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The start of 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 purpose of this chapter is to clarify the process for developing and refining a feasible research question, define the different types of variables that form the basis for a question, describe how research objectives guide a study, and discuss how the review of literature contributes to this process. Whether designing a study or appraising the work of others, we need to appreciate where research questions come from and how they direct study methods, analysis, and interpretation of outcomes.

Selecting a Topic

The research process begins when a researcher identifies a broad topic of interest. Questions grow out of a need to know something that is not already known, resolve a conflict, confirm previous findings, or clarify some piece of information that is not sufficiently documented. Researchers are usually able to identify interests in certain patient populations, specific types of interventions, clinical theory, or fundamental policy issues.


To illustrate the process of identifying a research problem, let us start with an example. Assume a researcher is interested in exploring issues related to pressure ulcers, a common and serious health problem. Let us see how this interest can be developed.

The Research Problem

Once a topic is identified, the process of clarifying a research problem begins by sorting through ideas based on clinical experience and observation, theories, and professional literature to determine what we know and what we need to find out. The application of this information will lead to identification of a research problem that will eventually provide the foundation for delineating a specific question that can be answered in a single study.

Clarify the Problem

Typically, research problems start out broad, concerned with general clinical problems or theoretical issues. This is illustrated in the top portion of Figure 3-1, showing a process that will require many iterations of possible ideas that may go back and forth. These ideas must be manipulated and modified several times before they become narrowed sufficiently to propose a specific question. Beginning researchers are often unprepared for the amount of time and thought required to formulate and hone a precise question that is testable. It is sometimes frustrating to accept that only one small facet of a problem can be addressed in a single study. First, the topic has to be made more explicit, such as:

How can we effectively manage pressure ulcers?

Figure 3–1

Five-step process for developing a research question. Portions of these steps may vary, depending on the type of research question ...

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