How to Start a Research Project

How to Start a
Research Project
Dr. Pamela Catton, MD, MHPE, FRCPC
Ms. Caroline Davey, MRT(T), AC(T), BSc(Hons)
Mr. James Catton, MA
February 2013
For the research-beginner, a research project may sometimes feel like an overwhelming task, a
voyage into a daunting and unknown frontier. At other times, it may feel like you are simply
rehashing what has been said and done many times before. These feelings are quite normal for
the novice researcher to experience. Ultimately, a research project attempts to fit data
together, into view hidden or unknown concepts, and to link relationships to observed events.
Therefore, a good researcher must constantly engage in a process of educated guesswork,
modification of ideas, suggestion, and defense of the facts. To meet these criteria, researchers
must have the following abilities:
1. To analyze in creative and disciplined ways
2. To question astutely and
3. To be persistent in the pursuit of answers.
The nature of research is such that many problems can affect the accuracy of the findings. For
example, the following are but a few problems that must be avoided at all costs.
Failure to follow experimental procedures
Mis-recording data
Poor analysis of the data and
Researcher bias
We want to provide you with a helpful guide, with examples to set you out on the right path at
the beginning and to help you avoid known pitfalls when first entering the world of research.
We also would like to guide you through the process to the point of writing a research proposal.
From experience, it appears that the research process (as a whole) can be divided into a
number of steps:
Identify a research problem
Perform a literature search
Organize a research tem
Develop a research strategy
Write the research proposal
Generate the data
Analyze the data
Write the report
For the purposes of this guide, we will deal with the first five (5) steps only.
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Although many people have a sense of what research involves, very few can give a satisfactory
definition of what it is. The research process takes information about a subject that has existed
before and looks at it in new and innovative ways. There are four key elements to this process:
1. Discovery: Your research discovers new information and adds it to the academic world.
2. Integration: Your research integrates disparate views in creative ways. This feature
involves relationships, interpreting and linking ideas across disciplinary boundaries.
3. Application: Your research applies information from one area to another. Making
theories applicable to other settings and populations is the major purpose behind
research in general.
4. Dissemination: Your research findings, generally speaking, are to be disseminated (e.g.
to teach and/or to publish). Because the findings are generally distributed for others to
use, the rules of research scholarship are quite strict, and written publications are quite
often peer reviewed.
Perhaps we can define research in this way: research attempts to see what everybody has seen,
but to think what nobody has thought.
The process of research has evolved over the years and is now generally described as fitting
into one of two broad categories: quantative and qualitative.
Quantitative Research:
Quantitative research seeks causes and facts from an objective, “world-view” perspective.
Findings are based on the researcher’s interpretations of the observed phenomena rather than
on the subject’s interpretations of events. Investigations are directed at analyzing relationships
between selected factors so that causality can be explained, so the relationship between
variables will be generalizable and predictable in all settings, at all times. Here are some
characteristics of quantitative research:
It identifies all constructs, concepts and hypotheses before data collection.
It organizes numerical relationships between variables after data collection.
It has a major concern for rigor and replication.
It controls bias by randomly selecting a large sample of the representative population.
It emphasizes the collection of numerical data and the statistical analysis of hypotheses.
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Qualitative Research:
Qualitative research, on the other hand, has an alternative view of reality than quantitative
research. It is a view that stresses the importance of social processes, subjective experience
and with meaning attributed to social situations. Therefore, qualitative research is works from
a “native’s point of view” (e.g. patient, caregiver, relative). In qualitative inquiry, the researcher
examines the data for patterns concepts, and relationships between variables, and then it
returns to the setting to collect data and hypotheses. Thus qualitative research builds theory
inductively over a period of time. Here are a few characteristics of qualitative research:
It is used for problems where little is known about the topic.
It operates in a natural setting.
It accounts for the social, cultural and historical aspects of the setting.
It is flexible and permits modifications of the research and/or techniques.
It collects data and analyzes data simultaneously.
The hardest part of any creative process is getting started. Staring at a blank sheet of paper
and imagining the long road that lies ahead can be quite overwhelming. To impose some order
on this uncertainty, it is first necessary to clearly identify a research problem that will be for you
both interesting and feasible to do. This first question he researcher-beginner must ask is
always “What am I going to study?” Knowing how to effectively choose a research area can
prevent a great deal of wasted time pursuing dead-ends. The most important thing to
remember is that questions do not magically appear out of a vacuum, they evolve out of
reviewing many related ideas. The following steps are a guide to help you generate new ideas
and formulate a workable research topic:
Answer these questions to generate possible topics that might interest you:
What articles catch my eye in the library?
What subjects do I think or talk about in general conversation?
What unique experiences have I had in clinical practice?
What experiences have forced me to re-evaluate ideas about appropriate care?
What recommendations of patient care do I have that are not in agreement with current
2. Investigate a subject about which you are either an authority or are able to access a
wide variety of published material. Follow these guidelines:
- Stay away from subjects based on research that is sketchy, inconclusive or too far
removed to obtain up-to-date material.
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Consider (time permitting) as many topics as you can.
Look at dissertations/articles in the library.
Seek consultation from your colleagues or fellow students.
3. Select a subject that can be investigated within a reasonable time frame and is feasible”:
- Choose a topic that is narrow and specific rather than broad and general. “Breast
Irradiation” is too vast a subject and fails to suggest a particular focus. However, “The
Management of Acute Skin Reactions from Tangential Breast Irradiation” is more
focused and useful.
- Don’t make a decision about a topic until the groundwork is done.
- Draw up a first thoughts list to see what needs to be focused and clarified.
- Read enough to know that you are on the right track.
4. Formulate a preliminary hypothesis and fine-tune the emphasis of your study. Even a
tentative hypothesis focuses the project by providing the researcher a guide to test the
original hunch. This guide will help you organize facts, limit note taking and eliminate
needless background study. Here is a list of steps to follow:
- Clarify the aims and objectives of your study.
- Make a list of hunches setting down where the answers to the question might go.
- Revise and refine your hypothesis as you continue to develop your ideas.
- Draw up an initial project outline.
- Devise a timetable to check that all stages will be covered; allow time for writing up the
- Consult an expert to ensure everything is OK.
Selecting a Method: Quantitative or Qualitative?
The researcher should choose a research method according to the nature of the problem and
what is known about the phenomena to be studied:
Nature and Purpose of the Study
The nature and the purpose of the study will determine whether qualitative or quantitative
methods are necessary. Also, factors like time, availability of external resources and expertise
of the researcher can affect whether quantitative or qualitative methods will be used.
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Maturity of the Concept
Keep these questions in mind to determine if quantitative or qualitative research is most
a. How much information is available on the subject? (a lot = quantitative; a little =
b. Large amount of information that is biased or unverified (qualitative)
c. Concept wishes to describe a situation or to understand a person or event (qualitative)
d. Research question is a stated hypothesis seeking to demonstrate a relationship between
two or more variables (quantitative)
There are certain constraints that determine whether quantitative or qualitative methodology
will be chosen. For example, are the subjects literate or do they speak another language?
What about their age and sex? If the subjects are from another culture, maybe a quantitative
questionnaire will be culturally biased and a qualitative questionnaire will be necessary.
Researcher Characteristics
To a great extent, the method chosen is a product of the researcher. The background
knowledge and capabilities of the researcher will decide whether quantitative or qualitative
methods will be chosen.
Qualitative and Quantitative Research Can Have Many Approaches
Library Research
Research that collects ideas, theories and reported empirical data within the context of the
library and analysis and integrate your findings to illustrate an established conceptual
Problem-Solving Research
Research that tries to solve a problem in the “real-world”.
Exploratory Research
Research that takes a problem in which little is known. The goal here is the development and
clarification of ideas and the formulation of questions and hypotheses, for more precise
subsequent investigation.
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Descriptive Research
Research that describes certain characteristics of populations. These approaches take the form
of social surveys that seek relationships about variables.
Experimental Research
Research that establishes the validity of casual theories by testing them experimentally.
Action Research
Research that involves carefully monitored observation and study to try and solve a problem or
to change a situation. Research is directed towards a greater understanding and improvement
of practice over a period of time. This means that the step-by-step process is constantly
monitored by a variety of mechanisms so that the feedback can be translated into
modifications, adjustments and directional changes.
Beginning Data Collection
When you have decided on a topic, refined it and specified its objectives, then you are in a
position to collect the evidence. Before you can decide what is the best way to collect the
information, it is helpful to keep in mind a few potential problems that might affect the datagathering process:
How much time, money and resources are available?
What is the timing and number of meetings that must take place in the study?
Are the subjects willing to participate in the study?
How reliable and valid are the data gathering techniques?
A note on reliability and validity:
Data collection methods should always be examined critically to assess if it is reliable and valid:
Reliability is the extent to which a test or a procedure produces similar results every
time. For example, a question that will produce one type of answer one day and
another the next day is unreliable. Ask yourself, in a questionnaire, would two
interviewers get the same results of they conducted separate interviews?
Validity tells us whether an item measures or described what it is supposed to measure
or describe. To ensure validity:
o Ask yourself whether another researcher would likely get the same results
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o Tell other people (colleagues, pilot respondents, fellow students) what you are
trying to find out and whether the questions or items are likely to do the job.
February 2013