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The first step in any research effort is identification of the specific question that will be investigated. This is the most important and often most difficult part of the research process, because it controls the direction of all subsequent planning and analysis. The delineation of a precise question is an analytic and evolutionary process, requiring a thorough search through the literature to determine what information is already available on the topic. Throughout the search the researcher re-examines and redefines the purpose of the research, honing it and clarifying it until, finally, an important "researchable" question is asked.

The overall process for identifying a research question starts with the selection of a research topic that sparks some interest, and the subsequent exploration of that topic by examining issues in clinical practice and theory, and reading the professional literature. This information leads to the identification of a research problem, a broad statement that begins to focus the direction of study. The problem is then refined to a research question, which is specific and defined. The "question" may actually be in the form of a statement or an interrogatory; in either case, it delimits the purpose of the study. Several components will shape the question, including an evaluation of its importance and feasibility, specification of the population to be studied, development of a research rationale to support the question, and a description of the specific variables to be studied. Throughout this process, the researcher relies on a comprehensive review of the literature to provide the background necessary for decision making. The research question is then translated into a statement that reflects the expected outcomes of the study, clarifying the research objectives in the form of hypotheses or a statement of purpose for the study.

The development of a question as the basis for a research study must be distinguished from the process for development of a clinical question in evidence-based practice. In the latter instance, the clinician formulates a question to guide a literature search that will address a particular decision regarding a patient's intervention, diagnosis or prognosis (see Chapter 1).

The purpose of this chapter is to clarify the framework for developing and refining a feasible research question, to define the different types of variables that form the basis for the question, to describe how research objectives guide a study, and to discuss how the review of literature contributes to this process.


The research process begins when a researcher identifies a specific topic of interest (see Figure 7.1). Many beginning researchers approach the initial phase of the research process by "looking for a question." Students may be required to generate a question for a project to meet academic requirements. Certainly, there is no paucity of clinical problems that need to be investigated, however, developing a research question should not be merely a fishing ...

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