A global network of researchers

A Quick Guide to Selecting an Excellent Research Topic and Project Title

By Stephen Bannah | Dec. 18, 2023  | Research writing Research skills

Selection of an appropriate research topic poses a challenge for both research students and early career researchers in the Global South. However, this is basically the first step in the research process. A compelling research topic must be sufficiently narrow and focused to be interesting, yet broad enough to find adequate information. The choice of research topic (i.e., good or bad) significantly affects the progress of one's study. Therefore, researchers must opt for an authentic and genuine research topic. 

In this regard, certain categories should be avoided when selecting a research topic, including overly broad or universal topics, topics that have been exhaustively researched, those associated with controversy or religion, topics linked to politics, and those with a narrow scope. An unsuitable research topic can result in a lack of researcher interest, superficial exploration, limited access to relevant literature, ethical challenges, and/or compromised data gathering. This can be field-specific and an issue that may be controversial in one area can be a valid research topic in another discipline.

Research Topic versus Research Title

Research topic and research title are related concepts; they are sometimes used interchangeably by students but they each have a distinct meaning and scope. A research topic is the broader concept of a proposed study. It provides a focus for exploration, such as ‘climate change disclosure’, ‘mental accounting’, ‘corporate governance’, or ‘psychological stress’. A research topic can span a wide range of disciplines and may emerge from an area of interest, thus enabling the researcher to become acquainted with the subject area and gain a sense of its scope and complexities. 

A research topic is the broader concept of a proposed study, ... On the other hand, a research title is a specific, concise, and often catchy phrase that describes the focus and purpose of the research study.

On the other hand, a research title is a specific, concise, and often catchy phrase that describes the focus and purpose of the research study. It is mostly a combination of topic, context, and contribution. The research title is narrow in scope compared to the research topic and provides a glimpse of what a study is all about. For instance, let us consider the phrase, “The effect of financial stress on the academic performance of University of Ghana students. Here, the research topic (financial stress), sub-theme (academic performance), context (University of Ghana) and the unit of analysis (individuals – students) are each individually identifiable.

Things to Consider in Choosing a Research Topic and Title

There are six general aspects to consider in choosing a research topic and title. These include the research gap, policy relevance, data availability, clarity of relationships, researcher interest, and subject area focus.

Research gap: The need to address existing research gaps in selected research areas is pertinent in the process of selecting a research topic and title. Research gaps are reasonable voids that exist in the research literature and which are deemed appropriate to study or contribute knowledge to. The existing  literature serves as the primary source for identifying gaps, specifically journal articles and industry research reports from renowned institutions. Students are required to explore the relevant literature, including review articles in the subject area of interest. 

By delving into the existing body of knowledge, one can identify contradictory issues or gaps in earlier findings. This approach is highly recommended for the selection of one's research topics and title, since academic research progresses by embracing opportunities for new insight to contribute to the existing body of knowledge.

Policy relevance: Selecting a research topic and title requires thoughtful consideration of the policy relevance of the chosen issues, recognizing their current significance in national or global discussions. Social science researchers, policy analysts, and decision makers have historically been dedicated to enhancing the integration of research and policy. 

It is vital for students to explore topics that align with both academic discourse and policy making, ensuring meaningful contributions to societal advancement by providing insights into historical, current, and future aspects within a specific social context, aiming to guide and inform policy decisions. One's choice of research topic when aligned with current policy needs enhances one's impact, bridging academic inquiry with real-world problem-solving and addressing complex societal challenges.

Data availability: Research inherently relies on data. Without data, the research process cannot be completed. Students and researchers should consider the availability of data in the selection of a research topic and title in both qualitative and quantitative contexts. Inaccurate data and data sources have the potential to lead a proposition and/or hypothesis astray, possibly resulting in a misleading analysis or inaccurate findings, or both. Researchers often face constraints tied to data access or unavailability of archival or quantitative information in emerging research areas, which in turn may affect the depth and scope of their investigation.

This context, however, triggers the qualitative–quantitative debate in research. Researchers may resort to a qualitative approach to understand a phenomenon where data becomes scarce. Although secondary data sources can save time and money, it is imperative for researchers to verify the accessibility, reliability, and completeness of their data.

Clarity of Relationships: In the process of selecting a research topic and a title, students must probe into the clarity of the relationships within their chosen concept areas. The process extends beyond mere combination of concepts; instead, it requires thoughtful exploration involving hypothesis development. The significance lies in the formulation of an hypothesis that can be tested by means of applying appropriate research methodologies. 

This approach ensures that the selected topic is not only conceptually cohesive but also lends itself to empirical investigation, allowing for the establishment of relationships through systematic inquiry. By emphasizing hypothesis building, researchers pave the way for empirical exploration, enabling them to uncover meaningful insights and contribute to the advancement of knowledge within their chosen field. 

Personal Interest: The choice of research topic can be positively influenced by the researcher’s values, beliefs, and interests. Achieving a successful outcome is facilitated by your enthusiasm and dedication. Students must consider the following question: "What are the topics that I am most curious about, like reading about or discussing, or have personal experience with?" 

Selecting a topic that is aligned with one's personal interest serves as a source of motivation. The research journey, which can be extensive and challenging, becomes more enjoyable and fulfilling when driven by personal interest. The trend not only enhances the researcher’s understanding of the subject matter but also positively influences the overall quality of the research. For the sake of objectivity, the researcher should not use his/her personal experience as the basis of their conclusions but rely on objective data.

There are six general aspects to consider in choosing a research topic and title. These include the research gap, policy relevance, data availability, clarity of relationships, researcher interest, and subject area focus.

Subject Area Focus: In the process of selecting a research topic and title, a critical consideration is the connection to the relevant discipline. Knowledge creation predominantly operates within the framework of specific subject areas (even in interdisciplinary contexts), and it is essential to ensure that the chosen topic aligns with the disciplinary context. 

This involves addressing potential concerns where some may argue that the selected topic is not inherently connected to the field. For instance, in accounting seminar presentations, the panel can ask, "How relevant to accounting is your topic?" In this case, the researcher has to explain how their new study will contribute to the knowledge base pertaining to the discipline of accounting. Students should anticipate and address any skepticism regarding the disciplinary relevance of their chosen topic. By establishing clear connections and demonstrating thow their research contributes to or engages with the discipline, the researcher strengthens the scholarly foundations of their research project.

My Personal Experience

Generating my research topic and title was an iterative process and driven by my personal interests, the interests of my supervisors, the availability and sources of my data, current trends, and existing gaps in the literature. Initially, I limited my focus to the research areas of my supervisors and generated several research topics and titles. Upon numerous discussions, we realized that those areas were not so interesting, because a lot had already been done in this specific field. The unavailability of data was also a concern. Thus, little could be done using a quantitative approach, since most public sectors, especially hospitals, do not disclose their annual financial statements. 

This triggered the need to search for other areas of recent interest, some of which were proposed by my supervisors. Nonetheless, I embarked on a wide search by reading most current literature review papers in the proposed areas, with the aim of finding recommendations on future studies and identifying gaps in issues, methodology, theory, and context. I also read conference papers and exposure drafts of related organizational bodies, which addressed more pertinent issues. I thus gained clarity as to the most appropriate research topic and titles I am now using for my research projects, since I was exposed to the nuances of the areas of interest to me. I believe that this iterative process is also relevant for other social science and non-social science fields.

Conclusions and Insights

The most difficult aspect of doing research is getting started. However, choosing a topic is itself research. Students must define the scope of their research to link identified research gaps to their research topic. Upon establishing the overall purpose of their study, the research title can be adjusted to align seamlessly with the research objective and intentions.

Recommendation for students or mentees:

  • Students should participate in conferences and seminars to gather insights as to current and future research needs. Engage with presenters for valuable suggestions on potential areas for future research. 
  • Students must establish an academic network within and beyond their university. Collaborate with supervisors and experts for topic ideas. This could be done in the form of journal clubs, such as the various AuthorAID Journal Clubs.
  • Students must prioritize searching for information from websites that are credible and reliable. This should also include the following of global, regional, and national affairs sites. 

Recommendations for supervisors or mentors:

  • Supervisors should guide students in choosing research topics that align with the degree requirements and the current state of knowledge. They should also outline the project scope in initial supervisory meetings.
  • Supervisors should recommend research topics that can be successfully completed within the allocated time with research outputs in the forms of journal articles, policy briefs, or white papers.

Stephen Bannah is a member of the AuthorAID Ghana Hub, where he supports national partnerships for research. He is also a Master of Philosophy in Accounting student at the University of Ghana, exploring the issues of climate change and its disclosure. In addition, he is a researcher at the Dataking Research Lab. Stephen holds a BSc in Accounting Education from the University of Education, Winneba (Ghana).

blog comments powered by Disqus