Sunday, April 10, 2011

WRITING A RESEARCH PROPOSAL (SYNOPSIS)

NB: This is a digression from the series of articles on Rural Education in Ghana. This is aimed at helping friends and colleagues who are currently writing their research proposal.

1.0 Introduction
Normally, at the ending of the year before students enter their final year at the university whether reading a postgraduate programme or undergraduate programme their concern are narrowed down to not only their examinations but the thesis/research they would undertake in their final year. Most often, students become aggrieved and confused as to the research topic to choose and how to go about it. Although most students are taught research methods, the applications of the principles at this stage elude a lot of them and therefore efforts at helping them appreciate the situation and overcome this challenge is always welcomed. This write-up presents the issues of writing a research proposal and the approach students can adopt. Although these vary across several schools, the outline below applies to a majority of them. For the purposes of this paper, emphasis has been placed on writing a research proposal on development issues.


2.0 Choosing a Thesis/Research Topic
Development issues are pervasive and even within sectors the issues to tackle are numerous. For this reason, students have available to them numerous options to consider for a research topic whether to study issues that cut across more than one sector, such as poverty, or study specific issues under one sector, such as health care finance. Even with these options there are so many dimensions that can still be derived for a research topic.

The motives for choosing a research topic are personal to each individual. Whereas students may be interested in undertaking a research in an area to serve as the basis for further studies, some may undertake a research because they want to better understand the practice to which the theory studied is founded. Others may consider a research in the light of their future career whiles others may undertake a research in a particular area because of their interest in that field. All these are factors that influence a student in choosing a particular topic for his/her final year research.

Practically, if a research is not sponsored by an agency for a particular purpose-- such as taking baseline studies, monitoring and evaluation (progress and impact assessments), and project/programme feasibility studies, etc.-- but is associated with academia, then individuals are mostly interested in exploring new and emerging issues of development concepts, theories, and practices. They may also be interested in understanding the relationships (incidence, causes and effects) between development issues. Lastly, students may seek to research on previous studies to check whether with current and changing circumstances, the outcomes of previous studies are still valid or are deviating from earlier findings and the reasons for these deviations.

In the first case, a student may seek for instance to assess the prospects and challenges of adopting new development concepts for rural development, urban development, transport finance, water and sanitation management, development sustenance, etc. This serves as a sort of an investigation to find out whether emerging development concepts, practices, development programmes or projects or new development planning institutions would be beneficial or not and the challenges thereof.

Examples of the second may be to understand the causes and effects of poverty in rural areas; assess the effects of health financing modes on maternal health care delivery; transportation and economic activities, urban planning and congestion; etc. The main focus of this is to understand the relationships between development variables or issues.

Validation entails researches that seek to confirm the findings or otherwise of previous research and normally serve the basis for the advancement of development theories. Thus students may seek to prove whether poverty is caused by unemployment, low income levels, inaccessibility or whether high health expenses reduce the number of visits to the hospital. This kind of research demands the presentation and discussion of previous studies in detailed and most often, the adoption of the same research questions and methodology.

With this understanding, students seeking to undertake a research in the area of development must read wide and consider a lot of sources for the area of their interest. In choosing a research topic, students can even consider issues that emerged during lectures, discussions, presentations, news items and debates with colleagues on development issues. Students should be careful not to choose complex issues to which they have no idea about as well as areas they do not have a good basis on the tools and techniques involved for particular studies. Simplicity and specificity of the topic is paramount as anyone who picks your topic should be able to have a first hand idea as to what the thesis is all about.

The research must present interesting findings and care must be taken so that students’ researches do not reinvent the wheels-- at least there must be an addition to new knowledge, interpretation and validation of the issue understudy. The onus of this responsibility is on students who decide on what topic to research on. In doing this, the student must first try to understand the theme for his research, the gap in literature on the theme concerned (i.e. what is known and what is unknown), and the value of his research to development and knowledge building. Students must therefore be able to identify further areas of research from other researches and attempt to answer these questions through their research to help bring out more knowledge on development issues. Journals, reports, articles, news papers, textbooks, published and unpublished thesis are all potential sources of research topics. Overall make sure that for the proposed topic for your research:

1. The topic is not too broad;
2. The problem is significant and demands attention;
3. The problem can be investigated;
4. The data to be gathered can easily be analyzed;
5. The results are valid and reliable; and
6. Can be undertaken within the stipulated timeframe.

3.0 Writing the Proposal
A research proposal is no different from any other development proposal (most especially programme/project proposals). The principles and concepts underpinning any development proposal also influence research proposals. Indeed, there must be clear statement of what informed the topic, the goal and objectives, problem, and the approach to achieving stated objectives. Invariably, the questions of what, who, where, when, why, how affects the writing of a research proposal on development. Figure 1 illustrates these relationships.

Figure 1: Relationship between Programme/Project Proposal and Research Proposal


3.1 Structure of a Research Proposal

3.1.1 Introduction
Building interest for readers on your research proposal begins with the introduction. At this stage, students should present an overview of the subject matter of the research topic. It is similar to a mini-literature review that presents the overview of the issues that the proposed research is about. Interestingly, students begin this section with a definition which is not often appropriate especially when the research area is not too technical and is not a new research area. Students should present the issues of their proposed research topic from an international context and narrow down to the national context as this would help readers appreciate the substantive issues in the proposed topic from a wider angle. Students must also be concise and economy with words. In brief, the introduction should be able to convince anyone reading the research proposal that the topic is interesting and worthwhile.

Students should note that all the core variables (issues) and their relationships must be discussed in addition to the arguments for and against the issues, and the realization that has informed the proposed research. The introduction of the research proposal should be between 1-2 pages.

3.1.2 Problem Statement
First and foremost, students need to understand what a problem is. A problem is any negative or undesirable situation in the community. Other critical issues that students must understand is that a problem is not the absence of a solution, avoid imagined problems and that the problem must be clear and concise. Consequently, the problem statement is a description of the negative situation.

The research proposal-writing process is firstly informed by a statement of a problem. One of the most important first tasks of research is to identify and define clearly the development problem the student wishes to study. When the research problem is not clearly defined readers of the research proposal will also be uncertain about the development problem at stake. This would limit the significance of the study and may not be accepted at all or may need to be modified before it is accepted. A well-defined research problem statement enhances the easy identification of research questions (or hypothesis), research objectives, definition of key variables, and the selection of a methodology for measuring the variables. A poorly defined research problem leads to confusion for both the student and the reader.

In writing the problem statement therefore requires discreetness and due diligence in the understanding of what the research problem is (incidence and extent of the problem), where the problem manifesting (location), who are affected (target groups), what are the causes and effects of the problem (consequences), what is being done about the problem (interventions), the gap thereof and how the current research fits within this gap. All these must be backed with evidence, i.e. student must cite statements and allusions by the sources that informed the problem for the research. In summary the problem statement includes:

i. Problem identification;
ii. Incidence and prevalence of the problem;
iii. Geographical area affected;
iv. Characteristics of the population affected;
v. Causes and effects of the problem;
vi. Responses to the problem (successful and unsuccessful); and
vii. What are the unanswered questions?

3.1.3 Research Questions
These are statements of inquiry asserting the relationships between the variables (issues) of the study. Research questions provide ideas of what answers the researcher seeks to find in respect of the proposed research topic.

These questions have different dimensions and students can select two or more for a particular thesis. Research questions may be exploratory in nature. This seeks answers to the “what” of problems (e.g. what are the levels of maternal health mortality in rural communities?). In addition, a research question may be explanatory in nature and this seeks to find reasons to the incidence of problems (e.g. why is maternal mortality high in rural areas?). The last type of research question relates to the validation and testing of development issues (e.g. does the level of educational attainment of persons affects maternal mortality levels?). All these can apply to one particular research. For instance in terms of the issue of maternal mortality, a student may be interested in understanding all the three issues identified earlier for the topic “Assessing maternal mortality in rural areas”.

In the development arena, students generally would want to understand the incidence and prevalence of a situation, what factors are causing it, the effects, interventions that are being done about it, challenges and then propose recommendations. For programmes and projects (interventions), students may wish to ask questions as to what the programme/project is all about, the effects of the intervention in solving the problem, challenges in the implementation of the interventions, and recommendations to solving the identified challenges. The list of questions is endless and students are required to think harder and read wider.

3.1.4 Research Objectives
Objectives are short-term aims of individuals, groups or society. It presents issues of what one wants to achieve in the immediate future. For students writing their research proposal, the objectives of their research are to find answers to the proposed research questions that have been raised. For most schools, research questions are equated to research objectives. To this end, students are required to change their research questions into objectives. For instance, in the example given earlier under the research question of “what are the levels of maternal mortality in rural areas?” The objective therefore becomes “to assess the levels of maternal mortality in rural areas”.

3.1.5 Scope of Research
The scope of the research which would be presented in the research proposal relates to three main perspectives; geographical, conceptual and time scope.

Geographical scope has to do with the physical locations to which the proposed research would be undertaken. The geographical scope also relates to the location of the problem to be studied. Is it going to be limited to one community or more, a district, a region, or the whole nation and why? Students are required to summarize in one paragraph the characteristics of the location; such as population size, bordering communities, etc.

The conceptual scope relates to the thematic issues the proposed research would want to look at, the underlying principles and the key focus of the study. Time scope relates to a define time span for which data would be collected and considered for analysis. For instance, if it is a programme/project study then the students may want to use the time when the project started/completed to the period of the study.

3.1.6 Justification of the Research
After setting the background for the proposed research; i.e. the definition of the problem situation, research question and objective, and scope, it is necessary for students to justify the significance of the study. This enables readers to appreciate the worthiness of the study and the merit of the problem the student wish to study. The essence of the research justification is to convince others that the proposed research and the problem are important. To do this, students should provide the following in the presentation of the issues to justify the proposed research (not exhaustive):

i. Statement of the direct benefits of the proposed research in promoting development for affected persons– is the problem a current or an emerging issue, the extent of the problem, how would your findings help solve the problems, etc.;

ii. The link of the proposed research to development priorities of the country and how the research findings would help in meeting these priorities including the MDGs; and

iii. The link to emerging issues of the subject matter and the gap in development research to which the proposed research would fill; i.e. contribution to knowledge - theory and practice.

In all these, the student should realize that in justifying a proposed research, they are presenting the value and the originality of the study.

3.1.7 Methodology

i. Research Design
The research design is a summary of the approach to achieving the objectives of the research. Students must understand that there are different ways of meeting the proposed research objectives or answering the research questions. Therefore students are expected to explain concisely the approach to answering these questions. The research design should be consistent with the proposed research problem and state whether the study would be experimental in nature, non-experimental or a survey. Students must also justify why the particular research design chosen is the appropriate one for the research.

ii. Sample Size Determination and Technique
At this section, students are expected to state the total number of respondents to be interviewed and how the figure was arrived at. Students are also required to explain who the respondents would be and the kind of information that would be gathered from them.

When it comes to the techniques, students should present whether probability and non-probability sampling methods would be adopted and the specific techniques to be used under the selected option. The choice of the method and technique must be informed by the reliability and validity of the data to be collected and analyzed.

iii. Data Collection
In explaining the data collection section, students are to examine the type of data to be gathered and the purpose to which the data would be used for. In addition, students are expected to state the sources of these information and the tools and techniques to be used in collecting the data.

iv. Data Analysis
Following data collection, the next activity is to analyze the data. Students are also required to explain how data analysis would be undertaken for the proposed research, the approach to doing it and the techniques to be adopted for the process; charts, tables, correlations, regression, cross-tabs, etc.

v. Organization of the Research
This section of the research proposal is the articulation of how the proposed chapters of the final report would look like. Students should therefore state the proposed number of chapters for the final report and the content of these chapters.

vi. Preliminary Reference
This is a list of books, articles, journals and other materials that were used for the writing of the research proposal.

4.0 Conclusion
In all these sections from the introduction to the organization of the research report, the language should be in the future tense as all these actions are what would be done if the research topic is approved. More so, students must read wide and appreciate the fact that it is in reading that knowledge is gained. For this reason, in presenting a research proposal, the student should be able to convince readers that the proposed research is worthwhile.

Students are also to make sure that they acknowledge statements that are not theirs and works that they have used in their proposal. Citation gives the information necessary to find the source of other works done by other people which you used in the proposal. It provides information about the author, the title of the work, the name and location of the company that published your copy of the source, and the date your copy was published. In doing this students are saved from being accused of plagiarism– copying words or ideas from other research without giving acknowledgment, using and presenting other researches as your own, giving incorrect information about the source of a quotation, failing to put a quotation in quotation marks and changing words but using the sentence arrangement of a source without giving acknowledgment.

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