Research Problem: How to Narrow Your Research Topic

research topic choice

It is very typical for students to set off on a research topic, only to find out that the topic they’ve chosen is too broad. If you are lucky, you will find out before you conduct too much research, because much of the research you carry out in the beginning will be useless once you finally do narrow your topic.

It is a good idea to run your initial research idea by a teacher or librarian to get an expert opinion. He or she will save you some time and give you some tips on narrowing the scope of your topic.

How Will You Know If Your Topic Is Too Broad?

If you find yourself in the library staring at a shelf full of books that could work as references for your topic, your topic is too broad. A good topic addresses a specific question or problem.

If your topic can be summed up in a word or two, like smoking, school cheating, education, overweight teens, corporeal punishment, Korean War, or hip hop, it is too broad.

If you have trouble coming up with a thesis statement, your topic is probably too broad.

A good research project must be narrowed down in order to be meaningful and manageable.

How to Narrow Your Topic

The best way to narrow your topic is to apply a few of the old familiar question words, like who, what, where, when, why, and how.

Paddling as punishment.
Paddling in grade school. (where)
Emotional effects of paddling in grade school. (what and where)
Emotional effects of paddling on female children (what, who)
Hip hop dancing.
Hip hop as therapy. (what)
Hip hop as therapy in Japan. (what and where)
Hip hop as therapy for delinquent youth in Japan. (what, where, who)
Eventually you will see that the process of narrowing your research topic actually makes your project more interesting. Already, you’re one step closer to a better grade!

Another Tactic for Getting a Clear Focus

Another good method for narrowing your focus involves brainstorming a list of terms and questions related to your broad topic.

To demonstrate, let’s start with a broad subject like unhealthy behavior as an example. Imagine that your instructor has given this subject as a writing prompt.

You can make a list of somewhat-related, random nouns and see if you can ask questions to relate the two topics. This results in a narrow subject! Here is a demonstration:

That looks really random, doesn’t it? But your next step is to come up with a question that connects the two subjects. The answer to that question is the starting point for a thesis statement.

Art and unhealthy behavior: Is there a specific piece of art that represents the hazards of smoking? Is there a famous artist who died from an unhealthy habit?
Sandwiches and unhealthy behavior: What happens if you eat sandwiches every day for dinner? Are ice cream sandwiches really bad for us?

Finding the right research question

bulls eye

The first and most important step when writing an academic paper is choosing a topic that will advance knowledge and add another building block to the study of science and humanity. As a corollary, it’s quite unlikely that a journal editor will accept a paper that does not have a good research question.

A clearly defined research question increases chances of publication, because it gives the researchers greater clarity on developing the study protocol, designing the study, and analyzing the data.  A well-defined research question also makes a good initial impression on journal editors and peer reviewers. In contrast, a poorly formulated research question can seriously harm your chances of publication, among other adverse effects, because it can easily lead to the perception that the research wasn’t well thought out.

Although a single paper can address more than one research question, it is good practice to focus on one primary research question. 3 So what makes a good research question? While the answer may vary for different types of papers and across disciplines, there are a few overall criteria that you should keep in mind, whether you are writing about Shakespeare, stem cells, or steel processing.

So what?

First and foremost, any research question should pass the “so what?” test 4: the findings that result from pursuing this question must be important, interesting, and meaningful. Once you have determined the possible outcomes of your research, always ask yourself “So what?”

be guided

For example, the research question “Are good surgeons likely to have long fingers?” is highly unlikely to yield any meaningful knowledge. On the other hand, a targeted question like “Do dexterity tests predict surgical performance among residents?” could help medical training professionals improve training programs in surgical techniques.

Lack of originality in findings – in other words, “novelty” – is one of the most common reasons for rejection by journals. Editors of scientific journals stress on novelty and “unobviousness”; the research question should not already have an obvious or undisputed answer.  As some journals reject up to 90% of the papers submitted for publication, it is important to ensure that your paper stands out and provides value in one of the following ways:

contributes new information that has real-world application or leads to further lines of research,
corroborates existing information and extends their generalizability or applicability,
provides findings that contradict the literature, or
critically reviews and analyzes the literature.
Good research questions can arise from critical thinking about current practices and problems, from applying new concepts or methods to old problems, and from ideas that emerge when you teach your subject to others. Replication is acceptable…sometimes

Not all papers convey absolutely unknown information. For instance, it may be interesting to know whether other researchers’ observations can be replicated (especially if the observations were controversial or weak but significant), whether the findings in one population also apply to others, or to clarify known relationships by using new methodologies.

Tips for finding and formulating good research questions

Clinical or field experience, as well as your own research interests, is obviously important in identifying potential lines of research. However, a thorough review of the existing literature is always critical to make sure your question hasn’t become irrelevant. In addition, keep abreast of current developments in the field to avoid doing the very same thing someone else has done (with the enormous amount of scientific output being produced nowadays, this is not an unlikely scenario).

You can also find new research questions from the literature. For instance, the Discussion section of many papers often mentions unresolved questions and additional experiments or studies that can be done. In particular, if the conclusions or generalizability of another study has attracted a lot of controversy, you could attempt to replicate the study in order to validate its results. 4 In sum, a good research question can arise when you identify gaps and weaknesses in the existing literature.


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