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Writing 2 (Terhaar): Science Research Projects

Limiting and Expanding Your Research Question

Like the story of the three little bears, you may have ended up with too much, too little or not quite right, or just enough research to read. Here’s what to do if you ended up with too much, too little, or not quite right: Scenario


#1) Ok, so you ran a search in the database “Academic Search Complete” using the search terms “polar bear” and “climat*”. And you remembered to check the box for “scholarly (peer-reviewed) articles. (You used the * symbol to pick up all variations of “climate” including climate, climatic, etc.) And you found 1,243 records. I found even more peer-reviewed records when I tried “potatoes” and “climat*”. I found 3,561 records! Gulp! That’s a lot of reading.

It’s all very well to say you seek to discover the potential impacts of climate change on your species, but what happens if you learn lots of researchers have studied your species (and you find they have written a thousand scientific articles on your species) You cannot read a thousand articles in a few short weeks, so you need to figure out how to limit or “narrow” your research question so you get fewer results to read. Did you search for polar bears and turn up a lot of research articles, some of which seem fairly general and some of which seem, well, awfully specific? Then consider limiting your search to a particular population of polar bears, say in one particular area. Or consider limiting by looking at one factor in their habitat. What happens if there is less ice or, even more narrowly, less ice at a certain time of year? Or look at polar bear cubs, or their primary food source, or ???

Scenario #2) Conversely, what happens if you discover that no researchers have yet studied your species (and no one has written any scientific articles on your species)? First, you can rest assured that researchers have most likely learned something about your species. I’ve never had a student who selected a species that was uninvestigated, but figuring out how to get at the research on your species requires time and effort, so you may need to broaden or expand your research question so you get more results to read. Looking at a particular frog in a particular rain forest but coming up with a mere handful of studies to read? Try casting your net more broadly, looking at all frogs in the area, or looking at the species in a far larger area. (I do not recommend you try world-wide or global species searches.)

Scenario #3) Ok, you say, but my previous suggestion did not work. (Remember what happened to my search for banana slugs.) Now what should I do? Here’s where the creative part of research comes into play: you can try and get at your research question indirectly, perhaps by looking at some key component of your species’ habitat or food preference. How would changes to your species’ habitat (temperature change, vegetation change, cloud-cover change ??) impact the species? Would their prey disappear or become more abundant? Would a predator disappear or become more abundant? Put on your thinking cap and ask yourself: What, if any, might be the indirect effects of climate change on the species? Then research the potential for those effects.

As you play with narrowing or broadening your research inquiry, remember to play with your search terms as well by using synonyms and Boolean operators to limit and expand your search.

Once you have narrowed or broadened your inquiry so you have a manageable number of sources to read, go back and revisit your research question. You will probably need to revise your research question, too, making it manageable and more specific as well. Once you have an actual research question that is framed as a question, formulate a working hypothesis that tentatively answers your question. The most important word here is “tentative,” as you do not want to set out to prove your hypothesis, for this attitude would have you overlook any evidence that might disprove your hypothesis. Your tentative hypothesis should be a debatable proposition and include specific details about the proposition.

And remember, at this point it’s a good idea to start keeping accurate records of your specific search terms and indicate which database you searched. Most researchers keep a research log so they can keep track of both their ideas and their research materials. Keeping accurate records now will save you from headaches later when you try and recreate a search in order to find a particular source.