Developing Meaningful Research Questions

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The first step to designing a study is deciding what research questions to ask.

The questions we ask are imbued with ethical meaning, as they ground the research in what we want to learn and why we want to do the work in the first place. Asking certain questions means not asking other questions, which ultimately has implications for society.​1​ While research questions tend to begin with an intellectual curiosity or interest in a specific topic, a good research question is one that aims to advance science, policy, and/or practice. In the hazards and disaster context, meaningful research questions are also of great practical concern, often with the intent of making discoveries that can help populations more effectively prepare for, respond to, recover from, and mitigate the impact of disaster.

Hulley and colleagues developed the FINER criteria to assist researchers in framing research questions.​2​ While originally developed for clinical research, these criteria are applicable across a range of disciplines within the hazards and disaster field, including public health, emergency management, sociology, psychology, and other disciplines that engage in human subjects research. The table below presents a modified version of the FINER criteria that can be used to develop good research questions and includes some suggestions on how to achieve each attribute.

FINER Criteria for Developing Research Questions

Criterion Strategies
Is the research question feasible? -Conduct a pilot study to assess the feasibility
-Use a less costly research design
-Consider modifying inclusion criteria for the study sample
Is it impactful? -Determine if it addresses an important burden or problem
-Determine if it can have a positive impact on the research population
Is it novel? -Review the literature to assess whether it addresses gaps
-Seek guidance from experienced researchers
Is it ethical? -Familiarize yourself with research ethics guidelines (e.g., Belmont Report)
-Obtain IRB approval prior to conducting research
-Consider whether questions can cause undue burden
Is it relevant—to scientific knowledge, policy, or practice? -Familiarize yourself with the literature
-Familiarize yourself with policy debates
-Familiarize yourself with existing practices
Adapted from Hulley et al., 2007​2​

Although there are no standardized guidelines for developing ethical research questions, the FINER criteria can help researchers begin the process of developing meaningful, achievable, and impactful research questions. It is important to note, however, that these criteria are established from the perspective of the researcher and not the participants involved. There is a currently a gap in the literature from the viewpoint of community members about the types of research questions that are beneficial or harmful. We acknowledge this limitation and believe that additional exploration of research ethics from the perspective of the community is warranted.

Once research questions are drafted, researchers should further evaluate their research questions before embarking on a study. The 2019 Public Health Code of Ethics can help researchers scrutinize the ethical implications of their proposed research. The table below provides a list of different questions that researchers can ask themselves to determine whether their research questions are ethical.

Questions Researchers Should Ask Themselves to Determine the Ethical Implications of Their Research

Criterion Question
Permissibility Even if the research were to produce positive outcomes—such as advancing knowledge that can be applied in the future—is the research question considered ethically wrong based on social, cultural, and historical norms of the community being studied?
Respect Would the research question lead to practices that are demeaning or disrespectful to individuals and communities even if it benefited them in other ways?
Reciprocity Will the research question lead to outcomes that will benefit the study participants and the greater community?
Effectiveness Is it reasonable to expect, based on the best available evidence and past experience, that the research question will achieve the study aims?
Responsible Use of Scarce Resources Will the proposed research use scarce resources, such as time, funding, and supplies, responsibly?
Proportionality Will the proposed research proportionately balance any risks and benefits experienced by the research participants?
Accountability/Transparency Is the research question conveyed in such a way that it can be understood and justified by the general public?
Public Participation Have relevant stakeholders had a meaningful opportunity to review or participate in developing the research question?
Adapted from the Public Health Code of Ethics​3​

The criteria listed in the table above can assist researchers in developing meaningful research questions by considering the broader ethical implications of their work. For instance, the public participation criterion would encourage researchers to collaborate with stakeholders to formulate research questions. By working with individuals impacted by a disaster, researchers can ensure that their research questions are most relevant to the community.​4​

  1. 1.
    O’Brien MH. Being a scientist means taking sides. BioScience. 1993;43(10):706-708.

  2. 2.
    Hulley SB, Cummings SR, Browner WS, Grady DG, Newman TB. Designing Clinical Research. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2007.

  3. 3.
    American Public Health Association. Public Health Code of Ethics. American Public Health Association; 2019:1-30. https://www.apha.org/-/media/files/pdf/membergroups/ethics/code_of_ethics.ashx

  4. 4.
    Lowlander Center. A Working Guide to Participatory Action Research as a Tool for Participatory Engagement and Problem-Solving.; 2013:1-28.