Posing irrelevant research questions

From The Embassy of Good Science

Posing irrelevant research questions

What is this about?

Irrelevant research questions are those questions that do not advance scientific understanding. Examples include questions that have already been convincingly answered by others, leading to duplicate research, or that could be answered by performing a systematic review or meta-analysis. [1] Irrelevant research questions can lead to research waste.

  1. Chalmers, I., & Glasziou, P. (2009). Avoidable waste in the production and reporting of research evidence. The Lancet, 374(9683), 86-89.

Why is this important?

Within the scientific community, posing irrelevant research questions is considered a problem because it leads to research waste. Funding in the scientific community is limited, and research waste uses valuable resources which could have been used elsewhere. Science, fundamentally, involves posing questions and forming hypotheses that might turn out to be wrong, but the questions asked should always be relevant. Within health research it is estimated 50% of questions are not relevant .[1] These include:

  1. Questions that have low priority of being researched. Assessing the risk of getting malaria is a relevant question in sub-Saharan Africa – but not when asking the same question in Northern Siberia – where the mosquito does not live.
  2. Questions which ignore the outcome of previous  research, which results in duplicate research and wastes valuable resources. This is not the same as explicit replication of previous research, which is vital for the trustworthiness of science.
  3. Questions which do not involve those affected by the research in setting the research agenda. For example, most research on rheumatoid arthritis focused on pain relief. [1][2] However, a novel study  found that fatigue was one of most prevalent, and ignored, problems among patients .[3] This shows that asking the right question is also concerned with societal relevance, and interacting with patients and clinicians is of great importance.

Formulating relevant research questions is not easy, and is a challenge for individual researchers and the scientific community as a whole.  

  1. 1.0 1.1 Chalmers, I., & Glasziou, P. (2009). Avoidable waste in the production and reporting of research evidence. The Lancet, 374(9683), 86-89.
  2. Hewlett, S., Wit, M. D., Richards, P., Quest, E., Hughes, R., Heiberg, T., & Kirwan, J. (2006). Patients and professionals as research partners: challenges, practicalities, and benefits. Arthritis Care & Research: Official Journal of the American College of Rheumatology, 55(4), 676-680.
  3. Hewlett, S., Cockshott, Z., Byron, M., Kitchen, K., Tipler, S., Pope, D., & Hehir, M. (2005). Patients' perceptions of fatigue in rheumatoid arthritis: overwhelming, uncontrollable, ignored. Arthritis Care & Research, 53(5), 697-702.

For whom is this important?

What are the best practices?

In a series of the Lancet on research waste, [1] the following steps were suggested for setting research priorities and diminishing research waste (as cited from pg. 158):

  1. Include objectives in research groups’ strategic plans and define the stakeholders whose opinions and priorities will be considered
  2. Draw on an existing summary of previous priority-setting exercises in the specialty before undertaking own exercise
  3. Use available methodological reviews of research priority setting as guidance about how to meet priority-setting objectives
  4. Ensure that the priority-setting team has the necessary data, information about context, and skill set for their exercise
  5. Pilot, assess, revise, and update the priority-setting exercise at intervals
  6. Participate in discussions within the community of interest to share findings and experiences”
  1. Chalmers, I., Bracken, M. B., Djulbegovic, B., Garattini, S., Grant, J., Gülmezoglu, A. M., ... & Oliver, S. (2014). How to increase value and reduce waste when research priorities are set. The Lancet, 383(9912), 156-165.

Other information

Good Practices & Misconduct