3.C: What is Research? A Research Question?

What is Research?

Three concepts/terms need to be defined and understood:

Research Question = A question of the thing-he/she-doesn’t-know that motivates his/her research.

Research – Definition 1 = Anything someone has to do to find out something he/she didn’t already know.

Research – Definition 2 = The physical process of gathering information + the mental process of deriving the answer to your research question from the information you gathered.


Examples of these three concepts are provided below:

Sometimes the answer to a student’s question or the information needed to fill the knowledge gap already exists.  For example,

1.  Does Columbus, Ohio, have a commercial airport?

The answer to this turns out to be yes, and the time to find the answer is about ten seconds.  A Google search of “airports in Ohio” produces as its first hit a Wikipedia entry titled “List of airports in Ohio.” A quick glance at the this document shows that Columbus does indeed have a commercial airport, and that it is one of the three largest airports in Ohio.

2.  Do any airlines offer direct flights from Kansas City to Columbus?

The answer to this appears to be no, and the time to find the answer is about two minutes.  Using Travelocity.com and searching for flights from MCI (Kansas City International Airport) to CMH (Port Columbus International Airport) gets the message “We’ve searched more than 400 airlines we sell and couldn’t find any flights from Kansas City (MCI) … [to] Columbus (CMH).” Doing the same search on Expedia.com and Orbitz.com yields the same answer.  There appear to be no direct flights from Kansas City to Columbus, Ohio.

Often, however, the questions needing to be answered are more complicated than this, which means that answer comes with some assembly required.

3.  What’s the best way to get from Kansas City to Columbus, Ohio?

Poster titled "Kansas" with hand-drawn images of landmarks noted across the stateTo answer this question requires a two stage process of gathering information about travel options and then evaluating the results based on parameters not stated in the question. We already know that it is possible to fly to Columbus, although no direct flights are available.  A quick look at a map shows that is also a relatively straightforward drive of about 650 miles. That’s the information gathering stage.  Now we have to evaluate the results based on things like cost, time and effort required, practicality given the purpose of the trip, and the personal preferences of the traveler.  For a business traveler for whom shortest possible travel time is more important than lowest cost, the final decision may be very different than for a college student with a large dog.

Although all three questions require information gathering, for the purposes of this course, questions like #1 and #2 are called “homework questions” (because someone can find the answer just by going to a single reference source and looking it up) and save the designation “research question” for questions like #3 for which developing a fully functional answer requires both gathering relevant information and then assembling it in a meaningful way.

So for the purposes of this course, research (definition 2) is the process of finding the information needed to answer the research question and then deriving or building the answer from the information found.


What is a Research Question?

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 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, by reframing the question “Should assisted suicide be legal?” to “What are the ethical implications of legalizing assisted suicide?” 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.