There are no hard and fast rules on choosing a topic or developing a research question but there are some tips I have learnt along the way. In the quest for research brilliance clinicians tend to get caught up with the need to be truly ‘original’. But, I think it is important for us all to bear in mind, it does not have to be ground breaking, breath-taking or world-changing in order to impact or effect change. It just needs to be different than anything that has been done before. This may be as simple as looking at a disease process in a different population, a different setting or examining different outcome measures. The end goal for every researcher is essentially the same – to produce feasible and clinically relevant research which will effect change and impact positively on the patient journey and the practitioners work environment. We all have the power to effect change however, we have to be proactive and willing to put in the hard work to reap the rewards.
No clinician just wakes up one day and says ‘I’m going to do research today’. For most of us it is an exercise that must be completed as part of an academic qualification; for others it is a choice and an interest that has developed over time. Irrespective of the driver for research, before you put ‘pen to paper’ or ‘fingers to keyboard’ you must identify your research topic. Identifying the research topic is an important step in the research process and will narrow your field of inquiry and facilitate the generation of the ‘Research Question’. In my experience as a research nurse and clinical researcher, the one thing that will get you from the conception to the completion of a research project is passion. The road to a research project or career can be long, lonely and, at times, challenging. It is your passion for your topic which will carry you through. It will be a constant reminder of why you started this project in the first place. If your chosen topic doesn’t light your fire, it will soon burn out.
The topic which I examined for my PhD was a combination of my passion; the appropriate assessment and management of pain in the emergency setting coupled with the increasing frustration felt by myself and my colleagues in relation to patient flow and adequate management of patients presenting to the ED with minor injuries. With that in mind, you need to ask yourself a question; What am I passionate about? Not sure of the answer, well let me rephrase the question. What in your daily working life really ‘lights your fire’ or ‘gets on your nerves’? It could be anything from elements of clinical practice to hospital policies or procedure. Every clinician I know, doctors and nurses alike, have a topic that they love or a pet hate relating to a particular area of clinical practice. Identifying the culprit is easy and don’t be surprised if there is more than one. This is how you pick your research topic.
Focusing on a research question
So you’ve got your topic; now, the hard part is narrowing your focus of inquiry to the research question. There is a distinct difference between the topic and the research question. The topic is the broadest point of the research process, and the question is what you hope to learn about the topic. This can be a challenge because, generally, it is not one aspect of a topic that we are interested in or that annoys us; for most of us, there are multiple factors of interest. So the challenge is in the choice.
To narrow the field of inquiry, we must establish what aspect of this topic will facilitate the generation of a good research question.
What makes a good research question?
As with everything in clinical research, there is no specific recipe for the perfect ‘Research Question’. Several features define a good research question.
- Does it have a purpose?
- Is it interesting to the broader community within that particular field of study?
- Are you filling a knowledge gap, contributing to professional development or enhancing clinical practice?
- The intended project’s scope and scale must be within your ability as an individual researcher.
- Feasibility – do you have access to the desired population, the required data and collegial support and buy-in?
- What are the barriers to recruitment and data collection?
- Do you have the resources?
- Do you have a contingency plan?
Originality and Substance
- Originality is a nuanced subject within clinical research. As medicine progresses, the ability to be genuinely original is reduced. However, your research question cannot simply replicate someone else’s research. You must display your capacity for independent logical thought in your question construction.
- The substance of your research will be measured against the impact or effect of the results or findings.
- Broad, vague research questions illustrate the researcher’s lack of understanding and adequate preparation.
- Lack of clarity around the research question generates disorganised data and adds unnecessary complexity to the final analysis.
- A researcher without passion for their project is a researcher doomed to fail.
- It is important not to be led into the common research traps such as:
- Convenience – a pre-existing question identified and designed by someone else which you have adopted.
- Trends – questions that arise from specific circumstances. This situation is generally transient, and as these circumstances change, the enthusiasm for the topic also changes.
- Who does the research benefit?
- What are the potential risks to participants?
- Could there be any undesirable consequences?
Once you have carefully shaped and crafted your research question, it is time to look into the methods you’d like to adopt to answer the question. You must always select your question first and then decide on your research methods, not the other way around.