How to write the perfect and compelling research proposal by Fariba Bannerman

Research…is an ancient and ubiquitous activity. Curiosity about others and the worlds in which they live has always been displayed through conversation, asking questions, working together to see what happens after different kinds of actions are performed, talking or gossiping about others to tease out intentions and other reasons for behaviour, clarifying and understanding circumstances; all are fundamental research functions.[1]

I recently attended an event on ‘Writing Research Proposals’ organised by CILIP Library Information Research Group (LIRG) in Manchester.

This session was led by Professor Alison Brettle and Dr Roy Vickers from Salford University as well as Mark Burgess; subject Librarian from Manchester Metropolitan University.

The following reflect my key learnings and take away messages from this workshop in addition to some information which I have gathered through further reading.

It is widely known that there is no solid template for a research proposal. The reason for writing one is to get approval for a project such as a thesis or seeking funding outlining how one should undertake the project. It could also be asking for feedback to refine an idea. The audience or recipient of a proposal usually is a committee who will make a decision or provide feedback, looking for the following within the submission:

  • A well-developed outline with a clear focus
  • Background reading, thorough and up-to-date
  • Realistic scope within available time
  • Sponsorship requirements which meet obligations and standards
  • Originality, being special, different and challenging
  • Appropriateness of methods
  • Costs and expense – funding
  • Health and safety
  • Ethics, confidentiality, anonymity

Finding examples of previously accepted research proposals is always a good point to start. Examine them for format and style. Probably most importantly, first of all you need to check that your research idea is novel and you are not reinventing the wheel and your work will make a new and valuable contribution, using this as a justification for your proposed project.

Check that your research idea is original. You will need to scan the current and ongoing unpublished (invisible) research.  If a similar research exists you need to prove that you can carry out the research with more up-to-date and efficient methodology and techniques, expecting to find something new.

The following databases are good places to perform your investigation:

ClinicalTrials.gov: A registry and results database of publicly and privately supported clinical studies of human participants conducted around the world.

World Health Organisation international clinical trials registry platform search portal: The Clinical Trials Search Portal provides access to a central database containing the trial registration data sets provided by the registries such as EU-CTR. (http://apps.who.int/trialsearch/)

ISRCTN: A primary clinical trial registry recognised by WHO and ICMJE that accepts all clinical research studies. (https://www.isrctn.com/)

NIHR-HTA: A database providing free access to bibliographic information about ongoing and published health technology assessments commissioned or undertaken by members of INAHTA and other HTA organisations from around the world.

PubMed: Open access search of Medline.

Cochrane library: A collection of databases in medicine and other healthcare specialties provided by Cochrane and other organisations.

It is worthy of note the major differences between a proposal and a published research paper are that a proposal is written in future tense because it has not been conducted and it does not include analysed data, discussion and recommendations which the research paper would contain.

 

Components – What to include

Title: Short yet descriptive enough to capture the essence of what your study is about, capturing the attention of the readers.

Introduction:  Acts like a trailer for your research. It identifies key issues, placing your project within wider context and establishes relevance and timeliness by drawing on existing literature. It consists of problem statement, justifying the novelty and importance of your question, the focus and concern in your study. You need to demonstrate there is a significant question to address and why answering this question should matter and what contribution you research will make.

Another important element of introduction is the hypothesis, stating what you think the answer to the question would be, by building a robust rationale for the hypothesis by presenting reasons for the hypothesis based on previous similar (not exact) research.

Aims and Objectives:

Aim – What you are going to do

Objectives – How you are going to achieve your aim

Literature review:

The current body of knowledge regarding your research question, what is known about it in general, providing context to your current study. The literature review consists of the research related to your topic including all sides of the argument, addressing the gap in the literature.  Here you will synthesise the literature that you have found in order to position your research question relative to the knowledge base and how it fits with wider body of knowledge demonstrating your thinking and understanding about the topic.

Methodology:

This section is about what you will do and why.

Discussing the appropriateness and feasibility of your project as well as touching down on limitations and its design, explaining how you do your research and which methods you will utilise, including your data collection process (who, what, when and where), whether it is qualitative or quantitative or a mixed method of research and produce a short philosophical reflection as why you have chosen one particular method –

  • Population or Samples (who you wish to take part in the study, how you are planning to recruit them, gender, age, ethnicity etc.)
  • Procedure or investigative techniques – what the sample will be doing, providing enough details
  • Materials / measures / instruments: such as questionnaires, puzzles, images
  • Methods to avoid biases
  • Data analysis: What data /tests will be used. What your plan is. How are you going to analyse your data

Ethical considerations:

Discuss ethical issues, especially if humans or animals are involved in your study. Ethical issues need to be considered at all stages of your proposal. From the beginning, obtaining an informed consent during data gathering, maintaining anonymity, confidentiality and accuracy leading to a reliable writing up and dissemination.

Discussion:

Include indicative outputs / outcomes.  Restate the hypothesis – what limitations might affect the conclusions in your project, potential implications of results and applied implications. Also you will mention how you will disseminate your findings and to whom, whether it is for internal or external audience. Is it going to be published in academic journals / newsletters / blogs/ or presented in a conference.

Timetable:

Using a Gantt chart you can make the key milestones and deliverables in your project easier to be visualised for yourself and the funder.

Resources required / Statement of Costs:

In this section you will outline the amount of funding and resources which you will require to carry out your research project. To draw up a realistic estimate you need to consider whether you will be recruiting staff or what equipment you will need. Does your project involve travelling? Does it require computing facilities? Try to read the guidelines and make yourself aware of the internal procedures in advance.

And finally, take a look at top reasons why we need research or what it can do for us:

To Describe > Explore > Examine Situations, Issues

To Explain > Understanding > To Provide Logic, Sense

To Categorise > Classify > Typologies

To Evaluate > Judgement > Measure

To Compare > Finding differences and Similarities

To Correlate > Influence and Relationship

To Predict > Future Trends and Patterns

To Control and Experiment > Cause and Effect

To Test Hypothesis / Theories

To Create Change and Making Policies

Fariba Bannermanx
LIBRARIAN, ALDER HEY CHILDREN’S NHS FOUNDATION TRUST

[1] Emery, M. (1986) Introduction. In M. Emery (ed.) Qualitative Research, Canberra: Australian Association for Adult Education.

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