The driving force behind all meaningful research should be the research problem. Having a clear, succinct and meaningful problem is a prerequisite for a logical study that will positively contribute to the body of knowledge. In order to better understand what a research problem is and how it differs from a statement of problem or a problem statement, the researcher should keep in mind the structure, the method and the importance of research.
The Structure of Research
Research is structured in a logical way that allows the researcher to find the needed answers and conclusions that can result in a new contribution to knowledge. This structure starts with the general and moves to the specific, but is driven in the process by the problem statement. The topic is “the general domain in which research is focused” (Ellis & Levy, 2008, p.20); it should fully encompass the problem being addressed through the research while also being specific enough to provide reasonable limits that will make the research viable.
The second tier—moving from general to specific—is the research problem, the reason and guidance for the research itself. The research problem interacts with other aspects of the research process, such as the goals and the research questions. The goals, which comprise the third level in the research structure, are detailed expressions of what will be done during the investigation of the research problem. The research questions make up the fourth tier of the research process. These questions help to define exactly what the researcher needs to investigate in order to find the answers needed to attempt to deal with the problem posed by the research problem.
The Method of Research
According to Ellis and Levy (2008), the research questions posed by the study dictate the methodology used in the research itself. The authors define methodology as “the steps that will be taken in order to derive reliable and valid answers to those questions” (p. 21). There are various research methods, such as Qualitative, Quantitative, Mixed-Methods, and others. The methodology must be expressly detailed by the researcher, including answers to important aspects of the problem and processes, such as the tools that the researcher will use in his or her search for answers. Here a distinction must be made between methodology and the tools of that methodology: methodology may be understood as the approach taken to investigate the problem, whereas the research tools are what the investigator will use during that approach (Leedy & Ormrod, 2005).
Through the method and its tools, the researcher will produce results. The results of the study are comprised of data that must be interpreted so that they can in turn be used as information. The analysis of this information should allow the researcher to answer the research questions.
The Importance of Research
Research should not be undertaken just for the sake of gaining personal knowledge (Leedy & Ormrod, 2005). Research is a process that consumes time, thought and resources in order to meaningfully advance knowledge in a way that addresses a specific problem. Ellis and Levy (2008) propose that meaningful problems are not results of passive behavior or attitude—they have consequences and do not yet have “adequate solutions” to them (p. 23). The research process must generate new information that can be used to make a meaningful contribution to the knowledge about the topic being researched.
In order for research to be meaningful, the problem must not be based only on the researcher’s experience or observation (Ellis & Levy, 2008). What is important for an individual may not necessarily be meaningful for the body of knowledge. Other mistakes should be avoided when seeking to make a meaningful contribution through research: simply comparing two or more sets of data, basing research on correlations, or looking for a positive or negative answer as the result of the investigations.
Through research, it is expected that new information will be generated that will assist current and future researchers to find solutions to current and future problems. The body of knowledge is enhanced with data and information not previously available that can serve as basis for new research. Examples of original contributions based on existing research include: the establishment of causal relationships, in-depth exploration of previous studies, creating models that help predict results in previously identified problems, evaluation of approaches used in previous research, among others. But even when utilizing previously available information or data, “in order for the endeavor to be considered research, it must clearly present the potential for creating identifiable new knowledge” (Ellis & Levy, 2008, p. 23).
There are three preconditions for research to be considered a meaningful contribution to the body of knowledge: first, the researcher must be thoroughly familiar with the literature about his or her research topic. This strong foundation will allow the researcher to know what is not known, and can provide much-needed direction to the study (Davis & Parker, 1997). The second precondition for a meaningful contribution is a clearly defined association between the research being conducted and the research problem (Hart, 1998; Creswell, 2005). The third precondition includes a positive answer to any of the following questions: “Will a known gap in the body of knowledge be filled? Will previous research be replicated and expanded by looking at a different category of participants, environment, and/or constructs/variables? Will previous research be expanded by more thoroughly examining some identifiable aspect? Are there specific, identifiable, and documented problems with the currently available solutions?” (Ellis & Levy, 2008, p. 24).
Research Problem, Statement of Problem and Problem Statement
Based on the previous discussion of structure, method and importance of research, it is possible to gain a clearer understanding of the differences between a research problem, a problem statement and a statement of problem. A research problem is born out of the body of knowledge, which can include the literature, observations and expert counsel. A good research problem also serves as a motivator for the researcher when he or she realizes that the research results can potentially impact what we know (or don’t know) and how we can know about the topic being studied.
The research problem is the starting point for the whole research process and it must be clearly stated so that all participants (researchers, readers, etc.) can have a straightforward understanding of what is to be researched. The statement of problem clearly states the problem that the research will address. It is usually comprised of “one or two sentences that outline the problem that the study addresses” (Ellis & Levy, 2008, p. 27). The statement of the problem should be an affirmation (or a series of affirmations) and not a question, and should include theoretical concepts that are directly related to the research problem. Leedy and Ormrod (2005) contend that when preparing a statement of problem, researchers should “state the problem clearly and completely,” consider how feasible the project really is, use specific and precise language, and have an open mind as to the outcome of the research.
While the statement of problem explicitly states what is to be researched, the problem statement goes beyond those limitations: it states what the problem is but it also includes vital information that helps researchers and readers to clearly understand the viability of the study (Levy & Ellis, 2006). The problem statement addresses what is to be researched and why, how and where it will be researched, when the research will take place and who it will include. Problem statements are usually found in the first paragraphs of published research and are crucial to the understanding of the reasons why a study is meaningful.
Problem statements must include references from the literature that support key assertions, such as what the problem is, the impact of the problem, and the theoretical concepts relating to the problem (Ellis & Levy, 2008, p.28). When following a clear and short statement of problem, a well-composed problem statement can provide great clarification about the direction the research will take and the importance of such research. The literature-based justification for the study can indicate, to informed readers, some of the ideas that guide the researcher and what to expect along that journey.
Finally, much like a thesis statement in an essay, the problem statement frames the research in a concise way, gives it direction and purpose, and serves as a roadmap both for the researcher while conducting the study and for the reader while learning about the study’s results. Having a meaningful research problem means that the problem is meaningful not only for the researcher, but also for the reader and for the body of knowledge. The meaningfulness of a research problem is brought to light through a clearly stated problem statement that provides good argumentation for the study and a solid foundation in the literature.
Creswell, J. (2005). Educational research: Planning, conducting, and evaluating quantitative and qualitative research (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Davis, G. & Parker, C. (1997). Writing the doctoral dissertation: A systematic approach (2nd ed.). Hauppauge, NY: Barrons Educational Series.
Ellis, T. & Levy, Y. (2008). Framework of problem-based research: A guide for novice researchers on the development of a research-worthy problem. Informing Science Journal, 11, 17-33.
Hart, C. (1998). Doing a literature review: Releasing the social science research imagination. London, UK: Sage Publications.
Leedy, P. & Ormrod, J. (2005). Practical research: Planning and design (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Levy, Y. & Ellis, T. (2006). A systems approach to conduct an effective literature review in support of information systems research. Informing Science Journal, 9, 181-212. Retrieved from http://inform.nu/Articles/Vol9/V9p181-212Levy99.pdf