’s solar system.  That is not yet possible with current technology; therefore, this is not (yet) a research question because it’s not (now) possible to obtain the data that would be needed to answer it.
    3. A good research question is a question that hasn’t already been answered, or hasn’t been answered completely, or hasn’t been answered for your specific context.
      • If the answer to the question is readily available in a good encyclopedia, textbook, or reference book, then it is a homework question, not a research question. It was probably a research question in the past, but if the answer is so thoroughly known that you can easily look it up and find it, then it is no longer an open question.However, it is important to remember that as new information becomes available, homework questions can sometimes be reopened as research questions.  Equally important, a question may have been answered for one population or circumstance, but not for all populations or all circumstances.
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