Academic Writing

How to Develop a Research Idea

The research for a journal manuscript or a grant application can only be as good as the idea with which you start. If you lack a compelling and novel idea, it is unlikely that your paper will be accepted or your grant project funded. It is that simple! There is no amount of ‘window dressing’ in authorship or grantsmanship that can overcome a bad idea. The first step in developing a research idea is to ensure that your research idea is nothing short of outstanding!

Find the gap and define a niche area that you want to systematically develop.

​​​​​​First, identify a gap in the literature that has not been explored and identify a niche area within the scope of your overall research interest. Ensure that the area has room for growth and that is not overworked. This niche should be a subdivision of your broader interest that you can systematically develop as your own. Identify the long-term goal you have within that niche area and develop a continuum of research that would be required to attain your long-term goal. Then, identify the next logical step that must be taken along that continuum.

Collect and critically analyze background information pertaining to the proposed topic.

​​​​​Completing a comprehensive literature review is the next step in generating an irresistible and fundable research idea. It is necessary to determine what is already known and published within this area, the extent to which that body of knowledge is reliable and needs to be critically examined and to determine who is actively working and publishing in the field. Set up a library of articles within Endnote to keep track of the literature you find. And, set up an email alert for any new articles that may get published in your niche.

Click here to learn more about Zotero, a free, easy-to-use tool to help you collect, organize, cite, and share research.

Generate a preliminary idea that is pertinent to the problem you have chosen.

Retain ideas as you critically read through the literature, but continue to conduct your review until it has been completed. The worst thing that you can do in this business is to write a manuscript or grant application on a project that has already been written. Once you have completed your review, go back to your notes and ideas and see what prospects or ideas excite you. Ask: “Will this idea impact significantly on my field and can I convince others of that fact?” If not, revisit the materials with a fresh mind in a few days to evolve a more novel, important idea. Remember, the idea is the foundation of a successful project.

Assess your idea’s potential for success and modify it, if necessary.

​​​​​​Ask yourself if you have the ability to pursue this idea? Regardless of how good your idea is conceptually, it has to be one that is within your capabilities to pursue, practically speaking. If it is a grant application, consider your idea’s funding potential. You can often do a search to find sponsors that have funded ideas in your niche area previously. If you are writing a grant, find agencies that will be helped to accomplish their missions by funding your idea. If you are writing a manuscript, search for a target journal that fits your field of research and whose publishing characteristics meet your needs.

Seek constructive criticism from knowledgeable colleagues.

Send a brief overview, no more than one page, and ask your colleagues for ways in which you can improve your idea. ​​​​​​Because the research idea that underlies a great manuscript or grant application is so fundamentally important to its success, you need to do everything possible to ensure that you have the strongest idea, and the strongest starting position, on which to build. An essential part of this is to seek critical feedback from your colleagues and mentors.

Refine your idea to maximize its impact.

​​​​​​Critically examine your colleagues’ feedback, and, if you agree, modify your research idea accordingly. The bottom line is that you must have total confidence that the final product – the idea that will drive your project – is completely sound and will make a difference in your field when acted upon.


  1. Kanji S. Turning Your Research Idea into a Proposal Worth Funding. Can J Hosp Pharm. 2015;68(6):458-464.
  2. Kotz D, Cals JWL. Effective writing and publishing scientific papers–part I: how to get started. J Clin Epidemiol. 2013;66(4):397. doi:10.1016/j.jclinepi.2013.01.002
  3. Russell SW, Morrison DC. The Grant Application Writer’s Workbook. Grant Writers’ Seminars and Workshops; 2017:1-236.

Article publié pour la première fois le 04/10/2021

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