Understanding a Research Proposal
Writing a research proposal is crucial, as it helps with the organization of thoughts and the planning of the proposed research. A research proposal is like a detailed road map of the necessary steps you will take to complete the project. A research proposal should state the research questions and explain how you will answer them. A well-written proposal is a strong basis from which to complete your dissertation or thesis and it is obviously worth the while to spend some time creating a research proposal that is strong. A clean, well-thought-out proposal forms the backbone for the research itself and hence becomes the most important step in the process of conduct of research. The objective of preparing a research proposal would be to obtain approvals from various committees including the ethics committee and to request grants. However, there are very few universally accepted guidelines for the preparation of a research proposal with good quality.
Guidelines for preparing a Research Proposal
A research proposal needs to show how your work fits into what is already known about the topic and what new paradigm will it add to the literature, while specifying the question that the research will answer, establishing its significance, and the implications of the answer. A research proposal must be capable of convincing the evaluation committee about the credibility, achievability, practicality, and reproducibility (repeatability) of the research design. Four categories of the audience with different expectations may be present in the evaluation committees, namely academic colleagues, policy-makers, practitioners, and lay audiences who evaluate a research proposal. A researcher must be balanced, with a realistic understanding of what can be achieved. Being persuasive implies that the researcher must be able to convince other researchers, research funding agencies, educational institutions, and supervisors that a research proposal is worth getting approval. The aim of the researcher should be clearly stated in simple language that describes the research in a way that non-specialists can comprehend, without the use of jargon. A research proposal must not only demonstrate that it is based on an intelligent understanding of the existing literature but also show that the writer has thought about the time needed to conduct each stage of the research.
Contents of a Research Proposal
The contents or formats of a research proposal vary depending on the requirements of the evaluation committee and are generally provided by the evaluation committee or the institution. In general, a cover page should contain the (i) title of a research proposal, (ii) name and affiliation of the researcher (principal investigator) and co-investigators, (iii) institutional affiliation (degree of the investigator and the name of the institution where the study will be performed), details of contact such as phone numbers, E-mail ids and lines for signatures of investigators. The main contents of a research proposal may be presented under the following headings: (i) introduction, (ii) review of literature, (iii) aims and objectives, (iv) research design and methods, (v) ethical considerations, (vi) budget, (vii) appendices and (viii) citations.
It is also sometimes termed as ‘need for study’ or ‘abstract’. The introduction is an initial pitch of an idea; it sets the scene and puts the research in context. The introduction, in a research proposal, should be designed to create interest in the reader about the topic and proposal. It should convey to the reader, what you want to do, what necessitates the study, and your passion for the topic. Some questions that can be used to assess the significance of the study in a research proposal are: (i) Who has an interest in the domain of inquiry? (ii) What do we already know about the topic? (iii) What has not been answered adequately in previous research and practice? (iv) How will this research add to knowledge, practice, and policy in this area? Some of the evaluation committees, expect the last two questions, elaborated under a separate heading of ‘background and significance’. The introduction should also contain the hypothesis behind the research design. If the hypothesis cannot be constructed, the line of inquiry to be used in the research must be indicated in a research proposal.
- Review of literature
It refers to all sources of scientific evidence pertaining to the topic of interest suggested in a research proposal. In the present era of digitalization and easy accessibility, there is an enormous amount of relevant data available, making it a challenge for the researcher to include all of it in his/her review. It is crucial to structure this section intelligently so that the reader can grasp the argument related to your study indicated in a research proposal in relation to that of other researchers, while still demonstrating to your readers that your work is original and innovative. It is preferable to summarize each article in a paragraph, highlighting the details pertinent to the topic of interest in a research proposal. The progression of review can move from the more general to the more focused studies, or a historical progression can be used to develop the story, without making it exhaustive. Literature should include supporting data, disagreements, and controversies.
- Aims and objectives
A research purpose (or goal or aim) gives a broad indication of what the researcher wishes to achieve in the research and must convey it in a research proposal. The hypothesis to be tested can be the aim of the study. The objectives related to parameters or tools used to achieve the aim are generally categorized as primary and secondary objectives.
- Research design and method
The objective here is to convince the reader that the overall research design and methods of analysis will correctly address the research problem and to impress upon the reader that the methodology/sources chosen are appropriate for the specific topic mentioned in a research proposal. It should be unmistakably tied to the specific aims of your study suggested in a research proposal. In this section, the methods and sources used to conduct the research must be discussed, including specific references to sites, databases, key texts, or authors that will be indispensable to the project. There should be specific mention in a research proposal about the methodological approaches to be undertaken to gather information, about the techniques to be used to analyze it, and about the tests of external validity to which the researcher is committed.
The components of this section include the following:
Population and sample:
Population refers to all the elements (individuals, objects, or substances) that meet certain criteria for inclusion in a given universe, and sample refers to a subset of a population that meets the inclusion criteria for enrolment into the study suggested in a research proposal. The inclusion and exclusion criteria should be clearly defined.
- Data collection
The researcher is expected to give a detailed account of the methodology adopted for the collection of data, which includes the time frame required for the research. The methodology should be tested for its validity and ensure that, in pursuit of achieving the results, the participant’s life is not jeopardized. The author should anticipate and acknowledge any potential barrier and pitfall in carrying out the research design and explain plans to address them, thereby avoiding lacunae due to incomplete data collection. If the researcher is planning to acquire data through interviews or questionnaires, copy of the questions used for the same should be attached as an annexure with a research proposal.
- Data analysis
This section of a research proposal deals with the reduction and reconstruction of data and its analysis including sample size calculation. The researcher is expected to explain the steps adopted for coding and sorting the data obtained. Various tests to be used to analyze the data for its robustness, significance should be clearly stated. The author of a research proposal should also mention the names of statisticians and suitable software which will be used in the due course of data analysis and their contribution to data analysis and sample calculation.
- Ethical considerations
Medical research introduces special moral and ethical problems that are not usually encountered by other researchers during data collection, and hence, the researcher should take special care in ensuring that ethical standards are met. Ethical considerations refer to the protection of the participants’ rights (right to self-determination, right to privacy, right to autonomy and confidentiality, right to fair treatment, and right to protection from discomfort and harm), obtaining informed consent, and the institutional review process (ethical approval). The researcher needs to provide adequate information on each of these aspects. Informed consent needs to be obtained from the participants, as well as the research site and the relevant authorities.
When the researcher prepares a research budget, he/she should predict and cost all aspects of the research and then add an additional allowance for unpredictable disasters, delays, and rising costs. All items in the budget should be justified.
Appendices are documents that support a research proposal and application. The appendices will be specific for each proposal but documents that are usually required include informed consent form, supporting documents, questionnaires, measurement tools and patient information of the study in layman’s language.
As with any scholarly research paper, you must cite the sources you used in composing a research proposal. Although the words ‘references and bibliography’ are different, they are used interchangeably. It refers to all references cited in a research proposal.