Chapter 3 -- From Topics to Questions

“Research topic” → Something that interests me enough that I could potentially become some level of expert on it

A topic is probably too broad if it is stated in five words or less. Narrowing a topic is key. Do this by rephrasing a topic area into a full sentence (per Tolstoy example.) But don’t narrow a topic so much so that there ceases to be enough / any data available related to it!

Once I have a focused topic, it’s time to start asking questions …

  • About the history of the topic
  • About how this topic fits into a larger structure of something, or is it a function in a larger system/
  • Can it be grouped up into different kinds, or compared and contrasted with similar topics?
  • Is it subject to positive questions as well as negative ones?
  • How can what if? questions be applied to it
  • What questions are the sources I’m consulting with interrogating about the topic? Are they in agreement or disagreement?

Looking at all these questions, which are the good ones? And how are they significant? (the so what? aspect of the answer.)

Consider questions in the three part structure:

  1. Name of the topic (I am working on/studying…..)  
  2. Add a question that points to what I don’t understand about the topic (because I want to know…)
  3. Name the significance of the answer (in order to ….)  


  • How to think about research topics in terms of what could make a compelling argument or research paper, but also specifically for a project rooted in data visualization? What additional questions should be attached to the three-part structure?  

Chapter 4:  From Questions to a Problem

Research roles:

Topic (I’m studying) → Data collector

Question (because…) → Researcher

Significance (in order…) → Searching for meaning!

Note: finding significance of a problem is hard.

Practical problems vs Research problems:

  • A practical problem has meaningful cost/consequence in terms of time, money, physical wellness, etc
  • A research problem is conceptual in nature and the answer will be meaningful because it will help build understanding of the research problem

A practical problem has a cost (ie. if we don’t answer this, this is what is going to happen!) : a research problem has a consequence (ie. if we don’t understand this, then..?)

It will be key to make clear to the reading audience that no matter what the problem, the answer will have some impact on them / their interests (either practically or conceptually)

I need to focus on forming a question that I believe to be worth answering, which will lead to finding a problem that other people will think is worth solving --- and thus determining cost/consequence for readers.


  • What problems have I identified that might be smaller parts of bigger problems?

Chapter 5 -- From Problems to Sources

There are three types of sources:

  • Primary sources:  providing the raw data
  • Secondary sources: research reports that incorporate primary data to solve research problems, written for journals and professional audiences
  • Tertiary sources: Books and articles that synthesize secondary sources for general readers and mass-circulated publications

Note: Thorough protocols on methods of evaluating the reliability of sources, and of exploring the reference chain as means of discovering new angles on a question or new topics altogether


  • As we prepare to interview subject matter experts about our research problem, what are some guides that should be consulted surrounding the “complexities of interviewing” as referenced at the end of this chapter?

Chapter 6 -- Engaging Sources

A general rule of thumb: “Take notes more carefully than I think I need to!”

It’s important to understand what particular types of evidence (data) my audience will expect.

Other key pieces of advice on using sources:

  • Record all (and full) bibliographic material
  • Re-read the most important sources, at least twice
  • Don’t accept claims tacitly without further interrogation

Note: creative agreement vs disagreement -- in a secondary source, what claims can I extend or interrogate with forms of contradictions?

Note: when to summarize vs paraphrase vs quote --- photocopy often! -- and make sure to always capture the context correctly


Is this it too late to learn to speed-read?

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