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From ideas to studies: how to get ideas and sharpen them into research questions

Authors Vandenbroucke JP, Pearce N

Received 31 May 2017

Accepted for publication 28 November 2017

Published 6 March 2018 Volume 2018:10 Pages 253—264


Checked for plagiarism Yes

Review by Single anonymous peer review

Peer reviewer comments 2

Editor who approved publication: Professor Vera Ehrenstein

Jan P Vandenbroucke,1–3 Neil Pearce3

1Leiden University Medical Center, Leiden, the Netherlands; 2Department of Clinical Epidemiology, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark; 3Department of Medical Statistics and Centre for Global NCDs, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, UK

Abstract: Where do new research questions come from? This is at best only partially taught in courses or textbooks about clinical or epidemiological research. Methods are taught under the assumption that a researcher already knows the research question and knows which methods will fit that question. Similarly, the real complexity of the thought processes that lead to a scientific undertaking is almost never described in published papers. In this paper, we first discuss how to get an idea that is worth researching. We describe sources of new ideas and how to foster a creative attitude by “cultivating your thoughts”. Only a few of these ideas will make it into a study. Next, we describe how to sharpen and focus a research question so that a study becomes feasible and a valid test of the underlying idea. To do this, the idea needs to be “pruned”. Pruning a research question means cutting away anything that is unnecessary, so that only the essence remains. This includes determining both the latent and the stated objectives, specific pruning questions, and the use of specific schemes to structure reasoning. After this, the following steps include preparation of a brief protocol, conduct of a pilot study, and writing a draft of the paper including draft tables. Then you are ready to carry out your research.

Keywords: study design, writing a paper, research questions

Creative Commons License This work is published by Dove Medical Press Limited, and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License. The full terms of the License are available at The license permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

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