Developing an Effective Research Question

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Written by: Ellen Eisenbeis and Stacy Lynn

Why is My Research Question Important?

Setting your project up for success involves developing a research question that is clear, concise and achievable. This can be challenging, but is an essential step to creating a quality study. According to Jane Agee’s work on developing qualitative research questions, poorly constructed research questions can impact all stages of a study research project (2009). Your question may also affect how well you communicate about your project, its goals, and its results.

Given the enormous impact your research question can have on the success of your project, it’s important to have a well-researched, constructed and deliverable, clearly articulated question to guide your study. Your research question determines how you structure your project, what data you collect and how you collect it.

Picking Your Topic

Every research question should start with picking a broad area of study or an overall topic. For example, are you looking at ecosystem services in your area? Or monitoring a specific species? Once you’ve picked a topic, explore it thoroughly. Having a basic understanding of your subject matter can inform what questions you ask. Your exploration of the subject will allow you to understand what has already been studied, what needs to be researched further, and/or what hasn’t been researched at all. Sometimes you may find that research has been done, but in a different location. The process and outcomes of that research, and its successes and challenges, may contribute to the design of your study.

Once you have a basis on which to build your question, you can start to ask yourself questions about why or how something is occurring. Asking yourself broad questions, like why this subject matters to you or to others can help you narrow down your scope of research. Make a list of the questions that interest you and then begin to evaluate them.

Evaluating Your Research Question

Below is a list of criteria that can help you evaluate your research question. Ask yourself and reflect on your answers to each of these questions:

  • Is my question clear and concise?
  • Is my question researchable?
  • Is my question specific?
  • Is my question not common knowledge? (It should be an unknown.)
  • Is it possible to conduct the research within my timescale, within my budget and using my available tools?
  • Is it important? Is it relevant? Does it help solve a problem or create new knowledge?
  • Is my question quantifiable? Measurable?
  • What will I need to measure to answer my question?
  • How will I collect the data (tools, permissions and other considerations)?
  • What is the knowledge and training necessary for data collectors?
  • Will I be able to analyze the data?
  • Will the research process I’ve chosen be indisputable?

Adjusting Your Research Question

Questions that don’t fit into the points referenced above should be reassessed. One of the most difficult aspects of developing research questions is determining if your question will be difficult to research. You can address this by planning ahead. Try to think of the different steps you will have to take to answer your question. It may be helpful to contact experts in the area of study in order to refine your research and potentially give guidance as to how you should plan your project. Once you have a question you are confident in you can begin designing your new citizen science project.


Remember, that your research question is the basis of your project. Planning ahead and addressing potential hurdles can make your life easier and improve the outcomes of your project. Having a clear goal can help you develop your hypotheses, collect data as well as help you communicate your conclusions with others. Reaching out to experts and stakeholders can be helpful in picking topics of significance to them as well as helping to design your project. We hope that these suggestions help you to create a great – and successful – citizen science project!

If you have any suggestions for future topics that you would like to be covered please contact us at webmaster at with the subject line “Blog Post Suggestion”.


Alon, U. (2009). How to choose a good scientific problem. Molecular Cell, 35, 726-728.

Jane Agee (2009) Developing qualitative research questions: a reflective process, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 22:4, 431-447, DOI: 10.1080/09518390902736512

Center for Innovation in Research and Teaching (2017) Writing a Good Research Question, Grand Canyon University,

The Writing Center (2017) How to Write a Research Question,  George Mason University,

Cover Photo: Taggart Lake in Grand Teton National Park, WY- PC Ellen Eisenbeis

1 comments on “Developing an Effective Research Question”

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