Problem Formulation

“Well begun is half done” –Aristotle, quoting an old proverb

Where do research topics come from?

So how do researchers come up with the idea for a research project? Probably one of the most common sources of research ideas is the experience of practical problems in the field. Many researchers are directly engaged in social, health or human service program implementation and come up with their ideas based on what they see happening around them. Others aren’t directly involved in service contexts, but work with (or survey) people who are in order to learn what needs to be better understood. Many of the ideas would strike the outsider as silly or worse. For instance, in health services areas, there is great interest in the problem of back injuries among nursing staff. It’s not necessarily the thing that comes first to mind when we think about the health care field. But if you reflect on it for a minute longer, it should be obvious that nurses and nursing staff do an awful lot of lifting in performing their jobs. They lift and push heavy equipment, and they lift and push oftentimes heavy patients! If 5 or 10 out of every hundred nursing staff were to strain their backs on average over the period of one year, the costs would be enormous – and that’s pretty much what’s happening. Even minor injuries can result in increased absenteeism. Major ones can result in lost jobs and expensive medical bills. The nursing industry figures that this is a problem that costs tens of millions of dollars annually in increased health care. And, the health care industry has developed a number of approaches, many of them educational, to try to reduce the scope and cost of the problem. So, even though it might seem silly at first, many of these practical problems that arise in practice can lead to extensive research efforts.

Another source for research ideas is the literature in your specific field. Certainly, many researchers get ideas for research by reading the literature and thinking of ways to extend or refine previous research. Another type of literature that acts as a source of good research ideas is the Requests For Proposals (RFPs) that are published by government agencies and some companies. These RFPs describe some problem that the agency would like researchers to address – they are virtually handing the researcher an idea! Typically, the RFP describes the problem that needs addressing, the contexts in which it operates, the approach they would like you to take to investigate to address the problem, and the amount they would be willing to pay for such research. Clearly, there’s nothing like potential research funding to get researchers to focus on a particular research topic.

And let’s not forget the fact that many researchers simply think up their research topic on their own. Of course, no one lives in a vacuum, so we would expect that the ideas you come up with on your own are influenced by your background, culture, education and experiences.

Is the study feasible?

Very soon after you get an idea for a study reality begins to kick in and you begin to think about whether the study is feasible at all. There are several major considerations that come into play. Many of these involve making tradeoffs between rigor and practicality. To do a study well from a scientific point of view may force you to do things you wouldn’t do normally. You may have to control the implementation of your program more carefully than you otherwise might. Or, you may have to ask program participants lots of questions that you usually wouldn’t if you weren’t doing research. If you had unlimited resources and unbridled control over the circumstances, you would always be able to do the best quality research. But those ideal circumstances seldom exist, and researchers are almost always forced to look for the best tradeoffs they can find in order to get the rigor they desire.

There are several practical considerations that almost always need to be considered when deciding on the feasibility of a research project. First, you have to think about how long the research will take to accomplish. Second, you have to question whether there are important ethical constraints that need consideration. Third, can you achieve the needed cooperation to take the project to its successful conclusion. And fourth, how significant are the costs of conducting the research. Failure to consider any of these factors can mean disaster later.

The Literature Review

One of the most important early steps in a research project is the conducting of the literature review. This is also one of the most humbling experiences you’re likely to have. Why? Because you’re likely to find out that just about any worthwhile idea you will have has been thought of before, at least to some degree. Every time I teach a research methods course, I have at least one student come to me complaining that they couldn’t find anything in the literature that was related to their topic. And virtually every time they have said that, I was able to show them that was only true because they only looked for articles that were exactly the same as their research topic. A literature review is designed to identify related research, to set the current research project within a conceptual and theoretical context. When looked at that way, there is almost no topic that is so new or unique that we can’t locate relevant and informative related research.

Some tips about conducting the literature review. First, concentrate your efforts on the scientific literature. Try to determine what the most credible research journals are in your topical area and start with those. Put the greatest emphasis on research journals that use a blind review system. In a blind review, authors submit potential articles to a journal editor who solicits several reviewers who agree to give a critical review of the paper. The paper is sent to these reviewers with no identification of the author so that there will be no personal bias (either for or against the author). Based on the reviewers’ recommendations, the editor can accept the article, reject it, or recommend that the author revise and resubmit it. Articles in journals with blind review processes can be expected to have a fairly high level of credibility. Second, do the review early in the research process. You are likely to learn a lot in the literature review that will help you in making the tradeoffs you’ll need to face. After all, previous researchers also had to face tradeoff decisions.

What should you look for in the literature review? First, you might be able to find a study that is quite similar to the one you are thinking of doing. Since all credible research studies have to review the literature themselves, you can check their literature review to get a quick-start on your own. Second, prior research will help assure that you include all of the major relevant constructs in your study. You may find that other similar studies routinely look at an outcome that you might not have included. If you did your study without that construct, it would not be judged credible if it ignored a major construct. Third, the literature review will help you to find and select appropriate measurement instruments. You will readily see what measurement instruments researchers use themselves in contexts similar to yours. Finally, the literature review will help you to anticipate common problems in your research context. You can use the prior experiences of others to avoid common traps and pitfalls.