I teach quantitative research proposal writing to public health students. By using lectures, a case study and discussion of presentations of the students own research proposals, I try to familiarize them with the contents of a research proposal for a quantitative study. In 2007 I developed a first draft of a format and I have been adapting that ever since. By publishing it here I hope that others (students, researchers) also can take advantage of it when writing their proposals.
The proposal should start with a Title and author’s page, including the title of the study (which should be informative and it should reflect the general objective), the researchers and their affiliations, and the date of the proposal (so that others know whether they have the latest version). This should be followed by a summary/abstract of the proposal. A Table of Contents (including headings and page numbers) and Acronyms/Abbreviations section (e.g. explaining that WHO stands for World Health Organization) are optional.
The Introduction should contain the following sections:
- Problem statement: This is a concise description of the nature of the problem (the discrepancy between what is and what should be) and of the size, distribution and severity of the problem (who is affected, where, since when, and what are the consequences).
- Rationale for the study: This relates to the origin/source of the topic and the importance of the problem. A brief description of any solutions to the problem that have been tried in the past should be given, how well they have worked, and why further research is needed.
- Significance of the study: This is a description of the type of information expected to result from the project and a clarification of how this information will be used to help solve the problem (contribution to existing knowledge).
- Objectives of the study, including the general objective (general aim or purpose of the study which is derived from the research topic) and specific objectives which are based on your general objective. You should list the specific objectives to be achieved at the end of the study. This can either be in the form of a statement (to determine, to compare, …) or a research question. In the case of analytical or experimental studies, hypotheses could be stated instead of specific objectives. Hypotheses are propositions about relationships between variables or differences between groups that are tested.
- A ‘definition and operationalisation of concepts into variables’ section could follow (or you include this at the variables section in the Methods). Define all the concepts in your title and objectives operationally, i.e. the way the terms will be used in your study. Define the dependent variable, the independent variable(s) and if relevant, the confounding variables.
The Literature Review can either be a separate section or be part of the problem statement. It is an extensive, systematic and critical review of all the relevant publications dealing with the topic/problem being investigated. Use literature (preferably journal articles) from the country you are conducting your study in (e.g. South Africa), other countries in the same continent (e.g. Africa) and elsewhere. Describe for each study when it was conducted (or published), where it was conducted, who the participants were (number, gender, age etc.), what the main results were, and what the main conclusion of the authors was.
The Research methods section contains the following items:
- Study design: Select and explain the design of your study based on the research topic. State whether it is an observational study or an intervention study. If it is an observational study, is it a descriptive study or an analytical study (cross-sectional, case-control, cohort study). In case of an intervention study describe, if relevant, the method of randomization and concealment of treatment allocation.
- Study setting: Describe the study setting/area. A brief description of the geography of the area, e.g. location, climate and other geographical features; socio-demographic and cultural characteristics of the people; an overview of the health status of the people; and the health-care system in the area of study. This all as far as this information is relevant to the problem being investigated.
- Study population and sampling: Define the study population (e.g. age, sex, place, condition, etc.), the sampling or selection method/criteria, and justification of sample size (power calculation).
- In the case of an intervention study, describe the interventions that the treatment and control groups receive.
- Measurement instrument: Based on your topic, research design and study population, identify the appropriate instrument(s) for data collection, such as: interview guide, questionnaire, checklist or data collection form. Describe the instrument(s) in detail (including validity, reliability). Is blinding applied (for caregivers, participants, outcome assessors) where relevant?
- Plan for data collection: Who will collect what data, in what sequence, how, when?
- Plan for data management and analysis: This should cover the categorizing, coding, data entry, verification, use of computer program (for data entry and data analysis), and statistical techniques.
- Ethical considerations: State how you intend to follow the ethical rules (e.g. informed consent, anonymity, confidentiality, care of vulnerable groups, etc.).
- It is optional to include the ‘strengths and limitations of the study’: a) What makes your study better than earlier studies? b) What are the limiting factors in your study that may affect the possibility of generalizing your results? Is your sample size small? Did you use a nonprobability sampling method to select your sample? Are there confounding variables that might affect the cause-effect relationship? If your answer to any of these questions is yes, explain the reason and how such factor might affect the quality of your study.
- Pre-test or pilot study: State how you intend to carry out either a pre-test (of particular elements of the study) or pilot study (the whole study on a small scale).
Work plan and budget
This section should cover issues like task allocation, organization of venues, transport etc., as well as a time schedule (including all aspects of the study). For the budget you identify major categories, make reasonable estimates of the expenses in each category, and include a motivation.
Plan for dissemination and implementation of results: This covers the manner of reporting results (e.g. meetings, journals) and what will be done to ensure that the results are used.
References: Use an accepted reference format e.g. the Harvard referencing format. Appendix(es): Insert here a copy of measurement instrument(s), informed consent form, etc.
Please note that the above is only a suggested format, based on existing literature. If the funding agency has different requirements, you should adhere to those.