Home Analysis of Professional Literature
Class 1: Introduction
James Neill
Last updated:
27 Mar 2003

Start by reading the syllabus

Scientific inquiry
Philosophy, theory, models, research, evaluation, thesis, & project
Research process
What is a research question?
Task 1: Generating research questions
Evaluation questions about research topics
Recommended reading

Philosophy of Scientific Inquiry


Scientific inquiry refers to a set of assumptions and methods for investigating answers to questions.  Scientific inquiry is characterized by its systematic approach to problem solving based on assumptions of positivism, empiricism, and objectivity. 


Positivism refers to the assumption that all phenomena, whether physical, natural, social, or psychological, exhibit persistent pattern or regularities that can be studied.  According to logical positivism, there are only two sources of knowledge: logical reasoning and empirical experience.


Empiricism refers to the assumption that only empirical evidence is acceptable and that only phenomenon which can be validly observed can be studied scientifically.  According to empiricism, a statement is meaningful if and only if it can be proved true or false, at least in principle, by means of experience.  Read more...


Objectivity refers to the assumption that the scientific evidence is collected and treated "uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices."  This definition highlights the responsibility that every scientist must take to make sure that their values do not affect the validity of their inquiry and bias their findings. That is a very high standard and one that needs to be constantly reinforced. To enhance objectivity, scientists adopt various measures to enhance objectivity. During the research process, scientists use randomization, blinding, statistical control, or other procedures to minimize, control for, or eliminate bias that may cause misleading findings. In interpreting and publishing their findings, scientists use methods such as peer review and replication as ways to make their work more objective. The extent to which scientists achieve objectivity in their work, it scientific value is enhanced.  Read more...


Key Terms:
Philosophy, Theory, Research, Evaluation, Thesis, & Project


Philosophy refers to the general set of assumptions which underlie a particular outlook, practice, or method.  In the case of science, positivistic assumptions are made.


Theory: Theory proposes abstract principles to explain and predict phenomena.   Scientific theories provide a basic framework within which scientific inquiry can take place. Scientific theories are based on the positivistic philosophy used by science. Theory gives rise to development of models and hypotheses which guide the design of research projects.  Good theory should be based on evidence and should be testable.


"A scientific theory is an axiomatic system that obtains an empirical interpretation through appropriate statements called rules of correspondence, which establish a correlation between real objects (or real processes) and the abstract concepts of the theory. The language of a theory includes two kinds of terms: observational and theoretical. The statements of a theory are divided in two groups: analytic and synthetic. Observational terms denote objects or properties that can be directly observed or measured, while theoretical terms denote objects or properties we cannot observe or measure but we can only infer from direct observations. Analytic statements are a priori and their truth is based on the rules of the language; on the contrary, synthetic statements depend on experience, and their truth can be acknowledged only by means of the experience. This conception about the structure of scientific theories is perhaps the most durable philosophical principle of the logical positivism." (http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/l/logpos.htm

Models: Models are based on scientific theory, and seek to explain a particular sub-set of phenomena at a reasonably detailed level.  For example, using a theory that it is psychologically healthy for humans to express their feelings, a group facilitator might use a particular debriefing model to guide a group discussion. 


Research is the active process of investigation which usually follows a series of stages from developing research questions based on theory and models, design of methodology, collection and analysis of data, and interpretation and reporting.  Research implements scientific inquiry to test scientific theory.  In conducting research, one should be aware of the general assumptions of scientific inquiry, the underlying theory, and models derived to explain and predict the phenomena in question.


Evaluation investigates specific instances of phenomena (e.g., "How well did this particular intervention program work with this particular group of individuals?") as opposed to research which focuses on investigating a representative sample to allow for generalization to a broader class of phenomena (e.g., "Are ropes challenge courses effective for improving teamwork?").


Thesis vs. Project: In the sciences, a thesis is usually a scientific research study conducted by a student under the tutelage of experienced researchers.  A project is often offered as an alternative, allowing advanced study of a topic.  The topic is often more directly related to professional practice and practical, community needs than for a thesis, which is usually based on theoretical issues.  Read more...


Research Process


The research process usually involves the following six stages:

  1. Identifying a problem (or Research Question)

  2. Reviewing the literature & making hypothesis

  3. Designing a research method

  4. Conducting an experiment and/or collecting data

  5. Data analysis

  6. Interpretation, report writing and dissemination of findings

This course concentrates on Steps 1, 2 and 3.


What is a Research Question?

A research question sets the sails of a research study in a particular direction.  A good question is:

  • Stated as a question: as silly as this sounds, some people have difficulties expressing their topic of interest in terms of question

  • Specific: get down to business and say exactly what is of interest

  • Includes key terms and/or variables to be investigated: make sure the major concepts and their proposed relationships are stated

  • Can be operationalized: in practical terms, can a study can be designed in an attempt to answer the question?

  • Is written simply: One sentence only, short and punchy is usually best.  If you need to write more, you probably don't know your topic well enough.

Example: Does sport supplement drink X increase physical endurance?

Task 1: Generating Research Questions


For Task 1, select a research topic, generate possible research questions, select three questions and refine them, and then evaluate those questions.  This is due as a written report via email attachment by midnight next Wednesday.  Use this text in the subject line of your email "KIN901: Research Questions" and name your attachment "KIN901 Research Questions Firstname Lastname.doc".


1. Select the general research topic that you would like to review the literature on for this class.  Topic selection is crucial.  Ideally, this will become the topic your thesis or project, so you are strongly encouraged to discuss the topic with potential faculty supervisors.


Choosing a subject for a research paper calls for good judgment and solid decision-making skills. The imagination and insight that goes into defining the research problem usually determines the ultimate value of a research study more than any other factor.  The right topic can make your thesis; the wrong one can break it.  Think through a subject completely before you launch into indepth reading and writing.  Unsuitable subjects often share one or more of the following characteristics:


• They cannot be completed within the time allocated (i.e., too broad).

• They cannot be researched since the material does not exist (i.e., too narrow)

• They do not persuade since they are expository or narrative (i.e., pedestrian).

• They are inappropriate for the purposes of the course of study (i.e. lacks relevance).


Nearly every subject can be researched, but not every subject should be researched. For example, why bother researching a subject that many others have done before you? Trite, shopworn, and boring subjects usually lead to trite, shopworn, and boring research papers. Start with a fresh, exciting subject, although it is important that this topic is relevant to the field and builds on existing research.  Having said, this, there is a fine line to tread - you must also find a topic which can be completed and for which material exists, including the availability of appropriate supervision for that topic.


In your report, describe your research topic and explain your motives in pursuing this topic -- why is it interesting to you?  Recommended: Research Topic Evaluation Questions.


2. Generate at least 10 possible research questions.  It is recommend that start of by generating lots of ideas and not being overly concerned about the quality of the ideas.  Consider using brainstorming techniques to help unlock creative thinking processes and/or concept mapping to help extend and map out your initial ideas.  Often within one possible question lie the seeds of many others.  Also read, Developing a Research Question


In your written report, include a detailed description of your research generation activities and processes.  Feel feel free to include all questions generated, but definitely include your 10 questions.


3. Select your top three research questions and refine them into "good" research questions.  This should involve considerable rewriting, further thinking, and quite possibly reading, research, and discussion with experts.  Also, exercise 2 at Developing a Research Question should be helpful.


In your written report, include the final three research questions.  The questions can be related or unrelated.


4. Write an evaluation of each of your three research questions.  In your report, comment of the strengths and weaknesses that you see with each research question.  Exercise 3 at Developing a Research Question should be helpful.

Brainstorming Ideas

Where can you get ideas for research?  Here’s some proven brainstorming strategies.   Experiment with these techniques to find the one or ones that suit you.  By using the different techniques you may uncover other possible research topics or get new insights into your current topic. 

Keep an idea book. Many professional writers keep an "idea book" as a place to store their ideas and let them incubate. Think of this as a scrapbook rather than as a diary or journal.  Your idea book can include newspaper, magazine, and internet articles that intrigue you, scattered notes and ideas, diagrams, pictures, etc.  The more you tend to the garden of ideas, the more lush it grows.

Listing. List all the ideas you associate with a specific subject. This method allows you to come up with many ideas fast because you are writing words, not sentences or paragraphs. List 10 ideas you have for research paper subjects.

Concept Mapping. Concept mapping  is a visual way of sparking ideas for subjects. Many people find that concept mapping frees their mind to roam over a wider variety of ideas.  Create a concept map for the most interesting research idea you have by following these steps:

  1. Write your subject in the center of a page. Draw a circle around it.

  2. Draw lines radiating from the center and circles at the end of each line. Write an idea in each circle.

  3. Continue connecting and adding ideas

  4. Redraw your concept map as you start to see better ways of organizing your ideas. 

  5. Feel free to use other visual formats, such as a diagram, model, chart, etc. if these would seem to better organize and represent the ideas you have. 

Freewriting. Start writing about an idea and keep writing; don't let your pen stop moving.  Nonstop writing like this jogs your memory and releases preconscious ideas and associations, as well as underlying emotions. When you freewrite, jot down whatever comes to mind. Don't worry about full sentences, spelling, punctuation, grammar, or style. Just try to keep writing.  The key to freewriting is letting your mind roam and seeing what subjects it uncovers.

Other people.  Speak to fellow students and, importantly, to faculty about your ideas.  Once you have an initial idea about a possible research question talk it over with your supervisor.  What advice did your supervisor provide?

Stage process: Here’s a slightly different summary of a process you can go through to develop a draft research question:

1. Start with a general subject that interests you and fits the parameters of the assignment.

2. Phrase the subject as a question.

3. Brainstorm subdivisions of the subject to create topics.

4. Consult different sources for possible subtopics, such as the card catalog, reference books, magazines, friends, and the media.

5. Sift the ideas until you find one that suits your taste and the assignment.

6. Write your final topic as a question.

Evaluation Questions about Research Topics
(adapted from Rozakis, 1999)

How can you decide if you have chosen an appropriate topic and correctly refined your research question?  Here’s a checklist to help you in evaluating your topic.

 1. Is my topic too limited?

Problem: Sometimes in your zeal to make the topic more precise, you narrow it so much that you don't have enough left to write about.

Solution: Always remember how many pages you have to fill. The overly narrow topic may be just right for a 350- to 500-word essay, a research thesis at the Masters level usually constitutes approximately 10,000 to 30,000 words.  Find a topic that fills the length required by the task.  A reasonable literature review for a major graduate student paper is usually ~ 4,000 – 8,000 words.

2. Is my topic still too broad?

Problem: You may think you have narrowed your topic sufficiently, but it may still be too vast for the assignment.

Solution: Check your resources. How many pages do good answers to this kind of question usually constitute? If it takes other writers a book to answer the question you have posed, your topic is still too big.

3. Is my topic too technical?

Problem: The topic you have selected is highly technical and you don't have the background or theoretical understanding of the question needed to answer it.

Solution: Get a new topic. Unless you have the background you need for the topic, you're going to end up spending most of your time backpedaling and filling in the gaps in your knowledge. This is not the time to teach yourself nuclear physics, calculus, or computer programming in C+++.

4. Is my topic stale?

Problem: Everyone seems to know everything about your topic. Who wants to read another paper about the bad effects of alcohol, speeding, or street drugs? What reaction can you expect? Been there, done that, got the T-shirt. If your topic bores you before you've even started writing, then you can bet it will bore your audience.

Solution: Get a new topic that is fresh and original. A sparkling topic automatically gives you an edge, even if your writing is a little weak.

5. Is the topic too new?

Problem: If the topic is too fresh, there may not be sufficient information available yet to fill a paper on your specific subtopics.

Solution: Find a topic that affords you sufficient information to cover the issue thoroughly.

6. Do I like my topic enough to want to write a thesis or advanced studies project on it?

Problem: Others may like your topic, but you don’t.

Solution: Get a new topic.

Recommended Reading



Gall, M. D., Borg, W. R., Gall, J. P. (2003).  Educational research: An introduction. (7th Edition). White Plains, New York: Longman. (purchase from Durham Bookshop).  Chapter 2 "Research Proposals" (pp. 45-54)

Rozakis, L. (1999). Schaum's quick guide to writing great research papers.  New York: McGraw-Hill. (available for free as an e-book via http://www.library.unh.edu/whatsnew/ebooks.htm).  Rozakis' Chapters 1 to 3 are highly recommended section on selecting research topics, brainstorming, and refining research questions.


Research Room - The Writing Complex