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Developing a Research Question

Narrowing down your broad topic to a more manageable research question can be challenging. Thinking about your topic in terms of the 3 P's can help:

  • Population
  • Problem 
  • Place

After you have done some preliminary research and have identified a narrow topic, you can begin to develop your thesis statement into something that is searchable. 


You can use the worksheet below to help you define and refine your topic:

Simple vs Critical Questions
Simple Critical

Can be answered with 'yes' or 'no' answer

Answered easily with factual information

Doesn't prompt you to ask
more questions

Should require additional research to answer

Provokes discussion

Takes into consideration intended audience,
and types of sources needed

Addresses wider issues

Prompts you to ask more questions

(Taken from "Reading, Writing, and Researching for History" by Patrick Rael, 2012)

Factors that help us refine our research question

  • Geography area (City, Country, Continent, etc)
  • Popuation group/demographics
  • Time-frame
  • Discipline 

Evaluate your research question using the following (adapted from George Mason University's Writing Centre  Guide - How to Write a Research Question): 

  • Is your research question clear? With so much research available on any given topic, research questions must be as clear as possible in order to be effective in helping the writer direct his or her research.

  • Is your research question focused? Research questions must be specific enough to be well covered in the space available.

  • Is your research question complex? Research questions should not be answerable with a simple “yes” or “no” or by easily-found facts.  They should, instead, require both research and analysis on the part of the writer. They often begin with “How” or “Why.”

  • Is your question unbiased? Questions should be open to exploration without an embedded answer.

Before you start searching, it can be helpful to identify the key aspects of your question. Consider as well if there are any possible synonyms/related terms for each aspect of your question. Your starting question can be broad, but ultimately your goal should be to narrow it down to something you can answer within the scope of your class project.

Step 1: Start with a broad question

  • Are animal crossings over highways effective?

Step 2: Brainstorm ways to make your question more specific

  • Who is my population group? A specific animal species?
  • Is there a location I want to focus on? Canada? Banff?
  • Is there a specific type of crossing I want to focus on? 

Step 3: Re-write your question to be more specific (this may lead to other more specific questions)

  • What animals utilize bridge-type animal crossings in Banff?
    • How is the success of bridge-type animal crossings in Banff measured for elk?

Step 4: Develop an initial list of search terms to find related literature

Start thinking about alternative terms you might want to search in the library databases. This will help you find the most relevant literature. 

  • animal crossing = wildlife corridor, underpass, overpass, bridge 
  • highways = transportation corridors
  • elk = ungulates

Other tips

  • Consider your study feasibility. Can you answer your research question in the scope of this class?
  • Searching for literature can help you narrow your question. Start with a broad question when conducting your literature search. Use the articles you find, and the language they use, to help you narrow your question.

Identifying Primary Research

One of the core requirements for most Biology assignments is to use primary research papers.  But what does that actually mean and how can you tell when you are looking at your library search results?

Following are two resources to help you out, they identify key areas you should be considering when you are evaluating resources:

  • The University of Northern Colorado has a brief explanation on how to identify a primary research article 
  • Suffolk University in Boston provides a more detailed explanation and process for determining Is it primary? How do I know? 

Originally created by Jim Parrott.
Adapted by Jackie Stapleton, University of Waterloo, 2007.

Used with permission.

The following infographic represents an overview of several of the main types of scientific evidence:


















Publication Types in PubMed: 

For more details on the comprehensive list of publication types available in PubMed check out the Medical Subject Headings (MeSH): Publication Types

Conducting a Comprehensive Literature Search

This guide from the University Library at Leeds provides an excellent overview of the steps you will want to follow to develop a comprehensive literature search

What is citation chaining?

Citation chaining means searching backwards and forwards in time for materials that are cited by and also that cite an article or resource you already have. One resource links you to another, which links you to another, and so on to create a chain of relevant literature.

~ Walden University


Advantages of citation chaining

  • Efficient for finding additional sources
  • High likelihood of finding sources on a similar topic
  • Often find unexpected, but valuable, sources
  • Useful for research papers or assignments where you're comparing sources


Strategy 1: Carefully review the references of relevant articles you've found

Trajanovska, S., Ban, J., Huang, J., Gregorevic, P., Morsch, M., Allen, D. G., & Phillips, W. D. (2019). Muscle specific kinase protects dystrophic mdx mouse muscles from eccentric contraction‐induced loss of force‐producing capacity. The Journal of Physiology597(18), 4831-4850.


Strategy 2: Use Google Scholar or Scopus to find out who cited the articles you've found

Google Scholar result

How do you know when to stop searching?

You can ask yourself the following three questions to help you determine when to end your literature search:

  • Are there still gaps in your understanding?
  • Do you still have unanswered questions directly relating to your topic?
  • Have you identified foundational and most recent work on the topic?

Reading Scientific Articles

Grey Literature

...information produced on all levels of government, academia, business and industry in electronic and print formats not controlled by commercial publishing i.e. where publishing is not the primary activity of the producing body.
Schnopfel, 2010, Towards a Prague definition of grey literature

Including grey literature will make you literature reviews much more exhaustive. Below are some advantage of using grey literature.

  • More recent data: Grey literature can provide you with more recent reports and statistics from government, and other, bodies. Academic papers, by contrast, can take a long time to get published - meaning that they sometimes represent older data.
  • Positive results bias: Reports and studies that show negative results often get published in less scholarly sources, compared to academic journals which can favour positive results.

(Based on McMaster University Library's 'Finding Grey Literature' guide)

How is grey literature different from scholarly literature

  • Can be published more quickly than scholarly material
  • Often no cost associated (i.e. no database or journal subscription required)
  • Not always peer reviewed
  • Can be longer and more thorough than scholarly articles (no publication page limit)

What are the challenges associated with grey literature?

  • Difficult to locate because they are not widely disseminated through traditional databases
  • Lack of proper archiving

(Based on McMaster University Library's 'Finding Grey Literature' guide)

Types of grey literature sources

  • Technical and research reports (including government documents and association/committee reports )
  • Thesis and dissertations
  • Conference materials (papers, abstracts, and presentations)
  • Pre-print sources
  • White papers
  • Blogs and newsletters (if containing valuable data and sources)

More examples of grey literature sources

Because finding grey literature can be a daunting task, here are some guiding questions that can help narrow your search

  • Are there specific types of documents that would be most useful for answering your research question?
    • Clinical trials
    • Statistics
    • Government reports
    • Conference materials (presentations, posters, abstracts, etc.)
  • What kind of organization or person would most likely publish the information you are searching for?
    • Academic
    • Government
    • Non-governmental organizations
    • Industry
    • Advocacy groups
  • What are your search limits?
    • Timeframe
    • Geographic limits

(Based on McMaster University Library's 'Finding Grey Literature' guide)

Custom Google Searches

You can limit your Google results by domain by using the "site:" function - Government of Canada

site:ca - Web pages from Canada

site:edu - US educational institutions

site:gov - US Government web pages

site:org - Not-for-profit web pages

Databases and Repositories

Government documents

Conferences and other academic

Other guides on grey literature

Predatory Publishing

Some resources about Predatory Publshing:

MRU Library Predatory Publishing Guide 

Think Check Submit:

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