Problem Definition

Although research reports state the objectives or purpose of the research early on, this is not always the starting point. Often, considerable analysis of historical data or secondary information has been undertaken to help define in very clear and precise terms what is the problem or opportunity. Apparently, Albert Einstein went so far as to say that "the formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution"! Sometimes, exploratory research is required to help in the formulation of the research problem.

After an introduction which describes the broader context within which the research should be situated, it is important to state the objectives or purpose pursued by the research itself. Often, this is a fairly broad or general statement as well. For instance, in the paper "Not in my backyard: Toronto Resident Attitudes toward Permanent Charity Gaming Clubs", the purpose of the research is given as: "The following study is an attempt to provide a more meaningful and defensible measure of public opinion". This is a fairly vague statement and should have been followed up with a much more precise research question (in question format) or problem statement (a re-wording of the research question into a statement format). For example "What is the attitude of Toronto residents toward permanent charity gaming clubs?"; (research question) or "This study is designed to determine the attitude of Toronto residents toward permanent charity gaming clubs"; (problem statement).

Indeed, the research question could have been broken down further, into subproblems. For instance, "Are there differences in attitude based on age, education and gender?"; or "What are the primary reasons for residents approving or disapproving of permanent charity gaming clubs?"; These subproblems form the nucleus of the research itself and must be directly addressed by the research instrument.

At this point in time it is important to inform the reader about the breadth or scope of the study, in our particular case this includes Toronto residents (the term "Toronto" should probably be defined to ensure a common understanding as to the geographic boundaries) and questions pertaining to permanent casinos and VLTs (but not bingo halls or lotteries, for instance). This scope might be considered to be too broad in nature, and so the researcher can impose limitations or restrictions on the study that make it more doable. As an example, this study was limited to respondents aged 19 or older. Other limitations may have to be imposed on the study due to cost or time constraints or accessibility to respondents. This type of limitation should NOT be confused with methodological limitations, which are addressed as part of the methodology of the study.

All research is based on a set of assumptions or factors that are presumed to be true and valid. For instance, it is generally assumed that respondents will reply honestly and accurately as far as they are able to do so. By stating these assumptions up front, the researcher reduces potential criticism of the research, but without them, the research itself would not be possible. If you thought that respondents would lie, why would you bother doing the research?

In formal research, the researcher will provide an educated guess regarding the outcome of the study, called hypothesis (note that the plural form is hypotheses!). The "educated guess" comes from the related literature. You can also think of hypotheses as the expected answer to the research question and each of the subproblems. The research will test the hypotheses, proving them to be either valid or correct, or invalid/incorrect. Sometimes, researcher will also state that a hypothesis tested positive (valid) or negative (incorrect). It does not matter whether you correctly predict the outcome of the research or not, since rejecting a hypothesis does not mean that the research itself is poor, but rather that your research has results that are different from what the related literature led you to believe should have been expected.

In the case of industry research, once the manager has defined the problem for which s/he needs a solution, and has determined that the information required cannot be obtained using internal resources, an outside supplier will likely be contracted based on a Request for Proposal.