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Writing Research Papers: Research Questions/Search Terms

This guide is intended to provide help with topic selection, research tips and strategies, and citing sources.

Developing a Research Question

A research question is a clear, focused and complex question which provides a path through the research process.

Steps to developing a research question:

  1. Choose an interesting general topic. Choose a broad topic about which you would like to know more. An example of a general topic might be “Slavery in the American South” or “Global Warming” or “Health Care in America” or “Politics in the Middle East” or “Poverty.”
     
  2. Do some preliminary research on your general topic. Do a few quick Web searches on your topic to help you narrow your focus. What questions are raised by this early research?
     
  3. Start asking questions. Start asking yourself open-ended “how” and “why” questions about your general topic. For example, “What were some of the experiences of children who were slaves in the American South?” or “What policies should the US government adopt to alleviate poverty?”
     
  4. Evaluate your research question:

Is it clear?  A strong research question should never leave room for ambiguity or interpretation.
Example:
Unclear:  Why are social networking sites harmful?
Clear:  How are online users experiencing or addressing privacy issues on Facebook?

The unclear version of this question assumes that this “harm” is proven and/or accepted. The clearer version specifies a site (Facebook) and the type of harm (privacy issues).

Is it focused?  When in doubt, make a research question as narrow and focused as possible.
Example:
Unfocused:  What is the effect on the environment from global warming?
Focused:  How is glacial melting affecting penguins in Antarctica?
The unfocused research question is so broad that it can’t be answered in a book. The focused version narrows down to a specific cause (glacial melting), a specific place (Antarctica), and a specific group that is affected (penguins).

Is it complex?  If a quick Google search can answer a research question, it’s not effective.
Example:
Too simple:  What is the current rate of childhood obesity?
Appropriately Complex:  What is the relationship between video gaming and childhood obesity?
The simple version of this question can be looked up online and answered in a few factual sentences; it leaves no room for analysis. The more complex version is thought provoking and requires both significant investigation and evaluation from the writer.

This is a simplified version of the Writing Center website at George Mason University: 
http://writingcenter.gmu.edu/writing-resources

Generating Search Terms

The Importance of Search Terms

Are you used to using Google? You should know that academic tools such as the Library catalog and research databases need different search techniques. Let's use a simple example. If your research question is:

What are the public health consequences of legalizing marijuana?

In Google, you could just type in the entire question and get pretty good results. But if you are going to search the online catalog or research databases, you'll need to simplify your query. Focus on the most important words in your query and search using only them. Make it simple:

"public health" legal* marijuana

Notice that I put quotes around the phrase. I also put an asterisk (*) at the end of legal. That way, I'll get articles that have the word legal, legalize, legalizing, and any other word that begins with the letters l e g a l.

It's also useful to think of other words that mean similar things, in case your first query doesn't bring back what you want. For example, here are some other queries that might work:

epidemiology law* cannabis

"mental health" tetrahydrocannabinol

health cannabis

Try looking for words you can use in thesauri, Wikipedia, reference books, or just using Google. Mix and match. Stumped? Ask a librarian for help.

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