6.3 The Qualities of a Good Research Question

Consider again the following definitions for ‘research’ and ‘research question,’ which apply to the work that we do when we conduct scholarly or academic research:

Research – The physical Process of gathering information, plus the mental process of drawing conclusions from that information in order to answer a research question.

Research Question – A question that can be answered through a process of collecting relevant information and then drawing conclusions and building the answer from the relevant information

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.

Image of a round orange button with a white question mark, against a yellow background
  1. A good research question is a question that CAN be answered in an objective way, at least partially and at least for now.
    • Questions that are based purely on your personal values (such as “Why should assisted suicide be legal?”) or personal preferences (such as “What is the best kind of diet: meat, vegetarian, or vegan?”) cannot be answered objectively because the answer varies depending on one own values or preferences.  Be wary of questions that include “should” or “ought” because those words often (although not always) indicate a values- or preference based question.However, note that most values-based questions can be turned into research questions by judicious reframing.  For instance, you could reframe “Why 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 about which you can draw conclusions based on information that already exists or that can be collected.
    • For instance, 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. Instead, you might ask a question such as “What do the discoveries about organisms that live in extreme environments on earth tell us about the possibility of beyond the planet earth?” since this draws from scientific information that does exist in order to draw conclusions.
  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. As you do preliminary research, think carefully about the questions that do not appear to be (fully) answered. These questions make better research questions.