For me and many of our peers, writing a research paper can be a frustrating challenge. One reason for this, beyond my own procrastinatory tendencies, is because academic writing is a “discrete skill that needs to be learnt” (Ip, 2016, p. 37). Fortunately, there are numerous sources of information available to help get you started. For example, Chapter 2 of the 7th edition of the APA publication manual outlines in detail the elements and formatting of research writing and provides sample papers. In this column, Gallagher (2022) provided a summary of recent changes to APA style guidelines. In addition, the Featured Articles and Readers’ Forum in each issue of The Language Teacher are good models of research writing. To get things started, this Writer’s Workshop column will outline a series of steps that both novice and veteran writers should consider when preparing a research project.
Identifying a Research Gap
One purpose of academic research writing is to help readers see and understand gaps in the knowledge base of a particular domain. Not all gaps might be considered important, and so it is your responsibility to illuminate why a particular area is worthy of study. As Murray and Beglar (2009) have noted, “any gaps in the literature that you identify must be evaluated in terms of their importance to theory and/or practice, their meaningfulness to others in the field, and their applicability to other contexts (p. 35)”. Accordingly, Murray and Beglar identify five particular knowledge gaps that could be filled:
- Knowledge-based: What is Phenomenon X?
- Relationship-based: How is Phenomenon X related to Y?
- Theory-based: What or how is Theory X?
- Methodologically-based: How does Method X or Research Design Y help us better understand the phenomenon?
- Analytically-based: How can the phenomenon be understood using Analysis X?
Thus, one of the first steps to consider when embarking on a research project is determining which type of gap you are trying to fill.
An important subcomponent of identifying the research gap is information literacy. To achieve required levels of academic scholarship, you will need to read a variety of sources, including monographs, textbooks, research papers and reviews. As you read, an organized note-taking workflow will be quite helpful. As we tell our students when peer-reviewing classmates’ papers, read once for general comprehension and then a second time for note-taking. When I first began to prepare for research and academic writing, I made the mistake of copying long sections of text which I deemed interesting and important at the time, but in the end never used in my writing. Instead, note-taking should be directed and purposeful, such as noting key definitions, arguments for or against Theory X, research methodologies, and findings.
With regards to academic papers and journals, you should consult citation indexes such as Scopus (https://www.scopus.com/home.uri), to see how many times a paper has been cited. These indexes also contain impact factors which rate the credibility of a scholarly journal or paper and will help you keep up to date on current research in your field of interest.
However, the more you read, the greater the likelihood that you will identify multiple gaps from related strands and themes and get pulled in different directions. At this point, it would be useful to limit the scope of your research (Moore, 2016). One way to go about this is to employ the 10 on 1 technique, which states that it is more effective to make ten observations about a single representative issue than to make the same basic point about ten related topics (Rosenwasser & Stephen, 2008), as cited in Tanner, 2020).
Developing a Research Question
Once you have identified a suitable gap, it is time to generate some research questions. Trochim et al., (2015) define the research question as the “central issue being addressed in the study, which is typically phrased in the language of theory (p. 402)”. Creswell (2009) provides models for research questions and hypotheses for various research approaches. One such approach is to use classical themes, such as cause and effect (What is the cause of X?) or compare and contrast (How are X and Y similar?). Other research questions might include time-based themes (In what ways does X change over time?), issues related to stability (How stable is X across socioeconomic status groups?), definitions (What is X?), or classifications (To which class does X belong?). Alternatively, you may decide to generate research hypotheses, which are statements rather than questions. Some options are null hypotheses (Predicting no difference between X and Y) or directional hypotheses (X outperforms Y). Once you have generated a list of research questions or hypotheses, review them with a trusted peer who is familiar with your research area to help you identify the best one(s).
Settle on a Research Approach and Data Collection Methodology
The research approach is how you intend to answer the research questions via your chosen data collection methodology. You may wish to address the questions qualitatively, quantitatively, or in combination via a mixed-methods study. For each of these approaches, there are multiple ways to collect data. A qualitative research approach might focus on interviews, narratives, case studies, or ethnographies, among others. A quantitative research approach might involve collecting survey or test data cross-sectionally or longitudinally, or might involve an experiment with non-randomized (quasi-experiment) or randomized subjects (true experiment). In addition, new, powerful, free, online statistical data analytic software is now available. For example, JASP (https://jasp-stats.org) comes with a free PDF manual that is easily accessible for novice researchers. In a mixed-methods study, various designs include triangulation, explanatory, and exploratory research. Chapter 3 in the APA Publication Manual, 7th Edition, provides helpful explanations and tables regarding standards for research designs in these three principal approaches. Of course, there are pros and cons to each, and you will have to choose the one most appropriate for your needs. Alternatively, you may wish to take a philosophical approach by, for example, reviewing X critically, and deconstructing X. In the end, determining which of your skill sets align with these approaches is a key step.
It is also important to consider the ethics of your research. This will involve adhering to institutional policies for data collecting and working with human participants. Japanese universities will have a research ethics committee. A fundamental component of ethical research which is required by the Ministry of Education is the participant consent form. Gough and Handley (2020) have summarized how to write these, noting that “informed consent forms should be approached as powerful tools for producing higher quality research [and] can also assist researchers in designing studies, planning data analysis, and clarifying data ownership (p. 41).”
The goal of this article has been to outline a series of steps that you, the writer, should consider before you begin your project. Identifying a gap, narrowing the topic, writing research questions, choosing a research approach, and creating a participant consent form are all important steps to take before you can begin to research. These are also essential components of the future research paper you will write.
American Psychological Association. (2020). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association 2020: The official guide to APA style (7th ed.). American Psychological Association.
Creswell, J. W. (2009). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Sage Publications, Inc. (3rd ed.).
Gallagher, B. A. (2022). Sensible and notable changes in the latest APA style guidelines. The Language Teacher, 46(1), 45-47. https://doi.org/10.37546/JALTTLT46.1
Gough, W., & Handley, C. (2020). How to write participant consent forms. The Language Teacher, 44(2), 39-42. https://doi.org/10.37546/JALTTLT44.2
Hatch, J. A. (2002). Doing qualitative research in education settings. State University of New York Press.
Ip, T. (2016). How to write a literature review in the ‘write’ way. The Language Teacher, 40(1), 37-39. https://doi.org/10.37546/JALTTLT40.1
Larson-Hall, J. (2015). A guide to doing statistics in second language research using SPSS and R (2nd ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315775661
Moore, C. (2016). Searching for a research topic. The Language Teacher, 40(3), 33-34. https://doi.org/10.37546/JALTTLT40.3
Murray, N., & Beglar, D. (2009). Inside track writing dissertations & theses. Pearson Education Canada.
Tanner, P. (2020). On academic writing. The Language Teacher, 44(6), 59-61. https://doi.org/10.37546/JALTTLT44.6
Trochim, W. M., Donnelly, J. P., & Arora, K. (2015). Research methods: The essential knowledge base (2nd ed.). Cengage Learning.
Jean-Pierre J. Richard is an associate professor in the Faculty of Global Management at the University of Nagano. His research interests include vocabulary, evaluation, and individual differences, particularly with regards to achievement goals and motivation. Email: email@example.com