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Finding data

From research question to research data

Formulating a research question is an important first step in any research project. The process of finding a research topic and formulating a research question is described in a Libguide on searching for literature. A precise and concrete research question will help you to recognise what kind of data you are looking for; vice versa, data availability will often force you to adjust your research question.

We will give you some generic handles to start thinking about the data you need to answer your research question. The pages on Company data, Financial markets, and Economics in this libguide will introduce you to specific databases for those topics that are available at the VU.

Think before you act!

Thinking before acting is often good advice, especially in academia, and even more when collecting data. Having to go back to look for additional data, downloading it, merging it with the original data, and redoing your analysis is a lot of work. Spend some time thinking about the data you need for your research. Try to think of your ideal data or experiment, with which you could convincingly answer every question you have. Even if you cannot find that data (which is very likely), it will be easier to notice what is missing, how you can work around problems, and which questions you might have to leave unanswered.

Operationalising key elements

Operationalisation is the process of making a concept measurable. Often, the meaning of theoretical concepts seems clear, but is not not so evident once you start thinking about how to measure them. For example, in international economics we often speak about ‘open’ or ‘closed’ economies. Although it seems clear what is meant in theory, it is much more difficult to measure. When is an economy closed or open? What data can we use to measure this? Is there a clear distinction (yes or no), or is there a scale (more or less)? Often, you can find different options in the academic literature on your topic. Carefully read the literature, and try to understand why the authors chose a specific measurement. Sometimes there is a good theoretical foundation, sometimes it's just the only data they could find.

Determining scope

The scope of your research refers to the different dimensions of your research, for example the temporal dimension (are you interested in recent developments, or in economic history), the geographical dimension (the Netherlands, the EU, low income countries, etc.), or the type of subjects (large firms or small startups? The general population, or working age women with children?) Setting the scope determines to an important extent what sources are available. Sometimes your research question specifically points to a certain scope: it is difficult to research the 1997 Asian financial crisis using only EU data from 2010. In other cases, data availability will automatically determine the scope of your research. Most of the databases available at the VU are for European and North-American countries, and are relatively recent (that is, going back at most a few decades).