Before writing one word, the researcher spends considerable time thinking, gathering facts, and consulting with individuals who are knowledgeable in the content and methodology of interest. Students should also review guidelines for preparing their proposal with faculty advisors. Researchers who are seeking funding may find it helpful to read other proposals that were submitted to and funded by the agencies that are being considered. As one proceeds with the development of the project and considers its feasibility, it is helpful to follow an organized working plan that focuses the important elements of the project.
The title of a research proposal will be the first thing seen by readers, although it is often easier for the researcher to develop an appropriate title after the study design has been formulated. The title will become the project's introduction to all potential readers. It is the first impression of what the reviewers should expect to read in the subsequent pages. It must be concise and informative. A title such as "Bronchopulmonary Dysplasia" is certainly concise, but the reader is likely to say "what about it?" Expanded, this title could be "Cardiovascular Problems in Bronchopulmonary Dysplasia." This is better, but does not yet suggest a research focus. With a few more words, this title will say much more: "Cardiovascular Effects of Physical Therapy Intervention in Infants with Bronchopulmonary Dysplasia." We now know that this proposed research has an independent variable and a dependent variable and that the sample will be infants.
A summary or abstract of the project or program, often limited to one page, is required by most funding agencies and institutional review boards, and may be required for student projects. When a proposed project is to be reviewed by faculty, administrative or foundation committees, all members of these committees will receive the summary, whereas only selected members of such committees may review the full proposal. The abstract should highlight the purpose and importance of the proposed project. A brief description of the method should identify the study subjects, procedures and methods for data analysis. The proposed duration of the study and overall projected costs may be stated. Because the summary is likely to be read before the detailed proposal is read, it must make a positive impression, conveying specifically what is to be done and why the study is important.
The body of the research proposal is the narrative portion that will explain the purpose and importance of the study and describe the design and procedures in detail.
The opening statement of the proposal identifies the subject area to be studied. As an introduction, this statement should convey a clear sense of the importance of the problem in terms of applicability of potential findings to clinical practice and patient care. It may begin as a broad definition but should lead the reader logically toward a definition of the specific delimited topic, which will become the focus of the present project.
As an example, Rudd and co-workers3 compared a specialist community rehabilitation program with a standard hospital and homecare program for patients with stroke. The statement of the problem, as it might have been written in a proposal, would first establish why the study was needed by defining the problems related to costs of hospitalization and psychosocial aspects of managing these patients. By acknowledging these problems and alternative approaches to rehabilitation, the researchers justify the need to further examine the effectiveness of different treatment settings.
The problem statement, therefore, presents a rationale for the specific question being addressed by the project. In the preceding example, the authors have created a rationale for examining the difference between the structured specialist community program and standard care. No single project can be expected to solve a problem in its entirety. On the other hand, each project should clearly contribute to the solution. Each study expands the evidence that can be used to support the body of knowledge related to the research problem. The content of the opening section of the proposal should clearly demonstrate this contribution.
Purpose, Hypotheses and Specific Aims
In a brief statement, the researcher must state precisely what the project is expected to accomplish. The purpose of the study should follow clearly from the justification presented earlier. If the research is to be experimental or correlational, the purpose is translated here into research hypotheses. Research hypotheses are stated in positive terms; they reflect the expectations of outcome. "Null" hypotheses that serve a statistical function do not belong in the text, unless the purpose of the research is specifically to show that no relationship exists between variables. If the research is descriptive in nature, the author will state the characteristics or behaviors that will be documented in this work and what questions the data will answer about the target population.
Many granting agencies require a statement of specific aims or objectives for a project. For instance, a study's objectives might be to add to the body of knowledge in a certain content area, to test a theoretical proposition, to demonstrate differences between certain treatments to develop more effective and efficient intervention strategies, to document the reliability of an instrument, or to establish the relationship between specific variables as a basis for making treatment planning decisions. These objectives are derived from the research hypotheses or descriptive questions. Objectives help reviewers focus the description of methods and will often help the researcher guide the discussion of results when the study is completed.
Proposals for qualitative research may need to include explanations of the research approach, especially when those who will review the proposal are unfamiliar with naturalistic inquiry. The researcher should include specific reference to the form of qualitative research (for example, ethnography or phenomenology), including assumptions about the nature of knowledge and reality that are relevant to the area of study.4
The presentation of background information includes the theoretical rationale for the study and pertinent facts, observations or claims that have led the investigator to the proposed research question. This information is derived from the literature review (see Chapter 7) and from previous or related work done by the investigator. Funding agencies look favorably on projects that are built on previous work by the investigator.
The literature review is difficult to present concisely, and much effort is usually required to integrate published material to make relevant points. While preparing for a project, the researcher will have read and catalogued many references, typically many more than will or should be included in the written proposal. Authors must continually ask, "Is this reference or point of information directly related to this study?" "Does it contribute to the rationale or clarify the basic assumptions that underlie the research question?" If the answer is "No," then the reference should be set aside or discarded. When the references have been selected, they should be organized by topic areas to facilitate organization of the paper.
The presentation of the review of literature includes the main points that serve as the background of the proposed study. A meaningful review of literature provides a clear representation of the author's thought processes in developing the proposed study. It is not simply a series of abstracts of papers on the topic. The author must convey an integration of content that supports the need, importance and rationale for the proposed study. The need and importance of the proposed study are defined in relationship to existing clinical or scientific reports. The first elements of the review may include relevant epidemiological factors, demographics, the impact of the research issue on health care policy or practice and the potential impact on patients. For instance, for the example cited earlier, the investigators might focus on the rising costs of care resulting from the increased incidence of stroke, and the potential psychosocial advantages of the patients' early return to community living.
The major portion of the background focuses on prior research that has been done to address the same or related questions, reflecting current knowledge or lack of knowledge. This includes a synthesis of consistencies and conflicts found in prior reports. The possible reasons for inconsistencies and identifiable limitations of previous studies should be elucidated to provide further evidence that more study is required. The content of this section should show the logic for selecting subjects, selecting the variables to be studied and the methods of measurement. This section should end with a summary of the facts, problems, or controversies found in the literature and the relevant perspectives of the researcher that lead directly back to the specific need and stated purpose of the proposed study.
The method section is probably the most important part of the proposal, and should be both concise and complete. The author should include enough detailed information so that reviewers can judge the soundness of the work, so that members of the institutional review board can determine exactly what the subjects will be asked to do and so that the researcher can determine the feasibility of the study. The opening section identifies the overall study design that will be employed to test the research hypothesis or answer the research question. For example,
This will be a randomized controlled trial to compare the effects of a specialized community rehabilitation program and a standard hospital-based program on motor abilities, cognition, aphasia, activities of daily living, anxiety and depression in patients who have had a stroke.
The details of the research methods are usually presented in four subsections: Subjects, Materials, Procedures, and Data Analysis.
Subjects. The description of subjects used in human studies is extremely important because of the inherent variability among them and the vast number of extraneous factors that may affect human behavior or performance. The author must describe who the subjects will be in terms of inclusion and exclusion criteria, how many and from where subjects will be recruited, how they are to be selected, and the method by which they will be assigned to groups for the study. Characteristics such as age, gender, disability, diagnosis and duration of hospitalization should be defined if they are relevant to the study. The author must include all, and only, those factors that could influence the results and the ability to generalize the findings to the target population or to compare findings with other similar studies. Funding agencies and institutional review boards generally require a power analysis to demonstrate the appropriateness of the proposed sample size.
Materials. Materials refer to the equipment, instruments or measuring tools that will be used in the study. Materials should be described according to important characteristics such as brand name and model and should be documented for reliability and validity. If measurement tools are new, relatively unknown, or developed by the researcher, they should be described in sufficient detail and a figure should be included. If the measurement tool is a survey, the entire document may be presented as an appendix to the proposal or a set of sample questions may be included in the narrative.
Procedures. The procedures section describes precisely what is to be done from beginning to end of the investigation, in chronological sequence. Procedures also include how, and by whom data are to be collected. Operational definitions should be provided for independent and dependent variables. If these procedures are extensive and lengthy, they may be briefly described in the text with references to appendixes that will present the details in full. The researcher should include strategies for controlling extraneous variables.
In qualitative study, the proposal should include how the researcher will interact with subjects, describing the kind of data that will be collected (for example, field notes, audio tapes, video tapes, or transcriptions).4
A chart or flow sheet, presented in tabular form, will serve to summarize the procedural sequence. Figure 32.1 illustrates the timetable for a hypothetical 2-year study. The study is a pretest-posttest design with subjects randomly assigned to two treatment groups. The intervention period for each subject lasts 6 months. Outcome data will be collected initially, each month for 6 months, and 9 months after the initial evaluation of each patient. The last patients will be admitted to the study in Month 15; their treatment period, lasting 6 months, will end in Month 21, and their follow-up assessment will be made 3 months later, in Month 24. Such a display of the "work schedule" will assist reviewers in evaluating the feasibility of the investigation in terms of time and available funding.
Graphic display of a hypothetical study time line.
Data Analysis. The plan for data analysis should outline specific procedures for recording, storing, and reducing data and for statistical analysis. Reviewers will examine both descriptive and analytical methods to determine their appropriateness for the design of the study and the type of measurement. It is often helpful to obtain the services of a statistician to be sure that this section is accurate and complete. The funding agency will probably have a statistician review it.
Proposals for qualitative studies should include descriptions of how notes will be transcribed and reconstructed.4 The specifics of coding and sorting data may evolve as the project unfolds, but the researcher should discuss the intended format and how the process will be developed. Methods of establishing reliability and validity of data should be included (see Chapter 14).
References. The final part of the narrative portion of the proposal should be a listing of literature cited in the paper. Some agencies require the use of a specific bibliographic style, but often this is left to the discretion of the researcher.
Documentation of Informed Consent
A copy of the informed consent form must accompany the proposal when subjects will be directly involved in the study. The informed consent form may not be required for secondary analysis studies. Funding agencies and sponsoring institutions may require IRB approval before a proposal is submitted and reviewed. The time delays inherent in obtaining this approval must be built into the timetable for submitting the proposal. Documentation of IRB approval must accompany the proposal. The process and elements of obtaining informed consent are discussed in Chapter 3.