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LIB 111: Expository Writing: Research Questions & Topics

Topics vs Questions

You have to know where you're going before you can figure out how to get there. It's true whether you're trying to navigate Boston or the literature for a research assignment. As you start exploring, keep in mind the differences between your topic and question:

Research Topic: a subject that you are interested in investigating. For instance, flu shots or vaccines are topics.

Research Question: drives your investigation. It is something that you want to know about your topic; something you will explore and try to answer. For example, "Does a delayed distribution timeline for childhood vaccines increase the likelihood that a child will contract a vaccine-preventable illness in the United States?" is a research question.     


Tip: If you need some help figuring out a question, go to back the classics: Who, What, When, Where or Why.

Exploring the Research Topic

As you consider a possible research topic, set aside some time to learn what people are saying about the topic by reading general sources on the Web or in library databases. Such general background sources will help you get the big picture. You might read a Wikipedia entry, the Website of a weekly news magazine, or a few related blogs to start to develop familiarity with the topic. 

Take time to find out not only what has been written about your topic but also what’s missing from the research conversation. Ask yourself questions such as these as you explore a topic: 

  • What aspects of the topic are generating the most debate?
  • Why and how are people disagreeing?
  • Which arguments and approaches seem worth exploring in more depth? 

Once you have an aerial view of the topic and are familiar with some of the existing conversation and issues related to the topic, you can zoom in closer to examine subtopics and debates that look interesting. Then you can seek out more scholarly source material. 

Adapted from Writer's Help

Thinking like a Researcher

To develop your authority as a researcher, you need to think like a researcher—asking interesting questions, becoming well informed through reading and evaluating sources, and citing sources to acknowledge other researchers. 

Be curious. What makes you angry, concerned, or perplexed? What topics and debates do you care about? What problems do you want to help solve? What expertise do you have? What expertise do you want to develop? Explore your topic from multiple perspectives, and let your curiosity drive your project. 
Be engaged. Talk with a librarian and learn how to use your library’s research tools and resources. Once you find promising sources, let one source lead you to another; follow bibliographic clues to learn who else has written about your topic. Listen to the key voices in the research conversation you’ve joined—and then respond. 

Be responsible. Use sources to develop and support your ideas rather than patching them together to let them speak for you. From the start of your research project, keep careful track of sources you read or view, place quotation marks around words copied from sources, and maintain accurate records for all bibliographic information. 

Be reflective. Keep a research log, and use your log to explore various ideas you are developing and to pose counterarguments to your research argument. Research is never a straightforward path, so use your log to reflect on the evolution of your project as well as your evolution as a researcher. 

Adapted from Writer's Help

Focused & Challenging Research Questions

If your initial question is too broad given the length of the paper you plan to write, look for ways to restrict your focus. For example, here's how two students students narrowed their initial questions.

Too Broad Narrower
What causes depression? How has the widespread use of antidepressant drugs affected rates of teenage suicide?
What are the benefits of stricter auto emissions standards? How could stricter auto emissions standards create new auto industry jobs and make US carmakers more competitive in the world market?

Your research paper will engage both you and your audience if you base it on an intellectually challenging line of inquiry. Avoid factual questions that fail to provoke thought or engage readers in a debate.

Too Factual Challenging
Is autism on the rise? Why is autism so difficult to treat?
Where is wind energy being used? What makes wind farms economically viable?

You'll need to address a factual question in the course of answering a more challenging one. For example, if you were writing about promising treatments for autism, you would no doubt answer the question "what is autism?" at some point in your paper, and even analyze competing definitions of autism to help support your arguments about the challenges of treating the condition. It would be unproductive, however, to use the factual question as the focus for the whole paper.

Adapted from Writer's Help

Grounded Research Questions

You will want to make sure that your research question is grounded, not too speculative. Although speculative questions—such as those that address morality or beliefs—are worth asking in a research paper, they are unsuitable central questions. For most college courses, the central argument of a research paper should be grounded in facts and should not be based entirely on beliefs. 

Too Speculative Grounded
Is it wrong to share pornographic personal photos by text? What role should the government play in regulating mobile content?
Do medical scientists have the right to experiment on animals? How have technical breakthroughs made medical experiments on animals increasingly unnecessary?

Adapted from Writer's Help

Examples of Research Question & Keywords

Example Research Topic The flu shot
Example Research Question What are the current best practices in communicating with area at-risk families about the safety of the flu vaccine to encourage immunization?
Examples of Initial Keywords

"flu vaccine" OR "influenza vaccine"

communication OR outreach

community OR at-risk

Courtesy of New Literacies Alliance's Ask the Right Questions

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