Planning a Research Project in Surgery

By Dr Julian Quinn, The SERT Institute, Research Officer. [Email]

Once an exciting new research project has been envisaged and sketched out, have a pause. Before launching into any substantial work, here are some really important questions that need to be considered to make sure serious roadblocks are avoided, progress is as smooth as it can be and the important goals are attainable.

  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 questions relate to the feasibility of the project as envisaged and so are central to the decision as to whether to proceed at all. All of the questions need a very thorough consultation with a mentor or an experienced departmental research officer as their answers will profoundly affect how the study proceeds. Some of the questions may have simple answers, but it always pays to be cautious accepting that simplicity at face value and digging a bit deeper is nearly always warranted.

The most deceptively simple question is usually question 2, relating to the research questions being asked and which 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 should be taken as a danger signal that more thought regarding the research question is needed. Question 8 above is particularly important when seeking funding support – if the research question is answered, how much would anyone care about it or find it useful? It is a significant consideration when trying to persuade a journal editor to publish your work as well.

These questions hopefully demonstrate 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 a draft document, although a traditional and very useful approach is to present a research proposal to a group of peers. This can be done in a number of ways, but formal presentations to a large audience are good for getting a range of advice from different perspectives and a presentation deadline is another useful push to get things done. Smaller audiences and more informal presentations are often better for assessing detail and considering the project premises.

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