Whether assigned a general issue to investigate, you are given a list of problems to study, or you have to identify your own topic to investigate, it is important that the research problem that guides your study is not too broad, otherwise, it will be very difficult to adequately address the problem in the space and time allowed. You could experience a number of problems if your topic is too broad, including:
It is also important to adopt a flexible approach when choosing a topic to investigate. The goal when writing any research paper is to choose a research problem that is focused and time-limited. However, your starting point should not be so narrowly defined that you unnecessarily constrict your opportunity to investigate the topic thoroughly. A research problem that is too narrowly defined leads to any of the following problems:
Lloyd-Walker, Beverly and Derek Walker. "Moving from Hunches to a Research Topic: Salient Literature and Research Methods." In Designs, Methods and Practices for Research of Project Management. Beverly Pasian, editor. (Burlington, VT: Gower Publishing, 2015), pp. 119-129.
A common challenge when beginning to write a research paper is determining how to narrow down your topic. Even if your professor gives you a specific topic to study, it will almost never be so specific that you won’t have to narrow it down at least to some degree [besides, grading fifty papers that are all about the exact same thing is very boring!].
A topic is too broad to be manageable when you find that you have too many different, and oftentimes conflicting or only remotely related, ideas about how to investigate the research problem. Although you will want to start the writing process by considering a variety of different approaches to studying the research problem, you will need to narrow the focus of your investigation at some point early in the writing process. This way, you don't attempt to do too much in one paper.
Here are some strategies to help narrow your topic into something more manageable:
NOTE: Apply one of the above strategies first to determine if that gives you a manageable research problem to investigate. You will know if the problem is manageable by reviewing the literature on this more specific problem and assessing whether prior research on the narrower topic is sufficient to move forward in your study [i.e., not too much, not too little]. Be careful, however, because combining multiple strategies risks creating the opposite problem--your problem becomes too narrowly defined and you can't locate enough research or data to support your study.
Booth, Wayne C. The Craft of Research. Fourth edition. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2016; Coming Up With Your Topic. Institute for Writing Rhetoric. Dartmouth College; Narrowing a Topic. Writing Center. University of Kansas; Narrowing Topics. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Strategies for Narrowing a Topic. University Libraries. Information Skills Modules. Virginia Tech University; The Process of Writing a Research Paper. Department of History. Trent University; Ways to Narrow Down a Topic. Contributing Authors. Utah State OpenCourseWare.
In general, an indication that a research problem is too narrowly defined is that you can't find any relevant or meaningful information about it. If this happens, don't immediately abandon your efforts to investigate the problem because it could very well be an excellent topic of study. A good way to begin is to look for parallels and opportunities for broader associations that apply to the initial research problem. A strategy for doing this is to ask yourself the basic six questions of who, what, where, when, how, and why.
Here is an example of how to apply the six questions strategy to broadening your topic. The research topic is to investigate ways to improve trade relations between Peru and Bolivia. Ask yourself:
Reflecting upon these six questions during your initial review of the literature can help you formulate ways to expand the parameters of your initial research problem, providing an opportunity to identify new avenues of investigation and centering your study around gaps in the literature when answers to questions cannot be found. Once you've identified additional directions in which to proceed with your topic, you can try narrowing it down again, if needed.
NOTE: Do not determine on your own that a research problem is too narrowly defined to find any relevant or meaningful information. Always consult with a librarian before making this assumption because a librarian can help guide you to undiscovered research or suggest ways to design a broader analysis of your research problem.
Booth, Wayne C. The Craft of Research. Fourth edition. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2016; Coming Up With Your Topic. Institute for Writing Rhetoric. Dartmouth College; Getting Started With Your Research: A Self-Help Guide to Quality Information, Jean and Alexander Heard Library. Vanderbilt University; Strategies for Broadening a Topic. University Libraries. Information Skills Modules. Virginia Tech University.