Designing research projects: how to avoid big problems.

by Dr Julian Quinn, The SERT Institute, RNSH

Once an exciting new research project has been envisaged and sketched out, a pause for thought is needed. Before any work is undertaken, there are important queries that need to be addressed in order to avoid serious roadblocks to progress, to help ensure the project unfolds in an orderly way, and to make sure that the goals of the study are attainable within the time allotted.

1.  How much time is available? Is there a hard deadline that cannot be changed?
2.  What are the questions that underlie the project? Can they be clearly stated?
3.  What are the ethical issues involved in pursuing the study? Will HREC and governance approval be needed?
4.  Why do you want to do the project? What is your motivation? Are you keen to do it?
5.  What resources (money, equipment and salary) will be needed to complete the project, and are they available?
6.  What skills are required?
7.  What type of statistical analysis is needed and is there likely to be enough data, i.e., is there sufficient statistical power?
8.  Who is interested in the study and its outcomes?
9.  Who is in charge of the study, who makes the key decisions?
10.  Does it involve data already generated or is will it require generation?
11.  What sort of publication is envisaged and what journal would it be published in?

The first five queries relate to the feasibility of the project, so are central to the decision as to whether to proceed at all. All need very thorough consultation with a mentor (and an experienced departmental research officer) as the answers to these queries profoundly influence how a study proceeds. Some queries may have simple answers, but it always pays to be cautious in accepting that simplicity at face value. Digging a bit deeper is nearly always warranted.

The most deceptively simple query is often number 2 above, relating to the research question(s) that underpin the whole study design. It is all too easy to be glib in composing such research questions, so it requires careful deconstruction. Can the question be phrased simply and precisely and do other people grasp it easily? If not, that is a danger signal that more care in framing the research question is needed. Point 8 above is also important if seeking funding support – if the research question is answered, how much would anyone care about it or find it useful? It is also an important consideration later on when persuading a begrudging journal editor to publish the work.

These queries taken as a whole indicate not only the importance of mentorship and planning, but also of canvassing the views of others about a research proposal. This can be done by simply asking colleagues for comments on draft proposals, but a traditionally eye-opening approach is to present the research proposal to a group of peers. This can be done several ways, but formal presentations to a large audience are good for getting unvarnished advice from a variety of perspectives. A presentation deadline is also a useful push to get things organised. Small expert audiences are generally better for criticising project detail and for thinking in-depth about the premises of the project.

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