Any empirical research—quantitative or qualitative—should be guided from the outset by a question or set of questions. The question defines precisely what is being examined and how an assessment of the results will be undertaken.
The research question begins with a research problem, an issue someone would like to know more about or a situation that needs to be changed or addressed, such as:
Areas of concern
Conditions that could be improved
Difficulties that need to be eliminated
Questions seeking answers
The question is feasible.
The question is clear.
The question is significant.
The question is ethical.
The feasibility of the question should guide not only the expression of the question but its conception. Feasibility should be foremost in the researcher’s mind in the earliest stages of any project. Reviewers will always evaluate the feasibility of a question (possibly before other elements).
Clear expression signals clear thinking. Not only must the question be clear in the mind of the research, it must be articulated clearly. Again, reviewers of a manuscript will insist upon clear question so that the potential audience will be able to understand the question and, thus, follow the write-up of the project.
Significance may be said to be in the eye of the beholder. One way to gauge significance is to ascertain whether a reading audience will be able to take away a lesson from the project. Work that is very limited—say, to a single organization—may not be looked upon with favor by reviewers. If the question and the project are important enough that readers learn from the work, then it generally passes the significance test.
Human subjects must be treated fairly, both individually and as groups. This means that no person or group can be disadvantaged or harmed in the process of the inquiry. Researchers must follow the rules of local Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) in order to ensure that project participants are protected from any possible harm. IRBs are most commonly used for studies in the fields of health and the social sciences.
A key goal of IRBs is to protect human subjects from physical or psychological harm by reviewing research protocols and related materials. The protocol review assesses the ethics of the research and its methods, promotes fully informed and voluntary participation by prospective subjects capable of making such choices, and seeks to maximize the safety of subjects.
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Department of Health and Human Services (specifically Office for Human Research Protections) regulations have empowered IRBs to approve, require modifications in planned research prior to approval, or disapprove research (see Human subject research legislation in the United States).
Arthur Hafner has suggested a number of topics for library research. Topics mentioned can be developed in many ways.
These kinds of topics can be articulated as questions that can guide inquiry. For example:
“What is the role of adaptive technologies in attracting persons with disabilities into the library?”
Corollary Question: “How can adaptive technologies affect the access to information resources for people with disabilities?”
“What effect does information literacy instruction have on the range of materials that are cited in student term papers?”
Corollary question: “Do students who have been exposed to information literacy instruction tend to cite more scholarly articles in their papers for writing-intensive courses?”
“Do the increasing costs of electronic information (databases and aggregators) have an impact on what can be spent on other kinds of materials?
Corollary Question: “Do the increases in subscriptions and licenses result in changes to the numbers of books and monographs that can be purchased by the library?"
These examples include feasibility, clarity, significance, and ethics. If those key elements can be incorporated into questions, there is a greater likelihood that the researcher can be guided to the completion of meaningful projects.