Questions to Help Clarify Research

I just finished reviewing a number of abstracts I volunteered to review for an upcoming academic conference, and I noticed a pattern in some of my feedback that I want to share and, perhaps, get some feedback of my own. I have received harsh feedback over the years, as undoubtedly others have as well, and am very sensitive to providing constructive academic feedback while trying not to be severe. I may think the work is of low quality, but we all have to start someplace, and just telling the person that it makes no sense or doesn’t have a research design does not really help the person improve his or her work. As most people I have met are in various levels of learning, it seems productive to help others along, especially when involving issues of research.

My epistemological stance holds that there is not only one way to know some phenomenon, but rather the questions we ask about it guide the steps we take and affect the ways that others read and assess our work. With this said, there is not only one way to approach research, and I find it useful to be sensitive to others who want to study something in a different way. The questions I ask are almost always meant to explore and better understand meaning, namely how this or that person answers those why and how sort of questions.

The pattern I noticed that I use to help guide the feedback includes, after a statement about a lack of clarity, questions that are intended to help move the research, or often the (working) abstract, along. These include:

  • What problem has the researcher has identified?
  • Why is this question important to answer?
  • What question does the researcher have about this phenomenon?
  • What literature has the researcher used to try to answer it?
  • Why is the researcher going to study this phenomenon in this way?
  • How is the researcher related to this phenomenon?
  • What is the researcher doing with this phenomenon to try to answer the question?
  • What are we learning about this phenomenon because of this research?
  • What can we do next with this phenomenon as a result of this research?

I tried to highlight some of the elements in a research design that are often more accessible when seen as questions, rather than topic headings. Have you ever been asked general, though highly helpful, questions to help you better express your work? Have they helped? What questions are missing?