Oliver Kirchkamp
[A picture of Oliver Kirchkamp]

The research question

To demonstrate your scientific competence you have to find a good research question:Your research question is usually one sentence, and it is actually a question, i.e. it ends with a question mark. Keep in mind: “The efficiency of mechanisms” is not a question. “Is the ABC mechanism more efficient than the DEF mechanism?” is a question. Ask yourselves: why is an answer to this question relevant for economics (i.e. why does an answer eventually help increase efficiency, reduce inequality, improve stability, etc.).

A main focus of the chair is experimental economics. The research question will relate to experimental economics or game theory (see question 1 below). Your question should also be interesting (see point 5 below).

  • It is very hard to develop a good research question out of nowhere. Almost always it is easier to start from the existing literature. It also helps if the existing literature is recent (the last five years) and if it is very well published. Let me briefly explain:
    • When working on your project, it is important to focus on a specific aspect of the world that you can explain thoroughly. If your research question is not closely related to existing research, you may need to cover a wide range of topics in order to gather enough information. However, by looking at research that is already available, you may be able to find a more focused topic that you can research effectively within a given time frame.
    • Starting from the recent literature (last five years) makes it more likely that people find the topic interesting and that you can cover some new ground.
    • Starting from a well published paper makes it again more likely that people find the topic interesting.

    Read, e.g., current issues of Econometrica, American Economic Review, Review of Economic Studies, etc. and find out what researchers are currently discussing (not all articles in these journals deal with experiments.) If you have the feeling that the current discussion leaves questions aside then you might have a starting point.

    Alternatively you can look at current experiments. Read the journal Experimental Economics and look for improvements in the experiments that are presented there. You can also take a look at the websites of the GfeW or esa who organize conferences on experimental economics. There you will find abstracts of current research. More details can be found on the websites of the respective authors. Use these opportunities to inspire your research. It is often possible to combine two research ideas to a new research question.

    Please make sure that your research question clearly relates to the existing experimental literature (see also point 2 below). Many students start from too ambitious, too complicated problems. We can't do this in the available time.

  • Once you have a candidate for a research question, the following tests help you to assess the potential of your question:
    1. What do we know about answers to your question? How have similar questions already been discussed in the literature? Which gap do you want to close with your study?

      Visit the library to answer this question, use your favourite search engine, have a look at related papers you find at the IDEAS/RepEC database. If your question has already been answered, please find a new question.

      Include, if possible, approaches from other fields of economics (e.g. field data, theory).

      You should find at least one publication from a well ranked journal in economics which raises a similar question. Keep in mind: In your project you have to cover the entire distance between what science knows today and the issue you want to investigate. If the distance between the literature you can find and your research question is too large, you will have too much work to do. If you find references only in other (non-economic) journals, chances are that your topic is not really relevant for economics (the topic might still be relevant for other fields, but your project should be in economics).

    2. What alternative possibilities (experimental, theoretical, field data), different from your approach, does one have to find an answer to your question?

      Include approaches from all fields of economics (field data, theory, experiments). Your summary should not be longer than 100 words. Present what you know in a structured way. “While Smith makes a theoretical argument, Miller presents some field data. Additional insight could be gained from a laboratory experiment which studies the influence of GHI on ABC and DEF as follows. If participants with similar GHI levels play both mechanisms in random order...”

    3. What are the details of your approach?

      Think about the cornerstones of your approach. “In contrast to the approach of Frank (2004), who just randomizes over different GHI levels, I plan to manipulate GHI with the help of a pre-experimental stimulus as follows...”

    4. What are advantages and disadvantages of your approach (compared to theory, field data, experiments)?

      Explain why your approach is more suitable. Again, your summary should not be longer than 100 words. If you find that your approach has more disadvantages than advantages, it might be better to change your approach or move to a different question.

    5. Is it possible that your approach yields a surprising answer?

      Here briefly explain why and how different outcomes are possible. “Smith (2001) comes to the conclusion that GHI should affect positively the performance of ABC. If this is the case, ABC should have a clear advantage over DEF. The evidence of Miller (2002) suggests that GHI can also have a negative impact. Then DEF has a chance to outperform ABC...”.

      If you conclude that your question can't have a surprising answer, please find a different question.

    6. Is this the simplest possible way to answer your question?

      Please go through all aspects of your approach, e.g. the number of treatments in an experiment, the number of players, etc., and explain why a smaller number of treatments, a smaller number of player types, a simpler game, etc., does not allow to answer your question. If your approach is not the most simple approach, make it more simple.