Content » Vol 45, Issue 6

Special report

When is a research question not a research question?

Nancy E. Mayo, Miho Asano, Skye Pamela Barbic
School of Physical and Occupational Therapy and Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and Occupational Health, Faculty of Medicine, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, H3A-1A1, Canada. E-mail:
DOI: 10.2340/16501977-1150


Background: Research is undertaken to answer important questions yet often the question is poorly expressed and lacks information on the population, the exposure or intervention, the comparison, and the outcome. An optimal research question sets out what the investigator wants to know, not what the investigator might do, nor what the results of the study might ultimately contribute.
Objective: The purpose of this paper is to estimate the extent to which rehabilitation scientists optimally define their research questions.
Methods: A cross-sectional survey of the rehabilitation research articles published during 2008. Two raters independently rated each question according to pre-specified criteria; a third rater adjudicated all discrepant ratings.
Results: The proportion of the 258 articles with a question formulated as methods or expected contribution and not as what knowledge was being sought was 65%; 30% of questions required reworking. The designs which most often had poorly formulated research questions were randomized trials, cross-sectional and measurement studies.
Conclusion: Formulating the research question is not purely a semantic concern. When the question is poorly formulated, the design, analysis, sample size calculations, and presentation of results may not be optimal. The gap between research and clinical practice could be bridged by a clear, complete, and informative research question.

Lay Abstract


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