How to define a research problem

The very first assignment I give to students1 when I supervise their theses is to read this text. It briefly introduces the main concepts of research activity, which, I think, are important to understand for the proper thesis writing.

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Scientific work is an activity that has a specific structure, and, to do it mindfully, it’s important to describe it in certain terms: a problem, an object, a subject, a goal, and objectives. These terms characterize a research by setting its boundaries, i.e. what will and won’t be worked on. Being explicitly defined, they determine the research program and can help to answer a student’s existential question “what am I doing” — useful during “writing block” / procrastination / etc.

We need to define the following (the ordering matters):

  1. Research problem is a single sentence, a question we want to answer with our study. It is formulated based on the review of the related work in some domain that revealed some gaps or inconsistencies in knowledge, opportunities for improvement, etc. (“relevancy”). For example: “Thrombosis in the blood of mammals has to be explored in its connection with …”.
  2. Research object is a part of real world, something that we explore. E.g. mammal blood.
  3. Research subject2 defines properties, qualities or processes of the object that we are interested in this study. In our case, our subject could be the process of thrombosis in blood. It’s common to see the object and the subject formulated together in a purpose statement, which typically takes one or two sentences. For example: “In this work we explore some aspects of thrombosis in the mice blood in test tubes (in vitro) and in a real material (in vivo).”
  4. Research goal — is a final result of the work. “To investigate the relationship … of the mice thrombocytes in vivo.” If our object is blood instead of a mice, then we should replace “in vivo” with “in vitro”. Each research can only have one goal. This goal is achieved by completing a number of objectives (the next point).
  5. Research objectives represents a plan of the research. It includes concrete things that will be done in the project, e.g. how the data will be collected and used, what methods are used to analyze the data, etc. It’s important to understand that objectives in this context are the “major chunks” of some bigger work that reflect general structure of the research. This is why there’re only a few of them defined, typically. A good style is when each word or concept in the problem definition unfolds into an objective and, respectively, a section of text.

The resulting structure “relevancy—problem—object—subject—goal—objective” maps naturally into the text structure — it works for theses, reports, articles, etc. In the end, people write texts after some work has been done, that completed a number of objectives to achieve some goal (which can be applied, theoretical, or combined). In other words, something was learned (subject) about something (object), that made problem more clear to someone for something (relevancy).

Footnotes:

1

This article is a translation from Russian of what was originally written for Russian students. And although the scientific framework is the same, there are some differences in scientific traditions of Russia and Europe. Particularly, it was hard to me at first to understand how to write the purpose statement, as all descriptions I found on the internets seemed to be written more informally than I used to, and provided much more some space for interpretation. I guess Russian tradition is more close to German than to British / US.

2

There are at least two ways the word “subject” can be translated to Russian, that, unfortunately, are both pertinent to our theme. “Субъект” (reads as soob-yekt) is a noun, an observer, an originator of action on an object (see Wikipedia). Another way to translate it is using the word “предмет” (reads as pred-met), which basically means what I described in this article: a property of an object. Please, drop me a letter if you know a better term to use instead of “subject” in this context.

Date: written on Feb 2016, translated on June 2018

Author: Eugene Cherny

Created: 2018-07-08 Sun 22:19

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