How existing studies can help you build a good research question

Building on existing studies

Editors and reviewers will assess how your study fits in with the current literature. They will also check: 

  • if your research question is an important one 
  • if your findings are useful, and 
  • if your research is ethical

When formulating your research question, remember the handy criteria FINER (Hulley et al., 2007)

  • Feasible: You have enough time, staff, and funding.
  • Interesting: People will be curious about your study.
  • Novel: Do a careful literature search to find a knowledge gap.
  • Ethical: Use a design method that ethics reviewers will approve.
  • Relevant: Your research will advance scientific practice or policy.

Regular reading of the literature is useful. Reading will allow you to see knowledge gaps in your field. These gaps are unanswered research questions. A gap can help you set the goal of your next research project.

Reference: Hulley SB, Cummings SR, Browner WS, Grady DG, Newman TB. Designing clinical research. 3rd ed. Lippincott Williams and Wilkins; 2007


Focusing your research question

A good research question guides your research. Your question should be clear and focused. It should use existing literature to present a unique hypothesis. 

Throughout your study, keep asking yourself, “How is my research special? Why should people care?”

A successful research project needs a well-formulated research question. Base your research question on existing knowledge in your field of study. Relate it to a problem that people face daily. Discuss the research question with your colleagues and project supervisors to refine it. 

Focus your question. Make it specific. Will you be able to answer that question within the time and resources you have?

Research question examples: 

  • Bad: What is the relationship between antipsychotics and alcohol? (The kind of relationship being investigated is not clear)
  • Better: How do antipsychotic drugs influence the effects of alcohol consumption?(This is clearer. But it is still unclear what kind of influence is being investigated)
  • Best: Do antipsychotic drugs increase the effects of alcohol consumption on memory? (The kind of influence being investigated is clear)


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