Choosing a research topic is one of the first things you should work on when you decide to write a research manuscript for a peer-reviewed journal. Don’t confuse a research topic with a research paper title. A title is an element of the article that describes what the study is about; a research topic is the area of your investigation, focusing on the research question you are trying to answer.
Here are two frequently asked questions related to choosing a research topic for a manuscript:
When should we decide on the topic of a manuscript?
People may choose what they want to write about in a research paper at different stages of their projects. Sometimes, we have clear ideas about what our manuscripts will focus on even before we start the data collection and analysis. The research questions of the projects are usually also the topics of the papers. For example, I led a project on using telepsychiatry for mental health services among non-English speaking patients. Before the project started, I knew I would write two manuscripts on the feasibility and effectiveness of telepsychiatry, respectively.
However, at some other times, we may decide on our manuscript topic after a project is wrapped up. The decision will be based on what findings are most interesting and some other important factors such as data quality, sample size, etc. This may be especially the case when the project has a broad scope and measures a wide range of issues. After the primary analysis, you may notice a particular issue or a pattern of relationship clearly stands out and is worth further investigation and discussion. As a result, that becomes your research paper topic.
There is no absolute right or wrong. My suggestion is thinking about the topic of your potential journal manuscript when you plan the study, even if you are not able to decide all the specifics.
How do I know whether the topic of my manuscript is appropriate?
Putting my reviewer hat on, I have to say that many times that a paper is rejected because of choice of topics, or more specifically, the research question that they are trying to answer. A research question guides and centers a research paper. It is usually the first thing that reviewers try to understand and evaluate.
According to Thomas V. Perneger and Patricia M Hudelson, authors of Writing a research article: advice to beginners, a good research question has three key attributes:
Your research question should be precise, rather than presenting a general area of inquiry. For example, it would be too broad if you intend to answer “what are the effects of childhood obesity in the U.S.” in one research paper. It would be more appropriate to narrow it down to something like “How is childhood obesity associated with academic performance among elementary school children?”
It should be pointed out that you also don’t want your research topic to be too narrow. When a topic is too narrow, it is difficult to find adequate relevant literature and the paper itself may attract fewer readers.
2. Originality or novelty
Few studies break entirely new ground. However, when we write a manuscript, we should always ask ourselves what this study or review can add to the existing literature in a field and how it will inform and influence future research and practice.
3. General relevance to a broad scientific community
The question should be of interest to researchers in the field you have chosen to study. You want to have a relative bigger group of readers, rather than a few experts on a very specific topic. The question should arise in the literature or practice and establish relevancy to motivate readers to continue reading.
These three attributions are consistent with the criteria that journal reviewers usually use to assess the purpose of the study and the statement of the problem. Taking these points into consideration early in your manuscript planning will help you develop a solid and clear piece of work for submission.
Perneger TV, Hudelson PM (2004) Writing a research article: advice to beginners. Int J Qual Health Care 16: 191–192.