When you want to conduct a comprehensive and complex scientific study, it can be helpful to write a research proposal before commencing with the actual study. A research proposal aims to elucidate on why and how you intend to conduct a certain study. It is a summary of the key components that are your study will be comprised of, and gives a detailed overview of the intended research process. Writing a research proposal helps you to create a structured and informed approach to your study. The research proposal acts as a guideline as you progress in the research process, but this does not mean you cannot still make substantial adjustments throughout the actual research process if this is deemed appropriate. With a well-written research proposal you can also convey towards others that your research project will be worthwhile, feasible and of decent methodological quality. This is often a crucial prerequisite when wanting to secure funding for a research project.
Contents of a research proposal
In the following subsections we will briefly explain which components should be included in a research proposal.
Section 1. Introduction
1.1 The overall topic of the study: In 2 or 3 sentences you briefly introduce the general topic of your study to spark the reader’s interest.
1.2 The importance of the topic: In this section you explain why the topic is important from a social and policy perspective, but also from a research perspective. What is the added value of your study, and which knowledge gap do you intend to address? You should support your argumentation with references, in 1 or 2 paragraphs.
1.3 Research setting: You elaborate on the research setting and why this setting is suitable for investigating the topic. Try to be as detailed and specific as possible on why you specifically chose this setting for your study. If needed, you also address the representativeness of the setting (e.g. to what extent will you be able to generalize your findings to a broader context?). The information in this section should also be supported with references.
1.4 Research aim, research question and research objectives: You link the topic and the research setting to the research aim of your study; in one or several sentences you describe the main aim of your study. Then, you try to formulate a main research question which is directly derived from the research aim. If a study has a complex research aim, you can sometimes choose to formulate multiple research questions. It is also common to mention specific research objectives in this section, which can be seen as the various steps in the research process towards answering the research question(s).
1.5 Methodological approach (optional): In just a couple of sentences you talk about the paradigmatic world view, research design, research population and method of data collection you will be using for your study. An example: “The current study will adopt a qualitative, exploratory and inductive research approach. This approach will be operationalized via a case study research design, using semi-structured interviews with experts. Our paradigmatic world view is social-constructivism.” More detailed information about the methodology follows later.
Section 2. Theoretical background and conceptual model
Here you go into more detail in explaining the concepts and theories that you will apply in your study. Different concepts and theories all deserve their own section here, supported with relevant literature and references.
The final subsection here is called “conceptual model”. This is a graphic representation (a figure) which integrates the various concepts and theories into a single model. The figure should provide an easy overview of how the concepts and theories relate to the research objectives of your study. There should also be a short text for explaining the model.
Section 3. Research methods
This chapter aims to provide more elaborate information on the methodological aspects of the intended study. This section should provide a clear view on what the current research entails and how the topic will be approached by the researchers. This section is furthermore implemented to ensure the methodological soundness of the study.
3.1 Research type and design: Important questions to answer here are:
- What paradigmatic world view do you adhere to in your study?
- Is the study qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods?
- What is the specific research design? (e.g. is it a cohort study, RCT, case study, phenomenological study etc.)
- Is it an exploratory, explanatory or descriptive study?
- Descriptive research aims to present a highly accurate picture of the specific details of a situation, social setting, or relationship.
- Exploratory research is used when the subject is very new, we know little to nothing about it, and no one has yet explored it. The aim of exploratory research is to acquaintance oneself with the basic facts, setting and concerns regarding the research topic.
- Explanatory research intends to test, elaborate and extend an existing theory; it aims to address why events occur and to determine which of several explanations is most plausible.
3.2 Research population and sample selection: What is your research population, and what are the relevant features of this population? What sampling method will you be using and how exactly will you identify and include participants for your study? In case of conducting a systematic literature review, you provide an explanation of what type of literature will be reviewed, and how you will identify this literature (Which search terms will you use? Which databases and search machines will you use?).
3.3 Data collection: Firstly, you describe the instrument(s) of data collection you will use (e.g. semi-structured interviews, a questionnaire etc.). Try to be as detailed as possible on the contents of the research instrument (e.g. what kind of questions, items etc. will be used). Provide a description on how you will apply the research instrument. If applicable, you also explain how you intend to deal with non-respondents and informed consent.
In case of conducting a systematic literature review, you describe how relevant literature will be identified and separated from irrelevant literature, and how the relevant literature will be reviewed.
3.4 Data analysis: A detailed explanation on the nature and the steps of the data analysis. This section should provide sufficient information, to the extent that an external researcher would be able to perform the analysis.
3.5 Validity and reliability: In case you will be conducting a quantitative study, you will explain here how validity and reliability will be ensured. If any reliability or validity tests will be conducted, it is also mentioned in this section. In case of a qualitative study, you elaborate on how issues regarding the trustworthiness of the study will be addressed.
Section 4. Dissemination and self-evaluation
In some cases, it is important to think about how you want to disseminate the findings of your study/project. The research proposal should include some information on how you intend to communicate and convey your findings to others. There are various ways to disseminate your results, such as through publications, collaborative events, websites, e-mails, conferences and workshops. For more information about the dissemination of project results, have a look at the project dissemination page of the Consumer, Health, Agriculture and Food Executive Agency (CHAFEA).
In some cases it is also needed to have an evaluation strategy while conducting your project or study. An evaluation strategy is important for ensuring the success and quality of your study/project. Within an evaluation strategy you discuss expected problems and limitations of the study, as well as budgetary considerations. For more information, have a look at yet another useful page from CHAFEA on project evaluation.
Lastly, in this section of the research proposal you should also provide a detailed description of the different steps of your study in the form of a timetable, including provisional deadlines. Have a look at the two examples below.
This second exemplary table was created with the GanttProject Tool.
Section 5. Provisional article layout (optional)
Here you develop a provisional table of contents for the final article/publication. You list the titles of the chapters, sections and sub-sections. This just serves as a guideline and can still be changed as the study progresses.
Section 6. References
You conclude the research proposal with a complete list of all references used.